Marc Chagall, famed pioneer of the modernist art movement, was born a Russian Jew in a small Russian town called Vitebsk. He ended up changing the world of art, celebrated in New York, Paris and Berlin, well-known more than a century later.
Writers Jane Yolen and J. Patrick Lewis have put together a gorgeous new book on Chagall’s life for children, Self-Portrait With Seven Fingerscombining some of his most beautiful paintings with short poems they’ve written about his life. Autobiographical notes fill in details. The result is a stunning celebration of art–both visual and poetic.
The details of Chagall’s life are presented in broad strokes–we get only the basic outline of his life. Each page shows a painting, with a poem about the painting and some notes explaining the context of the artwork to his life at that time on the opposite page. We are shown early work that reflects his love of and allegiance to the small town where he was born and raised. We see his uncle, standing on a roof playing a magic fiddle. The two places Chagall felt most at home were Vitebsk and Paris, and in his famed Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, the viewer sees a Paris skyline through the window while the artist paints a rural Russian scene. The book does not gloss over the events that shaped his life–the fall of Paris to the Nazis, his subsequent arrest and escape by foot over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, the destruction of his hometown, the death of his first wife. These events are naturally reflected in his art. Later parts of his life, settled in New York and then France, remarried, are shown as well.
There is a charming poem alongside his Autoportrait in which a quote from a Time Magazine article from 1965 is enlarged and played with. “I take off my hat to you, Vava, and my heart,” it begins. “Only promise not to straighten my studio.” (p.34) Another poem, next to the joyful Double-Portrait with a Glass of Wine which shows the artist on the shoulders of his beloved wife Bella, both wearing triumphant grins, says, “Bella carries me on her hands…so devoted to our small family/she could tote us like an old rag peddler…through the rough streets of the city, never feeling the weight.” (p. 20)
The poems add to the reader’s enjoyment of the art, presenting a different viewpoint. Like the example mentioned above, they often spin off from an artist’s quote or something that is known about his life.
Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers is a thoroughly delightful book. Although its format is geared towards children, I have to admit I enjoyed it myself and don’t plan on sharing it with any actual children. It would make a great gift for any child, teacher or art-lover you may know, including yourself.
Elizabeth loves art and poetry and she really does love children too, although she recognizes that their fingers are often inexplicably sticky. Read more at her blog Planet Nomad.