Chagall and Brueghel stroll
lower Manhattan’s narrow streets
speaking of shades of blue in skies and wings
when the urban hustle is halted cold
by a plane flying into a tower, igniting
the day branded forever as “nine-eleven”.
They watch the flames and smoke,
second plane breaching south tower,
debris falling from a thousand feet,
then audibly gasp when they realize
what they thought of as debris
includes humans, alive in free fall.
The count would never be exact—
8? 18? 132? 200?—jumped
from above the tower’s flaming gash,
escaping (right word?) being crushed
in the collapse; perhaps lucky (right word?)
to have been so close to the sun.
The next morning, over coffee in midtown
the disarticulate artists analyze a photo
in the paper, an image of a man
facing straight down, leg cocked, arms flared
slightly, posture almost in repose,
in the midst of his ten-second flight
with white tunic still in place, graceful,
embracing his fate, a vertical dive
framed against the vertical stripes
of the towers; curiously more artistic
than journalistic: a man frozen and still,
yet actually moving at one-fifty per.
After Chagall and Brueghel process
their reactions, they begin to study
this iconic image, an Icarus
so like theirs. They ask for refills
and sketch on napkins refinements
for newly limning the boy with wings.
They study the falling-man photo
and scour memories of each other’s
paintings, knowing that a camera
is no more truthful than a brush;
in the right hands each sculpts
a specific and edited moment.
Bare leg splashing in a pastoral ocean,
blue wings flailing over a village,
a human arrow with high-tops still on:
an Icarus triptych falling through blue,
each image indelibly searing
the eyes of those who remain.
About the Poet:
Kim Peter Kovac works nationally and internationally in theater for young audiences with an emphasis on new play development and networking. He tells stories on stages as producer of new plays, and tells stories in writing with lineated poems, prose poems, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, haiku, haibun, and microfiction, with work appearing or forthcoming in print and online in journals from Australia, India, Dubai (UAE), England, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, and the USA.
Kim Peter Kovac’s poem, inspired by three images — Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Chagall’s The Fall of Icarus, and Drew’s The Falling Man — speaks of a day that the world has come to know and remember as 9/11.
In this issue of CarpeArte Journal, we would like to take the time to remember the fallen victims of this tragic event.
Kovac submitted his work, ‘After Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Chagall’s The Fall of Icarus, and Drew’s The Falling Man’, along with three images that form the title of his poem. In picking Chagall, the editors at CarpeArte felt it to be the best segue into the poem, although the poem has been inspired by three images, all to do with a falling man. Kovac’s piece is a great example of how our psyches are affected and influenced by the pictures we see around us. It testifies to the power of the image.
Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985) was a Russian Jewish painter, born in Vitebsk, in today’s Belarus. When he was born, Belarus was part of the Russian Empire. Named as Moishe Shagal, he later changed his name to Marc Chagall upon arriving in Paris in 1910. There, he met other Russian emigre painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine and Ossip Zadkine. It could be down to these like-minded friends that Chagall made up his mind to stay in Paris because when he first arrived, he did not like the fast-paced metropolitan life of the city. He felt displaced in Paris for many reasons but he would return there again and finally find roots in France. As an expatriate, I understand what being displaced can do to one’s psyche and how it can lead to one’s search for rootedness.
In the years between 1914 and 1922, Chagall returned to Vitebsk and was forced to remain there to wait out the First World War. Chagall did find a place in Paris and he did become a major influencer in the art world—the Surrealism Movement—although he never considered himself a surrealist. ‘The Fall of Icarus’ is considered a Surrealist work due to its dream-like ambiane and imagery. In psychoanalysis, the act or fear of falling is associated with anxiety and with dis-ease. Chagall’s life would testify to these states of unease. As a writer, I understand how creation can come from the depths of our traumatised psyches and unconscious processing in order to free the mind from pain.
Vitebsk, where he was born and raised, is predominantly a Jewish shtetl or ghetto where Russian Jews were confined. Marked by his beliefs and life in the shtetl, Chagall’s first paintings in Paris were of his experiences living in Vitebsk. They were also influenced by the Old Masters whose works he’d have seen at the museums as well as by his contemporaries’ who were Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Robert Delauney. Viewers will notice that some of Chagall’s works are recognisably Cubist and Impressionistic in styles. But he didn’t take well to these Movements in art. He preferred the freer form of art creation that could be called Expressionism and Symbolism, what Guillaume Apollinaire called “supernatural” and then later, “surreal”.
It can be said that Chagall was always a painter willing to learn from others of his time and those who came before him. In Russia, his works, although still remaining Cubist and Impressionistic in forms, were influenced too by Michail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova whose works are categorised under the Rayonism Movement. Later, he would also be influenced by the Suprematists, like Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky whom he met when he was Director of the Vitebsk Academy of Art.
Always refusing to be categorised and remaining an advocate of the free experimentation and creation of art, Chagall’s oeuvre is expansive. I admire him for his tenacity and his audacity which carried him through his life’s journeys from Russia, to Western and Eastern Europe to the United States of America and finally back to Western Europe, again, where he left this world. From being apolitical and just painting for the sake of creating art, he took to art as an expression and commentary of his political ideas, forced by the anti-Semitic attitudes of the current religio-political climate he lived in: he depicted the pain and sadness felt by his people, he condemned the Bolshevik revolution and he brought light to the connections between Judaism and Christianity in a seminal work, ‘White Crucifixion’, which questioned and condemned the absurdity of selective persecution and the inanity of war.
In more ways than one, Chagall led a traumatic life. In America, he would lose his wife and muse of 29 years, Bella Rosenfeld-Chagall, to a viral infection, in 1944. Saddened by this huge loss, he would stop painting for a whole year while he grappled with the void in his life. (Their marriage, initially opposed by Bella’s parents due to Chagall’s lack of financial means, was studded with uncertainty and hardship, as well as, joy amidst sacrifices. It was at the birth of Ida Chagall, the couple’s daughter, that Marc Chagall found reconciliation with his in-laws.) It was not until he met Virginia Haggard McNeill that his creative juices flowed again. Returning to Paris in 1946, Chagall continued to work on a piece, ‘The Falling Angel’ which he had started in 1923, finally completing it in 1947. This piece of work can be read as one that was conceived in the psyche of the artist since his emigration from the Soviet Union, which remained latent in his unconscious, until it was time for the images to be resurfaced in a more mature phase of his life. At this point, Chagall was already 60 and he yearned for a quieter life. It seemed that finishing ‘The Fallen Angel’ brought a sense of catharsis signified by his yearning for tranquillity. He moved to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, in 1950, where he continued to paint.
At this point, his relationship with Virginia McNeill took a turn for the worst and she left him in 1952. Chagall must’ve felt such a sense of abandonment at this point but he didn’t take long to find another companion in Valentina Brodsky, whom he lovingly christened Vava.
Vava had a forceful and sinister presence in Chagall’s life. A former Jew, she converted to Christianity and was adamant that Chagall did the same. He was amused at her attempts at converting him but remained stoically Jewish, and since he was never really a devout Jew in the first place, any attempts to Christianise him was taken with a pinch of salt; he also defied the portrayal of living creatures visually, something never done by the Jewish Orthodox, by always inserting a cow and/or other animals in his works from the moment he started painting, since his earlier works depicted the daily lives of the people in Vitebsk. It must be said that his Jewish identity cannot be missed visually since he often inserted Judaic imagery and symbolisms mixed with Christian ones in his later works. It can be said that by this point, Chagall had stopped being actively political, yet he would still insert Judaic symbolisms and live creatures in the most unlikely of places where he was commissioned to work—the ceiling of the Paris Opera (1963) is one example and the images of animals in a stained glass window for the synagogue of the Hadassh-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem (1960-62) is another.
The image of angels suspended upside down in mid-air has come to represent many of Chagall’s works, just have cows and donkeys. In ‘The Falling Angel’ (La Chute de l’angle), viewers will see the central figure of an angel falling head first, with one eye gazing out at us. Superimposed onto the feathers of his wing is a mother-child duo—the mother holds the child in a tight embrace. Other figures are found—a man holding a scroll, symbolising a rabbi and the Torah, a crucified Christ, are examples. There is a lone candle, a fiddle and a cow. There are again rooftops and houses which are consistent features in many of his works.
In ‘The Fall of Icarus’, we see again this angel free falling head first. This time, the red hues are used to depict the people on the land, many of whom have arms opened wide, as if to receive this falling angel. Those familiar with this Greek myth will know that Icarus flew too near the sun melting his wax wings plummeting to his death; the story is also the story of a genius, Daedalus, who lived in regret for having caused the death of his son, Icarus. There is a dream-like quality to this oil on canvas, so it is understandably accurate to say that this is a surrealist piece. This was painted 10 years before Chagall died. During this time, he was living in Vence, France. He has continued to paint even at this mature age but at this point, his works have given way to mythology and fantasy. The use of Icarus as the main character or protagonist in this piece is multi-layered. The myth of Icarus symbolises hubris, shame, lust, regret and ingenuity gone wrong. Estranged from his daughter, Ida, Chagall could be expressing his regret, shame, lust and hubris in this iconic work.
Marc Chagall passed away in 1985 in St Paul, Vence. Having never converted to Christianity and remaining a fervent adherent of Judaism until his death, Vava had him buried in a Catholic cemetery, his grave marked by a gravestone in the shape of the cross. Ida Chagall, who attended her father’s funeral, insisted on the Kaddish, the mourning prayer, being read at the end of the ceremony. In a surreal and uncanny way, Chagall’s death was marked by the insertion of Judaic and Christian symbolisms, much like his works of art were.
Chagall, Marc (1975), The Fall of Icarus, Oil on Canvas, 213 x 198 cm (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.)