The Delaunays, Robert and Sonia, Between the Wars

The Delaunays and Modern Life

Paris Between the Wars,

In 1889, the year that France celebrated the centenary of the Revolution, is best known for the shock of the new tower rising from the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, but that year was also the year that the first steps were taken to electrify Paris. Today Paris is known as “the city of light,” but as the nation of France approached the twentieth century, it was suddenly realized that the capital city was falling behind other European nations in adopting the latest in lighting technology–electricity. Writing in 1911, A. N. Holcombe noted that not until the Opéra Comique burned down did the officials awaken to continuing danger of using gas for public buildings. The article of 1911, “The Electric Lighting System of Paris,” is as boring and straightforward as the title, detailing the long process of installing a new means of illuminating the city, from putting “underground conduits and wiring” in place to deciding what fixed price should be charged and determining how the private companies undertaking the enterprise should be compensated in relation to the capital investments made by the state. By 1907, the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the public had accepted the switch (so to speak) from gas to electric and the demand for installation far exceeded the speed of the companies, which, being private, needed more investment funds. The tangled tale involved how the government should deal with private for-profit companies serving the public and how both entities should deal with labor.

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1914)

A. N. Holcombe’s article in the Political Science Quarterly noted that when all the companies were merged into one company, the Paris Electricity Supply Company, capitalized by the city was given an exclusive contract that would begin in 1914 and extend to 1940. The city-owned the plant(s) and the company was given access to “the exclusive use of the property.” What is interesting about this article, now over one hundred years old, is that, in its own dry fashion, illustrates how new and novel public electric lighting would have been in the Paris of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk-Delaunay, artists who were dazzled and enchanted by this burst of modernity. In the evenings before the Great War, the newly married couple would stroll down the Boulevard St Michel where the new lights were providing a sharp brilliance, blindingly radiant in comparison to the mellow glow of gas. She remembered, “Halos were making colors and shadows turn and vibrate around us, as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, friendly and crazy.”

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1913)

In her interesting article on the impact of electric lights on artists, Christine Poggi wrote that when the street lights were installed on the Boulevard St. Michel were installed just before 1913 both Delaunays made sketches of the people of Paris, drawn to the novel sight, congregating under the bright lights. “The new arc lights can be viewed as one of the modernizing effects of Haussmannization, in which expansive new boulevards, among them the Boulevard St. Michel, cut through the narrow streets of old Paris, opening them to greater circulation and the production of new forms of visuality and spectacle. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes, arc lights were like small sums with a spectrum similar to that of daylight. In contrast to the gas lamps they replaced, they were extraordinarily bright and could not be looked at directly. As a result, they had to be fixed much higher on posts, where they were out of view. For those entering one of the places illuminated by arc lights from a dim, gas-lit side street, the transition could be dramatic. Delaunay’s memoir evoke her experience of the modernity of the site, the brilliant color and disorienting spatial effects created by the arc lights inducing a sense of ‘madness.'”

I liked electricity. Public lighting was a novelty. At night, during our walks, we entered the era of light, arm-in-arm. Rendez-vous at the St. Michel fountain. The municipality had substitued electric lamps for the old gas lights. The “Boul Mich,” highway to a new world fascinated me. We would go and admire the neighborhood show. The halos amde the colors and shadows swirl and vibrate around us as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, beckoning our madness.

But, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the blossoming of electric street lights, marching from neighborhood to boulevard, was not the only modern innovation that captured their attention. Elsewhere, far away, an extraordinary railway–the Trans-Siberian Railway–was being completed in Eastern Russia. Alarmed by the moves by China to build a railroad up to the Eastern borders of Russia, Tsar Alexander III began the project–intended to protect the Russian Empire from any Chinese incursion–in 1890. The father wrote to his son, “I desire you to lay the first stone at Vladivostok for the construction of the Ussuri line, forming part of the Siberian Railway, which is to be carried at the cost of the state and under direction of the government. Your participation in the achievement of this work will be a testimony to My ardent desire to facilitate the communications between Siberia and the other countries of the empire, and to manifest My extreme anxiety to secure the peaceful prosperity of this country.” His heir Nicholas I finished the “Great Siberian Way”, as it was called, twelve years later, and the completion of this major route of trade and transportation was arguably the finest of his few achievements. The Railway stretched from Moscow to Vladivostok but it was built on the cheap and during the 1903 war with Japan, the rails failed and the system sagged and collapsed with the Empire itself. In a little-known footnote to history, just before the Russian Revolution installed a Soviet system of a worker controlled Communist state, it was the most capitalistic nation in the world, the United States of America that sent in workers and engineers in 1917 to help the fledgling Provisional Government to repair the Railway and re-built all 5,772 miles correctly. Even today, the prospect of riding nearly six thousand miles on a famous railroad is tempting and in the early twentieth century, the journey was a luxurious one–if one had the money. Certainly, the feat of modern engineering fired the imagination of the Russian poet Blaise Cendrars, who wrote Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France, a long folded expanse of text designed and decorated by his friend Sonia Terk-Delaunay. Produced through a combination of Linotype printing and the use of colored stencils (pochoir), this is a truly remarkable poem because its sheer size and length mimics the long railway itself. Because we usually see this “poem” as a small colorful illustration in a book, the explanation of the Tate Museum about the impressive size of this work of art is helpful:

(The poem was) produced in Paris in 1913 and published by Cendrars’s own self-financed publishing house, Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux (New Man Publishing). The text and artwork was printed on a single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style to form the twenty-two panels. When unfolded it is two metres tall. The original print run was intended to be 150 copies, which, if laid end to end, would be the same height as the Eiffel Tower, however only sixty editions were printed. Due to its large scale, Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway only functions as a readable book when it is fully open. Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway stages the unification of text and image and is a key example of the ‘simultaneisme’ (simultaneous theory) developed by Delaunay with her husband, fellow artist Robert Delaunay…Delaunay’s artwork was not an illustration of Cendrars’s narrative, but a visual equivalent, intended to be seen in unison. She transcribed the poem in colours, as she heard it being read out..

In this wonderful stream of consciousness poem, the narrator travels which his companion, Jehanne, described “a young proletarian,” who keeps asking: “Blaise, tell me, are we far from Montmartre?” And the poet answers: “For pity’s sake, come here and I’ll tell you a story Come into my bed/Come to my heart/I’m going to tell you a story..” In the Delaunay couple, we have two artists who celebrate the modern innovations of the new century with their art. In fact, in this poem, Cendrars, who lived in Paris, wrote of the impact of electric lights. “Is raining electric globes/Montrouge Gare de l’Est Métro Nord-Sud ferries on the Seine world/Everything is halo/Depth.” The text was done in four different typographies with upper and lower case, in four colors–green, blue, red and orange. The design keeps the story unfolding, leading from “page” to “page” as sixteen-year-old Blaise tells the story of his experiences in 1905 on the Railway.

Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrers.

Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France (1913)

In her article, “Mass, Pack, and Mob,” Poggi made the interesting observation that, after the War, “this quasi-abstract approach to depicting the city, and of the masses that inhabit it, would come to seem outdated, even decadent.” Post-war artists, she observed were interested in the “politically organized crowd” in contrast to “modern spectacle and entertainment.” But the Delaunays were not in Paris after the War. They had fled to Spain and from there to Portugal where they lived the war years. The Revolution put an end to Sonia’s Russian income, and she, the practical one in the family, opened a chain of shops, from Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona, which sold her fabrics and her fashions, all designed by her, using patterns and colors inspired by her paintings. The couple stayed in the Iberian Peninsula for seven years before they returned to Paris. By the mid-twenties, Paris was in the midst of Les Années folles and the pre-war rivalry Robert had felt for Pablo Picasso was long ago and far away, in another time. According to Histoires de Paris,

Dès son arrivée dans la capitale, l’écrivain américain Henry Miller écrira : « La première chose qu’on remarque, à Paris, c’est que le sexe est dans l’air. Où qu’on aille, quoi qu’on fasse, on trouve d’ordinaire une femme à côté de soi. Les femmes sont partout, comme les fleurs.

For Sonia, these flower-like women were her target audience and she began her business anew in a city mad for new fashions. Unlike Robert, who had to reestablish himself, she had a place in the post-war world through her designs. As her biographer, Axel Madsen, wrote,

Sonia’s flair for adventuresome decorating, theater costume and book design, led her to adapt her bold color compositions, geometric designs, and swirling patterns to abstract dress designs. The result was a style that was different, a fashion that was decidedly avant-garde. This kind of haute couture could only be worn–and appreciated–by women who wanted to be noticed. Her clientele, therefore, included women who were known for their character and eccentricity, actresses and rich foreigners. To wear SoniaDelaunay was not, like wearing Chanel, to adopt a “look.” It was to make a statement.

Sonia was the main source of income for the couple who held court in their Paris apartment which was both decorated by painted poems by their friends and visited by the new Surrealist community. But their evenings and their dinner parties were not exclusively French. The Delaunays, in contrast to the rest of Paris, were happy to entertain Germans, including the Bauhaus architects. For Robert, the Bauhaus idea of joining art and industry was simpatico and for Sonia, the poems on the walls made their way into her architectonic dresses. In his book, Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation, Madsen reported on how the couple went from being hounded by bill collectors to being well-to-do, once they were established. They owned a dashing car, a Talbot, and were among the first artists in the 1920s to possess a telephone and own a radio. But this was on her earnings.

Sonia Terk-Delaunay’s designs for cars and clothes

In 1925, Art Deco was introduced to the French and to the world in an exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, from which the new Style Moderne took its name. Art Deco, the preferred name, was introduced later, but in 1925, it became clear that the Cubism that had dominated before the War had become an applied art, incorporated into design after the War. Given the male-dominated character of the group, the fact that Sonia Terk-Delaunay took the heady concepts of Orphism and Simultaneity and made these terms buzz words for fashion. There was a simultaneous car, a simultaneous dress, coat, shoes and so on, popularizing Cubism at its most scientific and most esoteric, making the style into a luxury consumer good.

Simultaneous Dresses in 1925

It was the 1925 exhibition that made her reputation while Robert was still trying to find his artistic feet. Apparently, Robert’s first post-war exhibition in 1922 at the Galerie Paul Guillaume was not successful, but he began a new series on the Eiffel Tower. Two years later, Delaunay returned to another pre-war theme, athletics, in his Runner paintings, which were far more conservative than the earlier paintings he did before the War. It seems that Robert, who was never inclined towards hard work, preferred to drive his fancy Talbot and entertain his friends to contributing to the family income. When the Delaunays needed money, he would make or sell art, and the paintings of the twenties and thirties were reiterations on his previous themes.

Robert Delaunay. Runners (1924-26)

However, in 1937, Robert Delaunay, in collaboration with his now famous wife, Sonia, got a chance to shine, one more time. He was invited to do the murals for the Palais des Chemins de Fer and Palais de l’Air at the Paris World’s Fair. Here the preoccupations of decades for the couple–the fast trains, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the glamor of air travel, going back to Louis Blériot–came to fruition. The World’s Fair was a futile gesture of hope in a Europe sinking back into another world war. The next and last post on the partnership between the leading art couple between the wars will concentrate on their murals in the Pavillon de l’aviation in Paris.

Robert Delaunay. Disques reliefs (1936)

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The Russian Avant-Garde at War, Part Two

Marc Chagall and the War

Vitebsk as an Art Center, Part One

The fable that the Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the Great War began early, put forward by those who could not comprehend that the German army had lost the Battle of the Marne in 1914. This, the first of several battles over the contested land in northern France took place in September 6th and 12th and became famous in French folklore for the timely arrival of soldiers motored to the Front by a brigade of taxicabs, to fortify the beleaguered French forces. The hard-pressed French army was fighting off the Germans who could see the Eiffel Tower through their binoculars. The fact that taxicabs from Paris could casually drive to the front lines gives a sense of how close the Germans came to taking the city. The French were saved by a combination of several events, not the least the timely intervention of the British Expeditionary Force but what the decided the battle was that the Germans made a fatal mistake. General Alexander von Kluck decided to pursue the retreating French, who he presumed were making a last stand with their tattered forces, and, in his eagerness, he exposed the flank of his army. An attentive Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, immediately attacked with what was left of the French forces. The sudden counter-attack caught the German high command by surprise.

It dawned on (them) at long last that the Allies had not been defeated, that they had not been routed, that they were not in disarray,” wrote Lyn MacDonald in her 1987 book on the first year of the war, 1914. “Instead, aided by reinforcements rushed to the front (although most of the ones that were engaged in the fighting came by train) Joffre and his British allies repulsed the German advance in what is now remembered as ‘The Miracle of the Marne.’ Miraculous, perhaps, because the Allies themselves seemed surprised at their success against the German juggernaut. “Victory, victory,” wrote one British officer. “When we were so far from expecting it!” It came at the cost of 263,000 Allied casualties. It’s estimated that the German losses were similar.”

The unexpected defeat was so stunning that German troops could not understand why they were retreating instead of advancing. In his book on the Marne, Holger H. Herwig, recounted the reasons for the setback were mundane: “a flawed command structure, an inadequate logistical system, antiquated communications arm, and inept field commanders.” Herwig pointed out that the official German history of the war, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, specifically stated, “In the hour of decision over the future of the German people, its leader on the field of battle completely broke down psychologically and physically.” Despite the facts to the contrary, rather than admit to an error of judgment made in the fog of war, the German high command in the person of Erich Ludendorff wrote in The Marne Drama that he blamed the “secret forces of Freemasonry, the machinations of world Jewry, and the baleful influence of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘occult’ theosophy…” In his book, The Marne, 1914. The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World, Herwig also discussed the work of German historian, Fritz Fischer, stating that “From the moment that German troops stumbled back from the fateful river of 9 September. Fischer argues, first the government of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and then the Army Supreme Command conspired ‘systematically to conceal’ the enormity of the defeat from the public.” Thus the “stab-in-the-back” legend was born, rising out of the smoke of the first Battle of the Marne. In 1916, the German army slandered the Jewish soldiers who served in their ranks by conducting a census under the assumption that the Jews were, by definition, shirkers when it came to service. When the results revealed that 80% of the Jewish recruits served at the Front, a percentage far higher than the rest of the population, the Army buried the report. It did not matter if Jews served and served bravely, the myth had taken hold—the Jews had stabbed the Army in the back. By 1919, the Dolchstoßlegenden–the Stab in the Back– had narrowed to a more familiar enemy, the Jews.

The idea of Jews being disloyal to their country was not confined to Germany. In his article, “How World War I Shaped Jewish Politics and Identity,” Paul Berger wrote,

About 90,000 Jews fought in German uniform, 275,000 Jews fought in the Austro-Hungarian army and 450,000 Jews fought for the czar. During the course of the war, these opposing armies advanced and retreated several times over the Pale of Settlement, a swathe of land on the Western border of the Russian empire where Jews had been forced to live for more than 100 years. Towns and villages were captured and recaptured several times. Each spasm of fighting brought with it new dangers and deprivations. After the Russian army was overrun by Germany, in 1915, the Russians began a retreat across the Pale of Settlement. Russian authorities saw Jews living in the Pale as a liability. As many as 350,000 Jews were either expelled or deported to the East under suspicion of providing intelligence to the enemy. The expulsions and deportations were accompanied by a wave of pogroms, characterized by rape and murder. Winter estimated that during the war between 30,000 and 100,000 Jews were killed.

This passage is interesting because the Pale was the home of one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who lived in Vitebsk, one of the cities in the Belarus region of the Ukraine. The Pale was defined in the 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia by Herman Rosenthal as, “A portion of Russia in which Jews are allowed to reside. Unlike other Russian subjects, the Jewish inhabitants do not generally possess the natural right of every citizen to live unrestrictedly in any place in the empire. Furthermore, they are permitted to leave the Pale of Settlement—that is, to move to another place for permanent or for temporary residence—only under certain conditions defined by law.” The Pale of the Settlement was a place where the Russian Empire deposited Jews and forbade them to practice agriculture, lest they compete with the Gentiles that lived there. Confined by law to establish only businesses and to participate only in trades, Jews could become wealthy. If a Jewish family accrued enough wealth, it was allowed move to other parts of Russia. Vitebsk, an old city, dating back to the tenth century, had long been a mercantile crossroads, and in the nineteenth century, the city had the distinction of being the terminus of the railroad line from St. Petersburg. This railroad was the connection between Vitebsk, one of the oldest settlements in Europe, to the rest of the world.

It was here that Marc Chagall (the French version of his Russian name, Movsha Shagal) returned from his years on Paris to attend his sister’s wedding the summer of 1914. Educated and trained in St. Petersburg, even after years of living in Paris and consorting with Cubists, Marc Chagall always remained a child of Vitebsk. A Jew, he was deeply engaged with the Jewish culture he grew up with, its myths and folklore, its social practices and its customs as carried on in Vitebsk. Cut off from the world and yet connected to it by the thread of a rail line, Vitebsk had preserved the Jewish culture of old and, in being confined to the Pale, could retain the old ways, despite the encroaching twentieth century. For Chagall, Vitebsk was a magical and mystical place, where people flew through the sky and cows had dreams, where Jewish life was wrapped up in a place of safety and peace. Chagall’s work remained deeply nostalgic for the rest of his life, keeping the Vitebsk of his youth inshrined in his imagination. Even though, from 1911, he lived in La Ruche (The Beehive) in Paris with sophisticated artists as his friends, Archipenko, Kisling, Lipchitz, Soutine, Leger, Zadkine, Pechstein, Léger, Brancusi, Rivera, Modigliani, and Delaunay, he retained the folk ways of Vitebsk in his paintings, which were structured by the Cubism shown in the Salons.

Because of the unique art of Chagall, which defied the “movements” constructed by historians, his early success in the Parisian avant-garde has been overlooked, but, of all the artists, living in La Ruche, Chagall was on the brink of establishing himself when the Great War began. There were many Russian artists working in Paris, but few who had to overcome the difficulty of being Jewish in a nation hostile to Jews. Chagall was able to quickly transform his folk art style into an up-to-date approach which allowed him to use Cubism to translate his autobiographical musings about his past and present. His new friend and fellow expatriate, Guillaume Apollinaire, called his art “surnaturel.” Within a year, his paintings were accepted to the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, where he caught the eye of the Russian art critic, “Sillart,” or Yakov Tugendhold. Sillart wrote,

Most interesting are the works of the Russian artist Chagall. He loves the art of the Lubok (colorful narrative folk paintings). The naïveté of its composition, the wild chaotic, drunken life of the peasants in the remote villages of Lithuania (Byelorussia). On the background of toy huts and exotic nonsensical scenes of village life, an immense figure of a peasant rises, drumming on a fiddle of drunken despair. Chagall invests this figure with some higher symbolic significance. It speaks with a more lucid and expressive power than long stories about dead boredom and longing, about the dark and oppressed peasant existence. Chagall feels deeply the mystery of daily life, the abhorrent assets of the people’s life..Chagall has his own works, he gives us the truth, which sheds an original light on reality..

What makes this review, quoted here only in part, interesting is its erasure of the unique Jewish identity of “village life,” which was as Chagall depicted it only because of the anti-semitism that placed the Jews within the confines of the Pale. Anatoly Luncharsky, who would rise in the ranks after the Revolution as the “People’s Commissar of Enlightenment,” was also in Paris and wrote of “young Marc Chagall,” who “is already well-known in Paris. His crazy canvasses with their intentionally childish manners, their capricious and rich fantasy, their typical grimace of horror and considerable share of humor, unwittingly provoke the spectators’ attention in the salons–an attention that is, by the way, not always favorable.”

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Marc Chagall. The Praying Jew (1914)

Lunacharsky did not mention the Jewish roots of the “crazy canvasses.” Neither did Swiss writer, Frédéric-Louis Sauser, better known as Blaise Cendrars, who wrote extensively on Chagall for the Berlin journal Der Strum, describing him as ” a young man, some twenty-four years, colorful himself, with strange wide eyes, peeping out under tempestuous curls–gladly shows me a countless quantity of his canvases and drawings..all elements of his of his fantasy come form the boring, crestfallen life of the lower class people of a Lithuanian suburb..Chagall is an interesting soul, though, no doubt, a sick one, both in its joy and its gloom. A young (E.T.A.) Hoffmann form a slum around Vitebsk. More precisely: a Remizov of the brush a Remizov of the Pale of Settlement. And yet, his is not a great painter..” Although the review from Cendrars is an odd one, it shares, with the others, a complete erasure of the Jewish origins of Chagall’s work. It is possible that, because there was and would be a great deal of anti-semitism in the art world, the writers did not want to acknowledge Chagall’s heritage and thus compromise the reader’s judgment of the work, which they take pains to define as “Russian.”

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Issue of Der Strum dedicated to Marc Chagall

Despite the lukewarm but extensive review by Cendrars, Herwarth Walden, proprietor of Der Strum Gallery, gave Chagall an important solo exhibition in Berlin in June of 1914. It was Apollinaire who introduced Walden to Chagall in 1913, and the German art dealer probably realized that Chagall’s eccentric and individualistic paintings would have been quite interesting to German artists. Being a rare Jew allowed out of the Pale with a merchant’s pass, the artist was educated in St. Petersburg, legitimatizing Chagall. Then he had joined other Russian expatriates in Paris and became, not just a part of the Parisian cutting edge, but one of its leaders. From then standpoint of Walden, the art dealer, Chagall fit well into the avant-garde ranks. In addition, his work certainly aligned better with Expressionism than with classical Cubism and the child-like fantasies Chagall painted fed into the German fascination with alternative or outsider art, such as that made by children. In fact, when the War began soon after the exhibition, Walden sold the work Chagall left behind during the War, when it was widely and conveniently assumed that the artist was dead. Once the Berlin show had opened successfully, Chagall, on the edge of major success, took a brief side trip to Vitebsk and, when War was declared, he was trapped in Russia, a condition he referred to as “stuck” “involuntarily.” His art was also, as he described it, “stuck” in Berlin and “three big pictures” were “stuck in Amsterdam in the Salon,” while “Two other pictures remained in Brussels.” Caught behind the lines, Chagall wrote to his friend and fellow Russian artist, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, “I am longing for Paris. As to my exhibition (in Berlin), alas, against its will, it will become a prisoner of war.”

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Marc Chagall. Vitebsk (1914)

Obviously in Chagall’s mind, Vitebsk was better remembered and not lived in. He married his childhood sweetheart, Bella Rosenfeld, who was apparently of a higher social status. Her family was opposed to the marriage but allowed the wedding to take place and her brother saved Chagall from duty on the Eastern Front with the Russian army. The artist became a military clerk working under Bella’s brother, who had little patience with Chagall’s lack of organization and efficiency. Without showing any gratitude for his delivery from what could very well have been a death sentence, Chagall moved to Petrograd, previously St Petersburg, and now newly renamed when the War began into something less German sounding.

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Marc Chagall. An Old Man and an Old Woman (August 1916)

Suddenly, Chagall, who lived inside of his head and painted out of his imagination, was thrust into one of the most horrific realities of the twentieth century–the Great War. This was a war that would disgorge misery and rebellion into the streets of the city he and Bella found themselves. Petrograd was the capital of Russia, until 1918 when the capital was moved to Moscow; and, as such, the city was as cosmopolitan and as connected as Vitebsk was as isolated and disconnected behind the Pale. The city was sophisticated but familiar to Chagall, for this was where he grew up and was educated. Therefore, perhaps because of this familiarity with Petrograd, there are paintings by Chagall that betray nothing of the War except a date, 1915 or 1916.

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Marc Chagall. Birthday (1916)

But there are other works that attempt to grapple with the impact of War upon people The next post will discuss the reactions of Chagall to the miseries of war and the disruptions of the rebellion against the Czar and the establishment of the Soviets in Russia.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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