Dictionary of Art and Artists


that Changed the World


  Lascaux Caves Manesse illuminated Massys Callot Friedrich Picasso
  Tutankhamen's tomb Lorenzetti Grunewald Rembrandt Constable Matisse
  Europa and Minotaur Karlstein Castle Baldung Claude Lorrain Delacroix Marc
  Banquet Tomb Limbourg brothers Altdorfer Velazquez Turner Kandinsky
  Pompeii Van Eyck Cranach Vermeer Ingres Monet
  Birth of Christianity Della Francesca Holbein Rigaud Manet Chirico
  Hagia Sophia Uccello Titian Watteau Burne-Jones Modigliani
  Book of Kells Mantegna Bruegel Canaletto Seurat Chagall
  St Benedict Botticelli Vicentino Boucher Van Gogh Kahlo
  Bayeux Tapestry Anonymous Arcimboldo Fragonard Toulouse-Lautrec Dali
  Donizo manuscript Durer El Greco Gainsborough Munch Ernst
  Liber Scivias Bosch Theodore de Bry John Trumbull Cezanne Hopper
  Carmina Burana Da Vinci Caravaggio David Gauguin Bacon
  Falcon Book Michelangelo Rubens Gros Degas Warhol
  Giotto Raphael Brouwer Goya Klimt  

From Lascaux to Warhol

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.

William Butler Yeats




The Fiddler on the Roof

Folklore, music and persecution



Airy beings in flight as transient phenomena are at the heart of Marc Chagall's lyrical interpretation of Sholem Aleichem. The Jew floating over the rooftops is anywhere but on firm ground. And he proves that he is an acrobat solely by surviving nimbly in a world in which he is not at home. He is a strange creature who lives in books and dreams. In order to survive, he is always inventing new fantasies and dreams of riches and power so he doesn't perceive the wretchedness and hopelessness of his situation.

Avram Kampf, Chagall in the Moscow Yiddish Theatre, 1991



Poster for Fiddler on the Roof, for the world premiere in New York City, 1964



Marc Chagall's painting of a melancholy violinist has become world famous as "the fiddler on the roof". The musical of that name, adapted from a set of tales by the Russian Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, premiered on 22 September 1964 at the Imperial Theater in New York City and was sold-out to theatres for years. The story is set in Anatevka, a little Jewish shtetl in the Russian Ukraine, shortly before the revolutionary turmoils of 1905. Tevye, a milkman who owns a lame nag, lives together with his wife Golde and their five daughters in a cramped peasant cottage; they live in bitter poverty and constant fear of pogroms. Yet Tevye drives a desperate but quick-witted bargain with God and turns the tables on tragedy by the sheer volubility of his wit.

As Maurice Samuel wrote: "Life pets the better of him but he comes off better in debate with it." At first Tevye has something to hold on to: "Without tradition our lives would be just as insecure as the fiddler up there on the roof." But then nothing turns out the way one expects. His daughters refuse to let their father choose their husbands and marry as they please. Heartbreaking scenes, being disowned by their father and the depths of despair are the consequences. An edict of the Tsar's puts an end to it all. Tevye and his wife Golde are rejected by their daughters. Denied the descendants they long for, they and all the other Jews of Anatevka are expelled from their homes.

Chagall was born in 1887, the son of a Jewish fishmonger in Liozno near the White Russian provincial capital of Vitebsk. His early life was remarkably like that which is enacted in the musical. At the age of thirty-three he had his first experience of scene painting and directing plays at the Moscow Yiddish Theatre.

In 1941 he emigrated — like Sholem Aleichem had twenty-five years earlier — to the United States, where he again worked in the theatre.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof goes back to a pre-Surrealist image of Chagall's. It was 1920 when he first painted this image on the wall of the auditorium of the Moscow Yiddish Theatre as a symbolic representation for music. Thus Chagall's colourful, opulent realm of motifs, nurtured in the soil of Jewish myth and Russian folklore, was transformed into theatre. And this theatrical reality recalls the centuries-old fate of a people who have always been driven from place to place. In the face of such hardship, often the only thing left to fall back on is faith together with irony, humanity and wit.


Marc Chagall
The Fiddler, 1913; Green Violinist, 1924


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