I recently visited the breathtaking Chagall Museum in Nice for the second time in my life, and once again I have fallen madly and truly in love with this artist and his deeply personal and fanciful canvases.
The extensive work of France’s beloved artist, Marc Zaharovich Chagall, a Russian immigrant, has earned him a well-deserved place as one of the masters of 20th century art.
Sitting high on the hill above the city of Nice near the equally stunning Musée Matisse is this exquisitely designed museum housing some of Chagall’s finest paintings and stained glass. The open and flowing layout of the rooms with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto pools and gardens makes walking through this beautiful building a feast in itself.
The main room straight ahead as one enters is a jigsaw of walls, each one holding only one wall-sized and captivating painting by the artist. Each huge canvas is a jumble of Judeo-Biblical themes blended with surreal images drawn from Chagall’s life – his wedding day, for example, or scenes from his birthplace, a Jewish shtetl in Vitebsk, Russia.
Looking closely at a Chagall, you find delight and meaning throughout, from the child-like drawings of angels and people’s hands and faces to the splendid use of bold colors and thick, smudged paint.
In his canvases Russia is burning, people are fleeing their homes, an angel is appearing to Noah promising a new covenant between God and Man, Abraham is waiting to sacrifice his son Isaac, Chagall’s uncle is playing the violin in the old Russian village. These themes and images are Chagall’s vocabulary in paint and color.
Another smaller room, dimly lit like a church or synagogue, houses paintings I, II, III, IV and V of his series “Le Cantique des Cantiques.” These five paintings visualize a passage from the Hebrew (and Christian) Bible, The Song of Songs, which reads literally as a declaration of passion between two lovers. It has been seen by Jews as an allegory for the love between God and Israel, and by Christians as the love between Christ and his Church. In these five paintings dedicated to his wife, “A Vava ma femme, ma joie et mon allégresse,” we see the words of the Song of Songs made into dreamscapes of color.
Another room not to be missed at this museum is the chapel-like auditorium with two wall-sized stained glass windows by Chagall. Here you can watch an excellent 30-minute documentary that takes you through the painter’s life from grainy, but eye-opening film archives of his home in Russia in the early 1900s to more recent events such as the unveiling of his 70-foot mosaic in Chicago in the 1970s and his painting of the L’Opera ceiling in Paris.
The film has many touching moments of Chagall speaking to us about life in his Russian village, and his coming to Paris and sharing a studio with Picasso and other master artists of the 20th century. We hear his humble but enlightening views of his own enigmatic work. This film was deeply moving for me. I was mesmerized and didn’t want it to end!
One can honestly get lost in just one of the rooms at this peaceful, yet powerful little museum, sitting on the bench in front of one of these magnificent works of art, staring at Adam and Eve escaping Paradise on the back of a “cockerel…flying away towards the future of humanity.”
I had been dreaming of returning to this lovely museum since I first visited in 2005. I didn’t know that I would fall hopelessly in love again with the man behind these truly spectacular works of art.
At the end of your visit, you can have a coffee or lunch in the garden café, La Buvette du Musée, and find a small souvenir in the gift shop before returning to your place in Nice. It is truly an afternoon well spent!
Getting There: It’s very easy to visit the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice. Take the #15 bus, which stops near Place Masséna in the central square of Nice behind the Galleries Lafayette. The bus winds up the hill. Look for the stop that says Musée Chagall. Cost is 1,50 Euros for the bus and 10 Euros for the entrance to the museum (their website says 8, but it’s now 10).