Skip to Content

Art Gallery of Ontario

Keyword Site Search

The Origins of Neo-primitivism in Chagall's Work

These essays originally appeared in Chagall et l'avant-garde Russe, edited by Angela Lampe, and published by the Centre Pompidou. The complete French catalogue is available for purchase at shopAGO.

Transated by: Rose B. Champagne

It was in the summer of 1908 that Chagall began to draw and paint in a primitive and childlike fashion that would soon evolve into the fantastical, the style that would become his trademark, particular in later years when he would choose a vivid colour palette. It is often said that Chagall was influenced by Neo-primitivism which was very prevalent among avant-garde Russian artists of the time such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and David Burliuk. However, being a Russian Jew of modest origins and a St. Petersburg student at the start of his career, Chagall would follow his own personal course, much different from that of his colleagues.

In June 1908, courses came to an end at the School of Imperial Society for the Fostering of Fine Arts, but Chagall remained in St. Petersburg to avoid being drafted in the czar’s army. Desperate letters to his patron, Baron David Ginzburg, and to his professor, Nikolai Roerich, demonstrate how much he dreaded this possibility, not only as an artist who would be obliged to end his studies but also as a Russian Jew whose life was threatened. Despite this fear, Chagall wished to leave the city and go home to Vitebsk, where “the sun calls me to the virgin scenery to draw” and where he wanted to “immerse himself in a sea of grass and in the bliss of the skies.”1 These metaphors, while specifically linked to his own personal situation, also express the notion that Russian artists and writers at the time wanted to differentiate themselves from symbolism and rediscover the values of nature and life in the countryside as sources of a new primitivism. In using these metaphors, Chagall proved that he was aligned with the prevailing currents of thought at the time.

In 1906, two articles titled “Colours and Words” and “Timeless” were published in Moscow’s glossy art review magazine La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece). In them, Alexander Blok, the famous Russian symbolist author whom Chagall knew well and whose writing the artist admired2, encouraged artists and writers to turn to childlike art, Russian nature and its people as a new source of creativity, because modern man had turned away from nature and had fallen into a mechanical lifestyle.3 This new attitude reached its highest peak in Blok’s 1908 article called “Three Questions” in which he insists on the importance of blending art and life.4 He asks artists to combine “the soul of a beautiful butterfly and the body of a useful camel” to show people “a new kind of free necessity [and] a conscious devotion to give words meaning and make the artist a man.”5

Such ideas certainly provoked debate at the School of Imperial Society, where Chagall had studied since 1907. A year earlier, painter Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947) was named director of the school and attempted to bring radical reform to the curriculum. He introduced art history, organized outings in the old Russian cities and put together workshops in decorative arts and crafts – ceramics, wood carvings, printing, weaving, glass painting, church paintings and later music and singing.6 He also invited sculptors, architects, critics and art historians, who were knowledgeable in the world of art and well informed with regards to developments in Moscow’s artistic scene, to teach his student artists. Therefore, Chagall’s teachers turned their attention towards Russian national heritage and modern influences. Russian symbolists such as Mikhail Vroubel and Viktor Borissov-Moussatov were among these influences, as was Japanese art and the work of Paul Gauguin.7

Roerich, a close acquaintance of Gauguin (whom he had met through Alexandre Benois while he was in Paris in 1901), had already experimented with this type of painting. He projected his admiration onto Chagall, who would find his own personal way of integrating Gauguin’s influence.8 As a result, he took an active role in the interaction between Russia and the French painter, especially after the Gauguin exhibit of 1906, which ran during the exact same time as the Russian exhibition organized by Sergei Diaghilev at the Autumn Salon in Paris. Furthermore, between 1908 and 1909, Nikolai Riabouchinski and his magazine La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece) presented Gauguin’s paintings in the major French-Russian exhibitions that he organized in Moscow. The French artist’s work was well represented in some of the most famous art collections in Moscow, such as the Chtchoukine and Morozov families. Consequently, the Moscow group “Goloubaïa Rosa” (The Blue Rose), which included artists Pavel Kuznetsov, Martiros Sarian, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, appeared to be opening up their artwork to Gauguin’s influence as early as 1907–1908.9

Two of Chagall’s paintings around that time clearly demonstrate Gauguin’s influence: his Autoportrait au masque rouge (Self-Portrait in a Red Mask) and a painting that pictures his youngest sister titled Jeune fille au divan (Mariaska)” (Young Girl on a Sofa [Mariaska]) from 1907. Chagall’s own self-portrait is often compared to the works of Gauguin, such as his Autoportrait à l’idole (Idol Self-Portrait) of 1891, or his 1889 portrait, which was owned by the famous art collector Sergei Chtchoukine. Chagall at that time did not have a mustache or a beard; instead it seems as if these masculine symbols in his painting were influenced by the French painter. His irregular application of colours on a raw canvas, a technique used by Gauguin, shows how much Chagall identified with the wild French artist.

Moreover, his Young Girl on a Sofa recalls Gauguin’s Te Tiare Farani (Flowers of France) of 1891.10 The positioning of the subject on the left, in front of a flower vase painted against a flat wall, recalls Gauguin’s composition, while the person wearing a hat in the latter painting may have prompted Chagall to depict his sister with very short hair wearing an artist’s beret. Te Tiare Farani was shown at the 1906 Gauguin retrospective in Paris and bought in 1908 by Ivan Morozov.11 It is not known with complete certainty that Chagall went to Moscow to view the French-Russian exhibitions or private collections, but the modern teachings of his school allow us to speculate that the students may have visited the city as well as its collections and exhibitions while on an organized visit.12 Nevertheless, Chagall’s work reveals without a doubt that he had intimate knowledge of Gauguin, most likely passed on by Roerich, possibly by means of photographs.

However, in the two paintings mentioned above, a number of other influences are palpable which, in 1908, played an important role in the development of Chagall’s primitivist style. The most important ones stem from avant-garde theatre and childlike art. The red mask that Chagall removes from his face in his self-portrait recalls creations from some artists of the World of Art, such as Konstantin Somov, containing visual references to the commedia dell’arte revival, to street theatre and to the flourishing political satire in St. Petersburg after 1905. Alexander Blok is one of the first to use the theme of the “commedia dell’arte” in his Balagantchik (The Booth at the Fair), a play adapted from his 1905 poem. The famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold produced it in St. Petersburg in 1906 and again in 1908, in the imperial theatres where it met with great success.

Chagall is certainly aware of Somov’s coverage of the works that Blok published in 1908.13 In his self-portrait, Chagall turns his head to the right (where a frivolous woman is seen on Somov’s cover), has a red mask (which matches the woman’s dress) and portrays himself with curls on his forehead looking like horns, a slightly hooked nose, a mustache with a goatee and a pointed ear. Here he seems to be identifying himself in a devilish manner or as a Pan-like character – typical of the renewed theatre. Again, the work seems to recall Gauguin’s (as well as Nietzsche’s) appeals to abandon modern civilization and return to his roots, in other words to leave St. Petersburg and return to Vitebsk where he could free himself from the old art forms saturated with western traditions, both classical and Christian, and to adopt the new primitive art form rooted in the Jewish folklore of the countryside.

Young Girl on a Sofa seems to be the first example where Chagall applies his new artistic orientation and is one of numerous intimate portraits that Chagall made of his family. By representing his youngest sister in a clumsy, childish style, he already gives a glimpse of the free and fresh direction he is about to take. The influence of the theatre, as well as Gauguin, seem to play a crucial role by means of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird.14 Some important aspects of this play, first written as a children’s story, reinforce Chagall’s decision to develop his new style. The play introduces a fantastical universe of imagination and a new way to look at the world, which Chagall produces in an equally new fashion – Mariaska’s proportions are distorted, and her limbs are flat and surrounded by a thick dark outline, like a child’s drawing which she could have made herself.

In April of 1908, Léon Bakst, member of the World of Art and future teacher to Chagall at the prestigious Zvantséva School, remarked on the importance of primitive and childlike art at a conference called “Paintings of the Future and its Relationship to Antique Art” at St. Petersburg’s Theatre Club.15 In May of 1907, Bakst and the painter Valentin Sérov travelled to Greece where they discovered Greek archaic art which influenced them deeply and prompted Bakst to question and rethink his impression of classical art. The new ideas he generated on this trip prompted Bakst to contemplate the “art of the future” as seen in children’s paintings: spontaneous, filled with colours and emotions.

For Bakst, there were common traits in popular and archaic art, but also in the works of Gauguin, Matisse and Denis.16 He praised the symbolic qualities of these art forms which elevated daily objects to a symbolic or abstract level, in the same way as childlike and primitive art. However, he proposed formal ways to get there: future artists would have to become bold, simple, impolite and primitive. The art of the future must develop “a rough style because new art cannot include refinement…. Art of the future must stem from the deepest grossness.”17 Chagall must have attended this conference and been seduced by the modernist theme of his talk. It was probably for this reason that Chagall contacted Bakst later that same year and decided to study with him at the Zvantséva School.

In addition to his theoretical debates, concrete examples also encouraged Chagall to develop his new childlike style. In the spring of 1908, an article was published in the weekly magazine Theatre and Art by the critic Alexandre Rostislavov titled “Children and Adult Art.” He mentions the childlike art exhibit from the New Society of Artists alongside an exhibition of works from artists of the World of Art (namely Benois, Yevgeny Lanceray, Mstislav Dobujinski, Boris Kustodiev and Alexandre Golovine). Rostislavov saw a form of primitive art that was lacking technique but revealed a “wonderful side, mysterious, magical [artistic] creation…. Children’s art, even with its total absence of technique, excites us, we laugh at its innocence, we even envy it.”18 This may have been the time that Chagall began collecting drawings by Mariaska to study and use as a source of inspiration. In his 1909–1910 sketch pad, there appears a simple child’s drawing, a stick man which, according to Chagall’s notes, was made by his sister Mariaska.19

Chagall already felt free to use this type of childlike art and to start applying it to serious subjects, as well as to illustrate, in the detached manner of children, the complex and often painful reality of the lives of Russian Jews in the early 20th century. Thus, he used this style to deal with problems such as the family life of Jews divided between the traditional and modern lifestyle (The Dining Room and The Room on Gorokhova Street, both from 1910), love and marriage, in which strict religious rules are questioned (The Ball of 1908, The Wedding of 1908–1909, The Couple at the Table of 1909, The Aunt’s Wedding of 1909–1910, and The Mikveh of 1910), and death which is often a consequence of anti-Semitic attacks, persecution and pogroms (The Village Fair of 1908, The Dead Man of 1908–1909, and The Event of 1908–1909). In this way, Chagall combines the social consciousness of his first teacher, Yéhouda Pen (and other Russian and Polish Jewish artists from whom he discovered Realist and Impressionist art in Vitebsk in 1906–190720) and his new primitivism style. To this art, which often deals with traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe, he added the modernist style that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Starting in the fall of 1908, he integrated into this modern style numerous elements of Yiddish popular culture which drew from detailed studies by intellectuals involved in the revival of the Jewish culture. Their work centred around the activities of historical and ethnic Jewish society, created by the Russian Jewish ethnographer and author Semyon Anski (born Shlomo Rappoport) who was born in Vitebsk. Thanks to this society, which collected Jewish religious objects, published proverbs, lullabies and Hasidic stories, and described Jewish traditions and customs in the cycle of life, Chagall understood the importance of this material and became more aware of his role in the Yiddish popular tradition and culture, which he knew well.21

The Dead Man is a good example of a work that fuses several worlds on different levels while amazing the spectator with its primitive and crude quality. Several authors found influences in the theatre, the childlike imagination, the Yiddish traditions and the harsh realities of Russian-Jewish history. However, we may recall the comments expressed by Maximilian Syrkine, a Russian-Jewish art critic who first commented in 1916 on certain unusual aspects of The Dead Man, namely the presence of the violinist sitting on the roof. Calling this painting “fantastical-humorous,” he saw in the violinist “the soul” of the dead, dressed in a worn jacket and cap, happy to be free from his Jewish destiny and his transitional existence.”22 In his own 1908 article, Blok asked Chagall to demonstrate to the world “a new kind of free necessity [and] a conscious devotion to give words meaning and make the artist a man.”23 He added that popular art and folklore songs do exactly that by combining beauty and usefulness, art and work by means of rhythm.24 Therefore, this essential musical element becomes a unifying element. In adding the image of a violinist – a Jewish klezmer – to his painting, Chagall invites us to imagine his music and introduces the unifying element that connects the complex worlds to which he belongs.25

While summarizing Chagall’s artistic evolution, The Dead Man also introduces a novelty: the yellow-green colour of the sky, indicating new influences that he acquired from Bakst’s teachings. According to Iulia Léonidovna Obolenskaia, a former student at the Zvantséva School where Chagall began to study in 1909, Bakst explained that the source of all composition stems from the relationship between colours.26 He encouraged this new art form with his students and taught them to appreciate Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Maurice Denis. Bakst also expressed his ideas in public conferences and in his writings, and in the fall of 1909, Apollon magazine published his conference “Painting of the Future and its Relationship to Antique Art,” which was held in April 1908, and was likely the main impetus for Chagall to study with Bakst. The author admired the elementary forms of childlike drawings, but above all he valued their bright and strong colours. In his view, pure and strong colours are totally natural since they exist in the animal world – particularly birds and butterflies – and in flowers. As such, he felt it was absolutely natural that young children or archaic and popular artists not influenced by rules of “good taste” would use such colours.27 In recommending the use of bold colours and sustained tones, Bakst hoped to encourage his students toward a new path.

Likewise, Chagall may have discovered the Fauvists in Moscow. In January or February 1909, he may have seen, in the French section of the exhibition of La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece), works from Derain, Vlaminck, Friesz, Marquet, Matisse, Van Dongen or Braque, whose pre-Fauvist, Fauvist and pre-Cubist paintings were on display.28 This exhibition, like the previous one29, would bring in thousands of art enthusiasts30 and, while Chagall was still studying with Roerich at the time, he probably travelled to Moscow with his class and had the opportunity afterwards to view the Chtchoukine collection. He may have also viewed some of Matisse’s Fauvist paintings, in particular La Desserte rouge (The Dessert: Harmony in Red [The Red Room]) from 1908.31

According to Obolenskaia’s memoires, one of Chagall’s first paintings in accordance with Bakst’s teachings, was a “study in pink on green background,” a title that describes the subject as a combination of colours, which the teacher might have appreciated.32 His first painting to be exhibited with bold colours appeared in the “Petit Salon” in 1909. It would take some time for him to accept this novelty, but starting in 1911 colour would become one of the main elements of his paintings. We conclude this analysis with The Father (or Bearded Man) of 1911, in which Chagall depicts his father as a traditional Russian Jew, bearded and posing in an autumn landscape. In this work, Chagall combines multiple sources that encompass his Primitivist style: the raw characteristics of childlike art, his small-town Jewish roots, his love of nature and his colour combinations which were strongly influenced by Fauvism.

  1. Letter to Nikolai Roerich from Marc Chagall, in Chagall 1995a, 238; Marc Chagall and Kh. Firin, “A Suffering Painter Can Understand Me,” in Peterbourgskie gody M. Z. Chagala (Chagall’s Petersburg Years), Iskousstvo Léningrada 8 (1990), letters 3 and 6, 107–108.
  2. On Chagall’s admiration for the poet, see Franz Meyer, Chagall, Life and Work (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1963) 243, or the French Edition (Paris: Flammarion, [1964] 1995).
  3. Alexandre Blok, “Colours and Words,” in Zolotoie rouno (The Golden Fleece) 1 (1906), 98–103; “Timeless,” in Zolotoie rouno (The Golden Fleece) 11–12, 107–114 [Alexandre Blok, Sobranié sotchinenii (Works) (Moscow-Leningrad, 1960), vol. 5, 19–24, 66–82].
  4. Alexandre Blok, “Three Questions,” in Zolotoie rouno (The Golden Fleece) 2 (1908), 55–59. Analysis of this essay and the ones from 1906 are found in William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo and Russian Modernism: 1905-1910 (Ann Arbor, 1986), 106–109.
  5. William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo, op. cit., 111.
  6. Jacqueline Decter and Nicholas Roerich, The Life and Art of a Russian Master (London: Park Street Press, 1989), 67.
  7. Ibid., 38–39.
  8. On the importance of Gauguin for Chagall, see Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 14 and 71.
  9. Concerning Gauguin’s influence on these artists, see Marina Bessonova, “Paul Gauguin and Russian Avant-Garde Art,” exh. cat. (Ferrare: Palazzo dei Diamanti, 1 April – 2 July 1995), 259–277.
  10. See Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 73, and Bessonova, Russian Avant-Garde Art, op. cit., 67.
  11. Ibid., 66.
  12. In his autobiography, Chagall – during a conversation with a French lady travelling by train in 1914 while he is returning to Russia – states: “Personally, I have only seen Petrograd, Moscow, the small suburb of Lyozna and Vitebsk.” Marc Chagall, My Life, translated by Bella Chagall, Paris [1923], Stock 2003, 166. As far as residing in Paris between 1911 and 1914, here he alludes to his life in Russia before moving to France.
  13. Spencer Golub, Evreinov: The Theatre of Paradox and Transformation (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984), 2, no. 4. Somov created the cover for Alexandre Blok’s work, “Lyrical Drama, The Fair Stand, The King in the Square, The Stranger”, St. Petersburg Theatre Series, 1908.
  14. Chagall most likely attended this play in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1908, performed by the Kaminski Company which was made up of the Warsaw Yiddish Theatre. See also I. Turkow Goldberg, Di Mame Ester Rachel (Warsaw, 1953), 194–220 (in Yiddish).
  15. Irina Pruzhan and Léon Bakst, Set and Costume Design, Book Illustrations (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), 220. The conference paper was published in November 1909, in Léon Bakst “The Paths of Classicism in Art,” Apollon 2, 63–78, and Apollon 3, 46–62.
  16. Léon Bakst, “Pouti Klassitsizma v iskousstve,” cited in Apollon 3, 54–61.
  17. Ibid., 60–61.
  18. Alexandre Rotislavov, “Children and Adult Art,” Teatr i iskusstvo (Theatre and Art) 9 (1908) 170–171.
  19. I wish to thank Mrs. Miriam Cendrars for giving me permission to view, in the fall of 1995, Chagall’s 1909–1910 sketching book, which is part of her collection.
  20. Among these artists are Isaak Asknazy, Moses Maimon, Samuel Hirszenberg and Léonide Pasternak.
  21. Ziva Amishai-Maisels, “Chagall and the Jewish Revival: Center of Periphery?” in Ruth Apter-Gabriel, ed., Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art, 1912–1928 (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, June 1987), 71–100, and Mirjam Rajner, “A Parokhet as a Picture: Chagall’s 1908–1909 Prayer Desk,” in Studia Rosenthaliana 37 (2004), 193–222.
  22. Maximilian Syrkine, “Marc Chagall,” in Evreïskaïa nedelia (The Jewish Week) 20 (15 May 1916), 44.
  23. See note 5 of this text.
  24. William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo 27, 111.
  25. Mirjam Rajner, “Chagall’s Fiddler,” in Ars Judaica, The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art, vol. 1 (2005), 117–132.
  26. Iulia Léonidovna Obolenskaia, V chkole Zvantsevoi pod rukovodstvom L. Baksta i M. Dobouzjinskovo, 1906–1910 (At the Zvantséva School, Directed by L. Bakst and M. Doboujinski, 1906–1910) (Moscow: Trétiakov National Gallery Department of Manuscripts, fonds 5, stock 75, sheet 15). Some parts of this text were translated into English and used by Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 59–60, and I. Pruzhan, Bakst, op. cit., 16, 219.
  27. Léon Bakst, “Pouti klassitsizma v iskousstve,” cited in Apollon 3, 54–56.
  28. William Richardson, Zolotoe Runo, op. cit., 144–146; Zolotoie rouno 1 (1909), 15–18, and Zolotoie rouno 2–3 (1909), 3–30. The January and February/March issues of this magazine contained reproductions of his works in black and white.
  29. The French-Russian exhibition in Moscow organized by La Toison d’Or (The Golden Fleece) in 1908.
  30. Zolotoie rouno 2–3 (1909), 116.
  31. Chtchoukine bought all these paintings over the course of the year 1908, and by early 1909 they were part of his collection. See Albert Kostenevich and Natalia Semenova, Matisse v Rossii (Matisse in Russia) (Moscow, 1993), 73, 77, 162. See also A. Izerghina, Henri Matisse, Painting and Sculptures in Soviet Museums (Leningrad: Aurora Art, 1978), 138–139.
  32. Franz Meyer, Chagall, op. cit., 60.

Share and Enjoy: