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The Radical Romanticism of Marc Chagall’s Art

A bare chested woman and her lover embrace eachother as they fly over a village. The sky is red. A dove flies above them, and a goat with human hands offers them a bouquet.
Lovers in the Red Sky. Marc Chagall. 1950.

I have two framed posters of Marc Chagall’s paintings in my home. I originally had three, but the third, Lovers in the Red Sky, was stolen by an unscrupulous middle school art teacher who asked to borrow the poster when I was in 6th grade and then “misplaced it in her home.” She also required me to put a sticky note over the woman’s breasts when presenting the piece to class, so obviously, she was a charlatan through and through. (If you haven’t destroyed it out of a misplaced sense of decency, Mrs. Guerrero, give me my poster back!) But the remaining two, I look at every day.

Autumn in the Village radiates that feeling when you’ve been in the sun all day, and a hint of dusk crosses the horizon. Your sweat feels the edge of cold. The Bay of Angels makes me think of when I lived in Santa Cruz, and I ate sushi on the beach at night with my partner as we watched the glow of the Ferris wheel turn in the distance.

A painting of a man with a fiddle sitting in a tree with a goat. The tree has blooming yellow flowers. Below them a topless woman reclines on a house's roof. The sky is red with dusk and a moon rises.
Autumn in the Village. Marc Chagall. 1938-1945.

Much has been said about the dream-like nature of Chagall’s work. The soft limbs, the bold swaths of color, and the giant animals undo the expectations of the concrete. This married couple is riding to bliss on a giant chicken. Who are we to say otherwise? What stays with me in Chagall’s work, though, was his unwavering need to paint what others may write off as sentimental.

Particularly as a fiction writer, I feel the pull of cynicism. If you criticize the radical optimism of love, you will often be proven correct. As the critic, you presume you are the underdog. “Most marriages end in divorce! Children are good for nothing but making poop! One day those tits will sag, and he'll find someone else! Take that, Hallmark!” Misery is easier to render realistically than happiness because we can’t seem to agree on what happiness even is. What Chagall captures in the haziness of the paint is that fleeting moment when you’re so immersed in happiness you escape the dread of knowing it's all going to end. You are simply enfolded in red.

A lithograph of a naked mermaid holding a bouquet of flowers over a bay. It is night. A full moon hangs over the horizon, and a fish swims in the bay.
The Bay of Angels. Marc Chagall. 1962.

Although extremely heteronormative, I fall for Chagall’s joyful depictions of marriage and sexuality. The woman in the sky is too radically present in herself, the wonder of having a body at all, to be ashamed of her sex or nakedness. Marriage in these paintings is not a move into respectability but rather a spiritual sensuality. It’s all very easy to pick apart. Yet, when I look at these paintings, I am overcome, and I choose not to. Isn’t that the center of a love story?

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Paige Welsh's creative work has been published in Narrative Magazine, Bear Review, and Gigantic Sequins. You can find her book reviews in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. When she's not writing, she likes to garden with her partner Chris, and their cat, Biscuits. You can follow her on Twitter @MarkthatPaige.


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