In a Chagall painting (drawing, mural, or stained-glass window), a world is envisioned that is spatially liberated and multidimensional. This space is dramatized by people and animals who fly, float, or balance quite improbably - and quite convincingly. Normal gravity doesn't count in this magical, imagined arena, where everything is as free as music, as associative as poetry. Upside down is as reasonable as right side up. Comedy rubs shoulders with an indefinable, poignant sadness. Sentimentality and nostalgia are authenticated by a wry realism and human sympathy, as in folk tales. Fantasy, carnival, dream, and myth pervade Chagall's pictures.
Is it any wonder that he was fascinated, throughout his career, with the circus?
"These clowns, bareback riders, and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions," the Russian-born artist said in 1981. They recur as a theme with implications far wider and more personal than simply recording childhood memories. The circus became a metaphor for his art and for life. He perhaps saw himself at different times as acrobat, clown, rider, or observer.
The ring was an equivalent for his canvas. In a single painting, memories and stories and events come together, connected in the artist's (ringmaster's) plan, but sometimes - to the viewer - enigmatically separate from one another. Chagall's work is a sawdust stage for disparate amalgamations.
"Saltimbanques: Les cirques de Chagall" is an exhibition that recently opened in Nice, France. The word "saltimbanques" includes the idea of street acrobats. Picasso's rose period included images of such figures. The exhibition is at the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall until Oct. 3. It gathers works by Chagall connected directly or subtly with the circus.
"Rider With a Flowery Skirt" of 1970 is one of Chagall's more straightforward and delightful celebrations of the lively patchwork of incidents in the ring - the clown, the encircling crowd, the daredevil acrobatics, and the perfect balance of the riders as the horses go round and round with increasing speed.
Chagall implies that a painter practices similar acts of intrepid gymnastics. The picture - literally a fresh-colored, lively collage of papers, fabric, crayon, and ink - happily presents the topsy-turvy excitements of Chagall's highly individual, yet strangely universal, dreams.