Forty or so minutes north of here there’s a village called High Falls that is growing into a footnote in the history of 20th Century Art. From 1946 through 1948, Marc Chagall lived and painted here.
The reason it’s only achieving its footnote status now is that for years few people were aware he’d ever been there. His neighbors didn’t know him or know who he was. He had been living in the United States since 1941 but he hadn’t learned to speak English well. He just couldn’t get his tongue around it. He lived quietly, without obvious eccentricity. Whenever he needed to go act the part of artistic genius he would go down to the city. More often, though, the representatives of the genius would slip up from from the city and take back with them his most recent finished work to display and sell. If you were in the art world but weren’t paying close attention, you might think he was living and work in New York. Chagall himself preferred to stay put and work at being a genius. In his short time in High Falls he worked his genius into 90 or so paintings, drawings, and prints. Meanwhile, he kept mostly to himself. No local legends developed about him. No anecdotes or stories of encounters with the great artist were collected and handed down. When he finally left, he left little behind in the way of memories or, apparently, of his work. There’s just a rumor.
Somebody supposedly once heard somebody say that a neighbor of hers who’d been a neighbor of his said that he’d paid her for something with a painting or maybe given it to her as gift. Chagall’s neighbor apparently appreciated the gesture but not the painting.
“Where do you put a painting like that?” she said in explanation for why she put it…away.
No one knows what happened to it. Maybe it’s an attic or a garage or a basement or a shed somewhere in town, waiting.
The D & H Canal Museum in High Falls has put together an exhibit devoted to Chagall’s time in town. Young Ken and I went up there last week to take a look. There isn’t much to see, if you’re greedy to see original Chagalls. A few drawings and small prints, studies from his Four Tales From the Arabian Nights, reproductions of several of the masterworks he painted or completed while he was in High Falls---The Blue Violinist; Winter Night in Vitebsk, one of my favorites; The Falling Angel; Liberation; a few others. It’s a little museum and I suspect they couldn’t afford the insurance on any original paintings that might have been loaned to them. What we found, then, was a story.
In 1941, with the help of journalist Varian Fry, Chagall and some other Jewish artists were able to leave France just ahead of the Nazis’ occupation of Paris. In New York, gallery owner Pierre Matisse, son of Henri, took charge of him. Chagall and his wife Bella moved into their daughter Ida’s apartment on Riverside Drive.
Chagall and Bella were devoted to each other.
In 1944, Bella died.
They were on vacation in the Adirondacks. An infection took her. Chagall’s heart broke. Back in New York, he turned all his paintings hanging in Ida’s apartment to the wall.
He did not paint for almost a year.
One thing led to another.
Chagall was 57. Virginia was 30. They stayed together for seven years and had a son, David.
After two years of living together in High Falls, and with the war over and Chagall missing Paris, they left the United States.
Virginia left him for a photographer in April of 1952. The young docent at the D & H museum thinks it was the same photographer who took many of the photographs of Virginia and Chagall together that are featured in the exhibit.
Chagall’s daughter Ida decided it would not be good for her father to be alone. She introduced him to Valentina Brodsky who became his secretary.
Valentina, known as Vava, was twenty-five years younger than Chagall.
One thing led to another again.
Chagall and Vava married in July and were together until he died in 1985.
Here is the odd part of the story.
According to the docent, a young sculptor working on his MFA, Vava was able somehow to “disappear” Virginia from the story of Chagall’s life. He was not sure how, but it seems to be that since she was Chagall’s public representative, she made it clear that she would not help anyone working on exhibitions of her husband’s work, his biographies, or articles about him unless they agreed to pretend that Virginia didn’t exist.
However it was managed, in erasing Virginia from the story, Vava erased High Falls along with her.
If you’re in the area, the exhibit runs through Sunday, October 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.