As Tate Liverpool’s Chagall exhibition opens, its Assistant Curator Stephanie Straine introduces a poignant self-portrait painted on the artist’s honeymoon

Marc Chagall, 'The Poet Reclining' 1915

Marc Chagall
The Poet Reclining 1915
Oil on board
support: 772 x 775 mm frame: 953 x 960 x 91 mm
Purchased 1942© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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This serenely calm painting captures a poignant moment in the life of Marc Chagall, one of Russia’s greatest avant-garde painters, and his wife Bella.

Executed during their honeymoon in 1915, it shows the artist reclining dreamily in front of the family’s dacha, or country house. Along the very bottom of the composition, he lies stretched on the grass, his body dramatically elongated, with the vast majority of the picture taken up with a violet dusk sky and verdant pine forest landscape, home to a modest farmhouse and its animals.

A passage in Chagall’s autobiography, My Life, describes these peaceful summer days following their July wedding ceremony: ‘At last we are alone in the country. Woods, fir-trees, solitude. The moon behind the forest. The pig in the sty, the horse behind the window, in the fields. The sky lilac.’

The couple had reunited the previous year in their home town of Vitebsk following Chagall’s return to Russia after three years in Paris, where he immersed himself in the artistic innovations of the avant-garde, developing a daring colour palette and experimental compositions in response. Chagall’s self-identification in the title of this work as a poet rather than an artist is telling, reinforcing his preference for the literary rather than artistic world, as his friendships with Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and other poets and critics in Paris suggested.

The tranquillity of this scene is, however, laced with uncertainty and unease: Chagall paints himself with an ashen, near deathly pallor, and with his arms laid over his chest the resting body almost resembles a corpse. Social and political turmoil laps at the edges of this peaceful scene: the First World War was taking place on Russian soil and had shocked Chagall upon his return. Many of his other works from this period document the effects of the conflict upon the Russian people.

The Poet Reclining is one of more than sixty paintings on show at Tate Liverpool’s exhibition, and it is this period – from Chagall’s time in Paris to the years he spent in Russia around the time of the Revolution in 1917 – that we hope to explore afresh. I do hope you enjoy the show, do let us know what you think here or on Twitter, @TateLiverpool.

Chagall: Modern Master is at Tate Liverpool until 6 October 2013

Comments

Ilfracombe Art ...

Wonderfully peaceful work, something that could be looked at all day and never tire of it.

EdwardDougherty

I've been writing poems in response to Chagall and Paul Klee, for years now, and just recently was enjoying this painting. Here's the poem:
The Poet Reclining

He gazes into blossoming skies,
the afternoon a dream of itself.

Who gives time to such labor?
He lies back on the earth

to enter into the dream of sky,
the lilac sky and the lyrical ease

that floats like cottonwood fluff,
angelic, radiant, strangely personal,

as if he himself were adrift
as if he himself were a seed

and the day were breeze-bound
and the afternoon would land

take root and grow into his life.