Chagall’s Fall Of Icarus

May 3rd 2024


“The Fall of Icarus”,  Marc Chagall, 1974-77, Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris. 

In his later years Chagall (1887 -1985) often painted Icarus, but this one was painted when he was in his late 80’s.  Chagall was a Jew, who had survived the 20th Century.  He had lived through many great upheavals, including two world wars and the aftermath of the Russian revolution. He knew what it was to have to go into exile. Most of his work is deeply routed in that history.  Using his own unique symbolic code, Chagall let his paintings speak of what it is to be human in such contexts: what it is to suffer; to be exiled; to live with brooding fear and threat; but also what it is to know the joy of falling in love and what it is to go on believing in God in a turbulent and frightening world.  The subject of this painting, Icarus, is usually the symbol of  tragic hubris, for he dared to fly so near to the sun that the wax of his wings melted and he plunged to his death.  But Chagall changes the ending, or at least allows the possibility of a different outcome.  His Icarus is not yet dead, nor is he above an ocean in which he will drown. Rather he is above Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk.  Everybody is out there looking up at the sight.  They do not mock his folly,  or stare with voyeuristic glee.  They are like a crowd of supporters cheering him on.  Could it be that Icarus might yet live with the support of these people?  It is a very different view of human nature and one born of hope.  It sits well with today’s gospel reading. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  For He loves us even when we are at our worst and our folly is greatest.  This falling Icarus is surrounded even buoyed up,  by human love.  We live in a world where hubris and failure abounds.  Sometimes, it is ignored or glossed over, but often it is met with judgement and consequences that are unduly cruel and harsh.  We say foolish Icarus had his moment in the sun, let him pay for it now.  But this is not how He loves us.  This is not His commandment.  Actually, I saw this painting on Wednesday at a retrospective exhibition of Chagall’s work in Madrid entitled, “Chagall, A Cry of Freedom”.   This  was the last one in the show.  I find it deeply moving.  

Chagall’s Fall Of Icarus

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