The Construction of Reality Through Thoughts: Marc Chagall’s I and the Village

Marc Chagall’s I And The Village has been described as a “dreamy” landscape whose very ludicrous nature cannot even be categorized as solely Cubist, Fauvist or Impressionist, but rather as all three movements. In fact, I and the Village as an art piece is many things, and to find one concrete definition is close to impossible. However, there is no doubt that Chagall is denoting that the creation of reality belongs to human beings.

Chagall’s I And The Village is an interesting attack on reality itself, and more precisely what it composes of. In other words, reality to Chagall seems to be something created by the human psyche that projects itself into the physical world to create and mold it. Chagall therefore insists that the act of Creation is a constant process that occurs through the human mind, rather than just through conventional theological beliefs. This can be seen through a close study of all the formal elements of this piece. Interestingly, Salcman argues that Chagall is implying that memories of the past play an important role in shaping the metaphysical world that we as physical beings inhabit. On the other hand, Charles believes that the main theme here are not memories or thoughts but the fleeting moments of time that come with the  memories stuck in ones mind. Yet, is this so? Both art historians are stuck on the idea that this piece evokes solely one theme, yet time and memories as shown by Chagall are not mutually exclusive in importance to the idea of Creation. It is in fact both that play an important role in Chagall’s idea that humans are able to mold the world around them using their thoughts and memories. Yet, why is he  insisting on the idea that the barrier between thoughts and the physical world can be broken? What is the historical context of this psychoanalytic piece, especially in terms of Chagall’s own life?

The importance of understanding Chagall’s own personal motivations for believing that the act of creation is found within the minds of people is that it provides a glimpse of the artist’s fascination with the psychoanalytic aspects of art. Why then has this piece been relatively ignored by art historians and historiography? Before this becomes relevant it is best to begin by looking at the composition of I and the Village.

The work depicts a green faced man and a goat staring at each other across a surreal background of an old 19th century Russian village. The middle is divided by a road that leads to an Orthodox church where a man and an upside-down woman playing a violin can be seen to be chatting. Next to the goat an image of the same woman milking either the same or another goat can be seen. Finally, at the bottom a tree is shown which depicts life itself, and might be seen as a theological symbol of creation. Interestingly, this surreal imagery is further complicated by the use of lines.

Public Domain
Public Domain

Line plays an important role in conveying the ideal of creation as something that belongs to human beings. Across the surface of the canvass lines seem to divide up the imagery and the space between the man and the goat to show perplexed juxtaposition between the two, but also to imply that the smaller images of the woman and man, and that of the woman milking the cow are in fact thoughts created by each of the two characters. This is further exacerbated by the one barely visible line that extends from each of the characters eyes to impose some sort of mental connection of thoughts. Perhaps the use of lines itself divides up the surface of the canvass, in an almost Cubist style to show the breaking down of a perceived reality in order to make space for the creation of a new one,  ushered by the human mind. The manner in which Chagall actually uses shapes to further this ideal is perplexing.

The use of triangles and a circle placed right in the middle of the canvass, as well as other circular objects seems to form some sort of linear ecclesiastical formation with the tree of life in the middle. The importance of this is interesting as it seems that the thoughts of the two characters are thus placed within the universal realm that transcends even metaphysical qualities. Interestingly, the fact that this is placed across the scenery and the two protagonists, implies that their ideas and thoughts are essentially creating physical manifestations within the universe. This is also implied by the diversity of color used by Chagall.

The colors in this work depict the supremacy of human beings in being able to control the environment around them through thoughts. The man’s face is covered in a dark shade of green in entirety, while the world around him and even the goat are amalgamated of washed out colors almost like a puzzle. This is undoubtedly meant to imply that the sole element which is whole in framework is the man himself, unlike the world which surrounds him. Yet, even in his part of the celestial sphere a strong shade of red seems to dominate his immediate surroundings. This is also perhaps why he is shown to be the one holding the tree of life in itself, as he holds the power to mold his reality. Yet this tree is composed of dark and bland colors, unlike the rest of the image, to denote the grave and pernicious power the man holds in his grasp. The balance of bright light is thus imposed upon the goat and the village rather than on the man who molds his world. The same claustrophobic effect, in terms of the green man, can be seen through the spatial arrangement in this work.

The green faced man is lacking in space across the painting as the goat and the village seem to take up more of it, in an attempt to show the claustrophobic and encapsulated self-imposed isolation the man places himself through his creation. It is also in this part of the canvass that the unity of elements is most homogeneous, while the world around him is fragmented- which is also why the illusion of texture seems to be more prominent on the side of the goat rather on that of the man. The surface of the canvass seems to be entirely dominated by the illusion of the textured lines discussed earlier which seems to Chagall’s way of forcing the viewer to apply a new layer of analysis to his own painting.Yet, it also provides guidance for the movement of the viewers eyes across the painting, in a circular fashion almost like a cycle of creation. This complexity itself is one of the reasons why this work cannot really be categorized in a particular style.

Although in its immediacy I and the Village can be categorized as Cubist due to its fragmented style, Chagall’s use of colours resembles that of the Fauves, and even his light brushstrokes to that of the Impressionists. Whatever the case, the elements and content seem to imply that reality is something easily abolished by man, and replaced by the mind. However, some art historians believe that the idea of memories is far more important as an indicator of what Chagall is trying to imply.

Salcman’s argument that memories play an important role in conveying the true power of the psych misses the point of the importance that Chagall places on the mind. In fact, Salcman believes that the line which connects the two characters is meant to solely show that the relationship between the two is fostered through memories. Although this might be true, it is only a mechanism by which the ideals of creation and formation are actually conveyed. The problem with Salcman’s  argument is that it implies that the reality of human beings is broken through the memories of past experiences that are gone, when the idea is that they are a process that continue through one’s life. The reason for this is that Salcman places his analysis solely on the lines of the painting but not on the shapes that form an universe-type amalgamation which might imply that creation occurs through the mind. In fact, he places his argument solely on the idea that the painting is a fragmentation of centrifugal colors and shapes, but forgets to explain why. Although content is without a doubt important in this work, its formal elements implies twice as much-something which Salcman does not concentrate on . With this in mind, it is important to note that his idea is secondary but it can help to explain the issue of fabricated reality. The idea of memories can perhaps help to explain the reasons behind the presence of the centrifugal shapes. Charles provides an interesting answer to why Chagall places the odd shapes on the canvass in the first place.

Victoria Charles argues that the lines across the canvass, more precisely the two triangles that meet in the middle, form and hour glass to imply that time is something which is in itself fleeting. Yet, is the issue of time truly relevant? Charles seems to believe that Chagall is not just recounting his childhood spent in Russian villages, but the fact that time is something which controls us in entirety. Yet, again at the same time the hour glass seems to be an ‘X’ with a sphere at the middle to again show the cycling of time through spirals. However, Charles does not see that the idea of time is connected in entirety to the idea of passing and breaking the barrier between reality and mind. Even if the idea of time itself is conveyed through the hour glass formed by the lines, does this not play an important role in showing that perhaps the man also has control over time through his mind? Moreover, she places her argument of time similarly on the idea that memories are something which create relationships between humans, animals and place. Although this might be essentially true, it brings up the issue of the relationship between time and space in the painting itself.

Charles’s argument is based on the idea of the use lines, just like Salcman, but does not take into account other elements such as the tree of life and the actual juxtaposing memories formed by the man himself. The issue of time therefore is undoubtedly a theme within this work, but it is not the only idea expressed by Chagall. This is the reason why a synthesis of the two authors’ arguments might provide a clearer picture of Chagall’s essential break from reality.

Salcman and Charles’ arguments are not mutually exclusive but both are part of the same contradictions of reality set up by Chagall. The memories as discussed by Salcman can be seen as one of the elements that form human thought and that of the human thinking complex. Thus they play an important role in conveying that, as secondary elements, the way the green faced man molds reality around him. This can be seen through the juxtaposition of the lines and colours that divide the canvass up in pieces between each character and each particular memory. Yet, can the issue of time be relevant to this?

The idea of time being a central theme plays an important role in the concept of memories, but more importantly shows that the sun-system formed by the lines is itself just as important as Charles’ idea of the hourglass. In other words, time is proportionately relevant to that of space when the green faced man creates the world around him with his thoughts and memories- suspended in many relationships between time and space. In fact, the issue of time in not only represented through the hour glass and the solar system, but also through the fact that the circle and lines simply resemble a clock superimposed over the entire canvass. Time therefore is very much relevant, not only towards the idea that memories are what make up reality, but in fact that time can also be molded by the mind. Interestingly, it is not only the lines and shapes that invoke the importance of these elements.

The differing intensity of color, as discussed, also plays a role in showing how memories and time relate to the overall theme of breaking reality. The colors used over the two ‘memories’ are very light and faded in comparison to the man to show their lack of cohesiveness and formation, in comparison to the man himself who is made up of solid dark colors. Again, as mentioned, the intense red that is located in a part of the sphere is directed towards the man and implies that time for him is essentially whole and well placed, whereas time for the rest of the painting is not well formed thus fabricated. Interestingly, Charles does not concentrate on color to see whether  it also deals with time. The same can be seen with Salcman, as both authors base their arguments on very terse analyses of elements- which is folly as every single formal element provides a different layer of analysis to the entire work.

Even if the ideas of memories and time play an important role in showing that Chagall is essentially dealing with the ideas of producing reality through thoughts, they still remain secondary to the concept of mind over the physical state of being. Perhaps nothing is better evidence for this than the actual presence of the tree held by the man which through symbolism implies that he holds the power to mold the reality on the canvas either spatially or through time by the use of his thoughts and memories. This is again ironically juxtaposed by the presence of the Church and the fact that the man is wearing a cross. In other words, Salcman and Charles’ ideas are not themes but mechanisms or mere parts of the overall theme of creation. Yet, the question remains: why is Chagall trying to insist on the construction of reality through human thoughts?

Chagall as an artist was very interested in psychoanalysis and the infusion of his dreams within his artwork. In fact, he once proclaimed that even he did not understand his paintings and that he he only painted pictures that obsessed him. Whether this was true or not is indeterminable, but what is clear is that I and the Village is itself an experiment in psychoanalysis. Schneider believes that much of Chagall’s work had something to do with the ideals of mind over reality- something which is undoubtedly true in this work. The idea that humans could somehow mold reality itself, as well as indulgence in intellectual psychoanalysis, however seemed to be a fascination with his own contemporaries within and outside his art movement(s).

The Cubist movement, which was the one that Chagall associated with the most in 1911, seemed to follow the same pattern of trying to break down preconceived notions of reality, and try to fragment it as something which was attributed to human thought, more specifically the mind. However, it was Chagall that took this a step further early in his work all the way up to the 1920’s which is one of the reasons why he was considered to be one of the first artists to tackle surreal subject matter. It is further interesting to note that this idea of breaking reality through thoughts is conveyed in what seems to be a Russian Orthodox Village combined with Yiddish folktales-undoubtedly part of Chagall’s roots while growing up. The reason this is important is because this context provides an explanation of the synthesis of time and memories in this work. Yet, if this work seemed so out of place in 1911 compared to others in relevant movements, why has there not been enough emphasis on it by modern historiography?

Unfortunately, few art historians have actually tackled I and the Village, or Chagall’s ideas that are conveyed through the work’s many complexities. The reason for this is unclear, however it seems that it might explain why Salcman and Charles’ arguments lack in serious development, and more importantly detailed formal analysis. The point is that historiography should place more emphasis on this work in order to gain more insight on Chagall’s contradictory artistic style.

I and the Village’s overall theme is undoubtedly that of creating and molding reality or the external world through one’s mind. The elements of memory and time, although secondary, are important to providing an idea of how Chagall believed that the mind can use memories to fabricate space and time. The importance of this is that it shows how Chagall was fascinated by psychoanalysis to the point that it made this particular work almost “uncategorizable” compared to his contemporaries. Yet, not enough intellectual attention has been given to this piece.


Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 2, on Sept 9th, 2014.

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