Narrator: The artist Marc Chagall made I and the Village in 1911, using oil paint on canvas. The canvas is about the same size as a double-size bed. It measures about 6 feet, 4 inches high and 5 feet wide. In metric units, it is about 192 centimeters high and 151 centimeters wide.
The year after he moved to Paris, Marc Chagall made this painting inspired by his hometown in Belarus. Rendered in jewel-toned colors softened by white paint, the composition is filled with fantastical imagery. Folkloric figures and vignettes are shown at vastly different scales, and are delineated by geometric forms, including arcs, circles, and triangles.
Two faces in profile dominate the composition. On the right, a man rendered in a deep green, and on the left, a grayish-white cow. They gaze at one another with calm, knowing expressions, their noses just inches apart. Scenes of village life are visible around and within their profiles.
Let’s begin with the green-faced man, whose head and neck fill the right side of the painting. His large, angular nose faces towards our left. His slightly parted lips are white with a dusting of light gray. His eye appears in profile. The white of his eye is painted black, and his iris is white.
He wears a gray cap with a brick red bill, and a yellow shirt with blue sash, visible only at the neckline. A small cross hangs from a string of colored beads around his neck. His body is not visible. The grayish-white fingers of his left hand, which are folded, emerge from the bottom center of the canvas. In his thumb and pointer finger, he holds a sprig, or small tree. A ring with a red stone adorns his pointer finger. His thumbnail is a faded green. The small tree is painted delicately, with green and white leaves and a flower of red, white and yellow at its center. Clusters of stippled blue and white brushstrokes form a triangular mist around the foliage.
The second large profile depicts a cow. Its head and neck fills the upper left quadrant of the canvas. Its body is beyond the frame of the picture. Though the cow is white, its neck, head, and muzzle are shaded with patches of blue, black, and red. The top of the cow’s head and back of its neck are dotted with red and blue. Its mouth is slightly open, and its eye is a black iris in a field of white. Like the green man, the cow also wears a colorful beaded necklace. Overlaid on the cow’s cheek is a small vignette of a woman milking a white cow.
Now that we’ve described the painting’s two central figures, let’s observe the details surrounding them.
Geometric lines and shapes cut across and beneath the two faces. Most prominently, the suggestion of a circle more than half the painting’s width, appears to be inset just below center. The circle appears to arc across the cow’s muzzle and across the man’s cheek, forming a crease around the man’s mouth, like a laugh line. Broken, white and purple lines join the eyes of the cow and the man, as if connecting their gazes.
A diagonal plane of pink extends from the bottom left corner to near the top right of the canvas, filling the space between the two faces and passing through the circle. Atop this pink plane in the area between the man and cow’s foreheads is a small scene of a man holding a scythe walking toward a woman floating upside down.
Behind these two small figures, colorful buildings line the horizon. The buildings are depicted at a smaller scale, so they appear to be in the distance. The row of houses is rendered simply with square bases and triangular roofs. Some of them are upside down. At the far left of this row is a yellow church topped by a red roof and a white cross. The head and shoulders of a person with a red shirt and black hat peer out from the church door. A thin band of sky fills the top edge of the canvas. The right side is navy blue, implying night, but as we move toward the left, the sky lightens into white clouds.
Now let's explore this work further with a curator.
Curator, Leah Dickerman: We're looking at Marc Chagall's I and the Village that the Russian artist made in Paris in 1911. And what you see when you look at this work of art is a brilliantly colored field in which the figure of a young peasant boy that some think might be Chagall himself stares intently at the image of a cow, and there's a small, dotted line that connects the eyes of these two creatures and behind there's an almost magical village in which a young peasant carries his scythe and a young woman floats upside down, and below at the bottom is a hand in which a flowering tree seems to grow. What you see in the work of art is a kind of conjuring of the place that he came from.
But I think it's also important to think about the ways that this isn't an actual depiction of a Jewish village in Russia. These villages were of course very, very poor and they had been wrecked by violent pogroms so it isn't necessarily a wonderful place to be, as it's depicted here, but it's very much about being in Paris and thinking about home from a distance.
Chagall came of age in an important moment in which there was a flowering Yiddish renaissance in Russia, where it was possible for the first time for young Jewish artists to imagine a Jewish culture, a culture that wasn't tied to a religious tradition, and they turned to Yiddish, the secular language, not Hebrew, the religious language to create this world that specifically addresses Jewish experience.