The Russian Civil War lasted from 1918 to 1921. After the October Revolution, the new regime fought its opponents in a vicious struggle. Fear, hunger, disease and terror overtook the population. Life had never been harder. Two million people left as refugees.
One of them was the painter, Marc Chagall. The Russia he fled, in 1922, was not the country he had grown up in. Born in 1887, Chagall passed a happy childhood in Vitebsk. His family belonged to the town’s large Jewish community. Throughout his life, he filled his paintings with magical symbols of his Russian-Jewish upbringing. Backyard cows and goats, often flying through the night sky. Jewish men on roofs playing the fiddle. Chagall and his wife, Bella, locked in implausible acrobatic embraces.
‘I don’t know where he gets his images,’ Pablo Picasso later said. ‘He must have an angel in his head.’
Chagall and Bella settled in Paris in 1922, where they would stay for the next two decades. This was the period when he painted some of his most famous work. He met with international acclaim. He watched his daughter, Ida, grow up. It was a very happy period in the family’s life.
But as the Nazi’s rose in power, life for Chagall took a bleaker turn. In 1938, he painted White Crucifixion. It was a haunting depiction of the dark times falling over Europe’s Jewish population. In 1940, the Nazis conquered France. In 1941, just as the Holocaust was beginning, the Chagalls escaped to the United States. Once again they were refugees.
Chagall lived to the age of 97. In his lifetime, he was recognised as one of the great painters of the century. What was his secret?
‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.’