Marc Chagall’s Le Violoniste Bleu
a Personal Appreciation
When I was 12 years old, my parents allowed me to travel by subway from my home in Brooklyn to “the city,” by myself. My sister, four years older than I, delighted in telling me what to do when I got there: visit Guernica at MoMa; see The Four Hunded Blows; hang out in Washington Square Park. My father read poetry to me (“That’s my last duchess painted on the wall”), recommended books (Jude the Obscure, the Jalna series) and taught me how to read and fold The New York Times. In brief, we revered the arts, and Marc Chagall, with his floating figures and Jewish themes, was a family favourite.
Fast-forward 30 years. My sister and I have long periods of non-communication, followed by short bursts of intense rapprochement. During one such time, my father long dead and my mother in intensive care, I invite my sister, who currently lives in Colorado, to stay with me in my Manhattan apartment for two weeks so she can visit our mother.
She stays for two months. I come home on the day she leaves to find a thank you gift: a lavishly framed, beautiful reproduction of Chagall’s Le Violoniste Bleu hanging on my living room wall. It has accompanied me from the Village to the Upper West Side to the suburbs of New Jersey. It hangs on my wall today.
Chagall painted Le Violiniste Bleu in New York, in 1947, the year before he returned to France. The composition includes one of Chagall’s most famous symbols: a fiddler on the roof. He sits on a three-legged stool balanced high above a few flimsy houses and what appears to be a more substantial, official building. All are crammed into the right-hand corner of the painting. They are dark blue.
On the fiddler’s left knee are two small birds facing in opposite directions. Both are blue, although the one in the foreground is darker than the other. Both seem to be chirping. A bright white moon is gleaming in a corner of the painting, and on the fiddler’s shoulder, another bird, this one white, is staring at the moon; like the other birds, he too is singing.
And what of the violinist? His violin rests on his shoulder, but his chin doesn’t touch it and while there may have been a hand holding it, it looks as though Chagall painted it out, leaving only a swirl of blue. The bow rests in the violinist’s second and third fingers of his right hand, a hand that is open, white as the moon and fluid as the birds. His feet are blue but his face is tan-orange, glowing with youth and good health and is surrounded by curly black tendrils.
The fiddler of Le Violiniste Bleu departs from his Chagallian brethren in some important ways. For one, Chagall chose to call him a violinist, not a fiddler at all. A violinist is a person who has trained to play the violin, who is serious and purposeful, and who is professional. In general, Chagall’s fiddlers tend to be old orthodox Jews watching over their landsmen through good and bad times, commenting with their fiddles on the births, marriages and deaths. But not this one. No, my violinist is young, fresh, doe-eyed. His look is fixed not on the shtetl, but dreamily toward the moon.
My grandfather was 18 years old when he fled Russia to escape the Russian army. He never saw his parents or relatives again. He met his wife, also Russian-born, in New York. Their eldest child was my father.
He was first-generation American, and, like Chagall’s violinist, he straddled two worlds. His first language was Yiddish, his second Hebrew, his third English. His parents sent him to public school, so he could be a “real” American, but he studied Torah every day at the Hebrew school. He was a Jewish mother’s dream: academically gifted, good to his younger sisters, well-versed in Judaism, respectful and loving toward his parents, and a member of Brooklyn College’s first graduating class. He was his family’s personal Pathway to America.
When I look at Chagall’s violinist, I see my father. Le Violoniste Bleu is surrounded by singing birds and blooming flowers – symbols of hope and new beginnings. He is youth itself and his soulful eyes and crisp curls tell me he is a Jewish boy. The buildings have pointed roofs, but as we move up, the strokes are rounded, and the feeling is ethereal. Chagall has given us a young, hopeful dreamer who never abandons his roots; he has sent a message to the displaced, homeless ones to join him in America where anything is possible.
It’s a message that resonates with me. After all, it’s my family’s history. My grandparents lived to see their grandchildren go to college and become professionals, while incorporating Jewish values and traditions into their very modern lives. Even more specifically, it reminds me that my sister and I, no matter our estrangements, both dance to the music of the same fiddler.
By 1947, when Chagall painted Le Violoniste Bleu, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp survivors was widely documented through newsreels and photographs and people were beginning to realize that in addition to destroying millions of Jews, an entire way of life – shtetl life – was gone. By emphasizing the colour blue, perhaps Chagall was also pledging loyalty and remembrance to the traditions of his own youth, while this violinist represents a rebirth of Jewish life rising from the ashes of Europe.
In the early 1950s my Brooklyn neighbourhood was mainly Jewish. It was not uncommon in those days to see people with numbers tattooed on their arms: the tailor, the lady at the bank, the cashier at the grocery store. There were two rules we children had to observe: don’t stare and don’t ask.
There were remnants of life before the Nazis as well. The knife-sharpener’s truck came by once a month ringing its bell and the housewives rushed from the buildings with scissors, knives and other implements that needed sharpening. The old clothes man would walk down the street, always with a huge bundle on his back, crying “Old clothes. Old clothes.” I never knew what he did with them, but my mother always saved some items to give to him.
And there was the fiddler. He would appear in the courtyard of my six-story building and play a haunting melody. He never said a word and certainly never asked for a thing. Yet there was a protocol observed by all the women at home during the day with young children as my mother was. She would take some pennies from our penny jar and before throwing them down to the fiddler, she and I would wrap each penny individually in a little piece of newspaper. Then she would allow me to throw the pennies down to the old man below. Pennies rained from many windows, all of them wrapped.
I asked her once why we had to wrap the pennies and she explained that it would be disrespectful to simply throw coins out the window. “After all,” she said, “he’s an artist, not a beggar. He’s a violinist!”
I wonder about that old man. Is this how Chagall’s fiddlers ended their lives? Knocked off their chairs, their villages gone, wandering from one courtyard to the next, but still reminding us of the important moments in life, of who we are, and where we came from? Maybe. But not Le Violoniste Bleu. He will rise higher and higher. He will go on to do wonderful things and be an extraordinary man. Just like my father.
Diana Leo was born and raised in Brooklyn. She spent her professional life raising money for non profit organizations. Now that she is semi-retired and the youngest of her three children is off to college, she is devoting more time to writing. She and her sister have just completed the first draft of a mystery novel featuring a large, Jewish New York family.
On Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne
Is there a hand more beautiful than his
Around her creamy hip? So soft, the moon,
Its fingers resting on the sea. Detuned
The lyre, somewhere, the bow unstrung. Is this
A god of oracles, whose seashell eyes
Are fixed upon her flesh and sure, dull pearls,
The foliation of her foaming curls
Escaping him? His confidence belies
The nacreous occlusion of his sight,
While wood spills up to meet his palm, too fast
For contest, racing like a broken wave
Along her bare, despairing thighs. So white
The silence of her open mouth, her last
An underwater cry, so lovely graved.
Libby Maxey is a senior editor with the online journal Literary Mama. She reviews poetry for The Mom Egg Review and Solstice, and her own poems have appeared in The Fourth River, Crannóg, Kestrel, and elsewhere. Her nonliterary activities include singing classical repertoire and mothering two sons. www.libbymaxey.com
We Are Living in Magritte Weather;
above our heads, in “The Battle of the Argonne,”
floats a luminous cloud and a granite stone,
history’s opposing forces, dividing night
from day. You can’t see us in the painting;
everything human’s reduced in scale, the kind
of tiny town an electric train runs through.
But we’re there, in the shadows, beside the small
barn, still doing our work, tending our gardens,
while generals mass their armies, and politicians plot
their next moves. Beneath our feet, more stones,
dreaming their flinty dreams. They neither yearn
for more nor envy their neighbors. They roll where
gravity takes them, gather moss and starlight.
They remember glaciers, and they praise the sun.
If you lie on the ground in the moonlight,
they will whisper what you need to save your life.
This poem was previously published in Barbara Crooker's book, More (C&R Press, 2010). Click here.
Barbara Crooker is the author of eight books of poetry; Les Fauves is the most recent. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, including The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Commonwealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania, The Poetry of Presence and Nasty Women: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, and she has received a number of awards, including the WB Yeats Society of New York Award, the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, and three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in Literature.
Ramble in the Jungle
Through dream garden I rambled all morning en sueur
along a track overgrown with creeper and fern
on my tigre panthera while strumming my uke,
scordatura tuned so I could play bar chords. When
at the clearing I found you standing all alone
in a floral pink froc, long flowing locks while
smiling and waving to halt me in my tracks.
Your Kodak in focus, flash light held high, calling
“Fromage! Fromage!” that threw me off guard as
my striped beast of burden with jaws open wide growled
when you recorded us on glass plate for posterity. But
you startled the fellow (he’s usually quite placid)
not prone to devouring photographers, though
he did so with aplomb. Sorry; … I’m really sorry
it was a dreadful way to go - gave him indigestion
as he puked over lilies, regurgitated your dress. Yet
I made two thousand Francs at le marché des pions
flogging your camera obscura (one owner) tinted red
with the photo you took cremated in a silver urn plus
my lamentable ramble of you becoming déjeuner.
Born in Scotland of Irish lineage, Alun Robert is a prolific creator of lyrical verse achieving success in poetry competitions in Europe and America. He has featured in international literary magazines, anthologies and on the web. His influences extend from Burns to Shakespeare, Kipling to Betjeman, Eliot to Longfellow, Neruda to Hikmet, Dennis to Mazzoli.
for Anthony Bourdain, 1956 – 2018
Where tears fall
Low to the ground
Gaby Bedetti hikes, takes photos, and sings in several choirs. After grad school, where she co-founded the University of Iowa Museum of Art Bulletin, she started teaching at Eastern Kentucky University. She married a guy she met at a literature conference in Louisville, and together they raised a couple of kids. Henri Meschonnic's American translator, she has published in such journals as Off the Coast, Italian Americana, and Poet Lore. In June for the past five years she wrote a poem every day for her town’s poetry blog http://lexpomo.com/. She has poems forthcoming in Aji Review and A Borrowed Solace.
Some of you have asked what artist is the most frequent source of inspiration for submissions to The Ekphrastic Review.
We are so pleased to have such a variety of artworks acting as catalyst for your creative writing, from prehistoric to yesterday's, with many selections from around the world and a wide array of styles and artists. But the two artists who stand out for sheer volume of submissions inspired by their work are Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper.
For this ekphrastic writing challenge, we are going to add to our library of Van Gogh inspired poetry (or prose, or short fiction.)
What is it about Van Gogh that is so enchanting? There are countless artists who painted the French countryside or vases of flowers, but Van Gogh's work is an essential part of the lives of almost everyone who sees it. His works sell for tens of millions of dollars. Why? There are artists who render beautifully yet their work never draws us in. This is a delicious mystery that doesn't seem to get solved by analysis of technical or topical matters like composition, colour use, subject, lighting, perspective. All of those are vital components, yet an elusive spirit or magical quality seem much more important to the viewer in art. Without this je ne sais quoi, are becomes a technical drawing or something utilitarian to explain a function or purpose of something. When we respond emotionally to art, we develop a mysterious intimate relationship with it. I'm wondering if we will be able to shed some light through poetry and prose on this question: "Why Van Gogh?"
The rules are easy: use each artwork shown in this post as a springboard and write a poem or short fiction or nonfiction piece inspired by it. You can research the painting or artist and use your discoveries to fuel your work, or you can enter the piece blindly and go by imagination. You may take any angle or subject that you wish. You can describe the artwork or work from "within" the piece, or it can be a mere doorway to an unexpected and unrecognizable place. You can do one for each painting or choose a few, or only one.
Because The Ekphrastic Review is now receiving a tidal wave volume of submissions and it is becoming nearly unmanageable for me, I haven't posted challenges in awhile. But challenges are a fun and important part of Ekphrastic and they also cause a spike in readership, so I decided to bring them back. We will do things a little differently for reading, publishing, and presentation of accepted challenge pieces. From now on: instead of a rolling submission deadline for challenges and presenting selected works individually, we are going to have a deadline and publish all accepted pieces for each artwork together.
This will also distinguish the ekphrastic challenges from the every day submissions, which are presented one by one. It will afford the reader the chance to see the many different ways an artwork can be interpreted or inspire creative writing, which is one of the most interesting things about ekphrastic writing.
The deadline is one month from today: September 7, 2018, when a new challenge will be introduced.
Best wishes! Please let me know your thoughts about the new format.
Submit to Lorette C. Luzajic at firstname.lastname@example.org
Make sure to use the subject line "Van Gogh Challenge" so your entry doesn't get neglected or lost during consideration.
Pretty please share this challenge with your writer and artist friends and on social media. It really gives an upsurge in readers and brings new readers. This benefits our writers and artists and those lucky enough to enjoy or be moved by their work. Thank you.
Allegory of Sight
The small dogs are terrified, the bird transfixed
as Venus and Cupid ponder
a picture of Jesus making a blind man see.
Some rich collector said “paint my room,”
and Brueghel did: an opulent chaos of paintings and busts,
globes and calipers, red curtain peeled back like an eyelid,
and angled on a pedestal, a telescope. When Galileo
studied stars and rearranged the spheres,
believers stoked their fires and turned away.
But Breughel stared. This is the mind of man,
he said, what seeing sees. All there is
is here: these images, that red, that gorgeous chandelier.
Ruth Hoberman retired a few years go after thirty years as a Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. She lives and writes in Chicago. Her essays and poems have appeared in such journals as [PANK], Natural Bridge, Spoon River Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Adirondack Review, and The Examined Life. She has an essay forthcoming in Consequence Magazine.
El Palacio, 1946
A watercolour of a rundown, deserted
street in Mexico shows a hotel far from
palatial. Is this one of the small towns
the Hoppers drove through on
springtime journeys. Jo driving,
Edward sketching, the old Packard’s
windows open. He sees stucco buildings
with rooftops corroded, second story windows
hollowed out. Wrought iron balconies over unlit
neon signs for Ford, for theatre and dance
halls. Industry, too, has closed down,
left this town. The steel building with a chute
behind El Palacio rusts while mountains
beyond are weighted in Hopper’s grays
and blacks. Gaping doors darken this street
which once could have been painted
pastel pink and sky blue. Now tinted
with marquees no one is there to see.
Except Edward Hopper with his fondness
for icons, his need to inhabit abandoned places.
Diana Pinckney, Charlotte, NC, has five collections of poetry, including The Beast and The Innocent, 2015, FutureCyclePress. She is the Winner of the 2010 Ekphrasis Prize, Atlanta Review’s 2012 International Prize and Prime Number’s 2018 Award. She admits to being addicted to writing ekphrastic poems and has led a workshop on this form for the Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts.
When God Calls
To Mary he sent my namesake angel
Gabriel, so she would not miss that He was calling.
Was it Verrocchio who framed her features or
was young, DaVinci in charge of
setting forth Mary’s character for us.
We know his master, Verocchio
Instructed him to “finish the angel.”
Mary seems alert, in command,
almost cold—one hand on her reading,
interrupted by the messenger,
other hand raised
in greeting or astonishment,
or was she stopping Gabriel’s flow of words
to fill the space between them with her response?
Yet I am drawn to a different picture of her,
one framed by her own words,
“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”
Is the pride the knowledge that
“all generations will
call me blessed.”
My own soul seethes with questions,
pines for artistic answers
not given here.
Perhaps not even DaVinci’s
masterful brushstrokes can tell me
how to recognize God’s call
when He does not send an angel.
Joan Leotta has been playing with words on page and stage since childhood in Pittsburgh. She is a writer and story performer. Her Legacy of Honor series feature strong Italian-American women. Her poetry and essays appear or are forthcoming in Gnarled Oak, the A-3 Review, Hobart Literary Review, Silver Birch, Peacock, and Postcard Poems and Prose among others. Her first poetry chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon, was just released by Finishing Line Press. Joan's picture books from Theaqllc, Whoosh!, Summer in a Bowl, Rosa and the Red Apron, and Rosa's Shell celebrate food and family. Her award-winning short stories are collected in Simply a Smile. You can find more about her work on her blog at www.joanleotta.wordpress.com
You Are Here
Robert L. Dean, Jr.
Robert L. Dean, Jr.'s work has appeared in Flint Hills Review, I-70 Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Illya’s Honey, Red River Review, River City Poetry, Heartland!, and the Wichita Broadsides Project. He read at the 13th Annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in April 2018 at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. His haibun placed first at Poetry Rendezvous 2017. He was a quarter-finalist in the 2018 Nimrod Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry contest. He has been a professional musician and worked at The Dallas Morning News. He lives in Augusta, Kansas.
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