La Révolution with stamped signature 'Marc Chagall' (lower left) oil on canvas 63.50 x 115cm (25 x 45 1/4in).
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Switzerland, 1993 Arts Finans Trust Private collection, since 1994
We are grateful to the Comité Chagall for confirming the authenticity of the work, in a letter dated 4 May 2010.
First explored by Chagall in a series of preparatory works (of which there were seven versions in 1937 alone), la Révolution is one of his most accomplished works, and one to which he clearly had a very personal attachment. He initially painted a large version of la Révolution, which he later cut in three and made into a triptych. Each part was separately titled as Résistance, Résurrection and Libération (see illustrations 1, 2 & 3 overleaf). The present version of la Révolution, according to the Comité Chagall, was executed over three decades, indicating Chagall's recurrent interest in this subject. The scale of the composition, its numerous themes of life and death and the sheer volume of characters make it a truly exceptional painting, both in its quality and in the message it conveys. It was clearly important to Chagall as he kept the painting in his studio and it remained there until his death in 1985. In many ways la Révolution is autobiographical and mirrors the artist's views on life. This painting, although in some respects a parable for our times, is also a very intimate work and reflects the innermost thoughts of a man who valued love above all else in life.
The eldest of nine, Marc Chagall was born in 1887 in the White Russian town of Vitebsk, one of the few places in Russia where jews were accepted and integrated at the time. After his final departure from Russia in 1921 he spent most of his life in France except for a period of exile during the second World War when he fled to America. Chagall's Russian and Jewish heritage are at the very core of his work, which was also strongly influenced by the major political events of his lifetime.
The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia had a profound effect on Chagall both on a personal and professional level. He had returned to Russia in 1914 from France at the start of the first World War and married his fiancée Bella Rosenfeld. He soon started to make a name for himself, establishing a school of art in 1919 in his home town of Vitebsk. Two artists who later rose to fame as exponents of the Supremacist movement, Kasimir Malevitch and Marcovich Lissitzky, assisted by teaching at this art school, but the unstable state of the country with the ensuing poverty and famine that it brought took its toll on the men. Friction soon developed both on an artistic and idealistic level, and Chagall asked to be moved to Moscow; in 1920 he left Vitebsk for good. Soon realising that he could not develop his full potential in Russia, he made a decision to leave for France in the early summer of 1922.
Other, later political events also had a strong effect on Chagall. The periods in which he worked on la Révolution (and the many preparatory sketches) are perhaps a direct reflection of these. The increasing feelings of anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1930s affected Chagall deeply, and much later, the student uprising in Paris in May 1968 must have recalled for him the violence he had witnessed in the October Revolution of 1917.
In his catalogue raisonné Franz Meyer says: 'To interpret the picture, one must start from the contrast between the left and right halves. The political revolution, the actual uprising on the left is balanced on the right by the artistic-human revolution proclaimed by Chagall. Its manifestations are not guns and slogans, but music and love. The leaders appear between the two halves - on one side the transmitter of the religious law, sunk in secret thought; on the other the man of the return to justice. Thus Lenin's handstand does not signify a criticism of Lenin, but symbolises his revolutionary impact in an entirely positive sense. Standing upright on one hand, this central figure is like the pointer of a scale marking the equivalence of the two sides - the political revolution and the artistic-human revolution - according to Chagall's dream.' (Franz Meyer, Life and Work, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. publisher p. 414)
La Révolution is filled with themes and symbols which were recurrent throughout Chagall's works. At the centre of the painting, the praying rabbi holding the scrolls of the Torah recalls Chagall's painting Solitude of 1933 (as illustrated here). In both works we see a religious man standing alone, the symbol of tradition and truth. In la Révolution he is intent on his own thoughts and seems detached from the sorrow that surrounds him; he is absorbed in his prayers, his presence nonetheless reassuring, promising a peace that is yet to come.
In a somewhat comic pose, Lenin stands upside down on the table pointing towards the red flag and the life-affirming symbols that Chagall has painted in front of the sun. He is directing the crowd towards radical change, towards happiness and towards a more hopeful Russia. The revolutionary crowd on the far left, in dominant red, is raging and battling its way out of the snow to follow its leader, Lenin. The fluttering flags, armed soldiers and dead man lying by the rabbi are all images that Chagall will have carried in his memory, scars from his experience of the Russian October Revolution. However, whilst some of the soldiers are shown holding weapons, one has the sense that the crowd in general seems more intent on fighting with ideas than with weapons.
The right hand-side of the painting contrasts with the gravity of the rest of the scene. Chagall shows us that the cycle of life will always continue, and he uses allegories of happiness and optimism to illustrate this. The huge pool of yellow light, echoing throughout the painting in the lamp, the man holding the torch and the candle beside the dead man, acts as a giant clock of human life. Despite the brutality of mankind on the one hand, there remain the hopeful elements of love, music and regeneration, and significantly the artist places himself at the centre of this ideal life, working at his easel.
Another recurrent theme we see on the right is that of the floating couple. The virginal bride in gleaming white contrasts sharply with the mêlée that surrounds her. The couple appear to be in motion, carried up in the vortex of the yellow light - the ultimate symbol of love and all that is positive in human destiny.
The Comité Chagall have confirmed that this monumental work was executed in three main stages: in 1937, 1958 and 1968. Ultra-violet light examination shows the first stage of work, which the Comité believes dates from around 1937; to the figures and the crowd on the left-hand side they ascribe a date of around 1958, and the last phase the snow slope and finer details they believe were added in 1968.