Magic Hour: Chagall’s “Song of Songs IV”

When I worked in film, anytime we shot at sunrise or sunset, when the streams of orangey light cut low and shadows are long and cool, we referred to it as “magic hour”. The scenes we shot at those times of day were always infused with a special quality due to the light.

Chagall's Song of Songs IVThe scene in this painting definitely occurs at a magical hour. It is the best hour for riding a winged white horse through the sky–I’m sure of it! How invigorating to gallop through the vivid tangerine sky, snuggled next to your royal sweetheart, the wind in your veil…that’s your fantasy too, right? Kind of like living a pop song love ballad? While certainly magical, the actual time of day of Chagall’s Song of Songs IV is less than straightforward. Are you as confused as I am by the orange sun hovering on the horizon while a purple sun hangs high overhead next to a yellow moon? Perhaps the lovers have lost track of time—with day and night and dusk and dawn unimportant compared to the passion they feel in this magical instant.

Chagall painted this in 1958 as part of a series of illustrations for the bible’s Old Testament. It is titled Song of Songs IV for the forth chapter in the bible book of the same name. The book is a series of songs about a bride and her groom. Verse eleven reads, “Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from the hills of Gilead.”  (That was a compliment, in case you couldn’t tell.) Nowhere does the biblical text mention flying horses or blue faced harpists or upside-down birds, though. That is all Chagall. He does not attempt to depict the metaphors described in the song, but instead he captures the spirit of the verses. Poetry radiates from the floating fantastic figures, warm unnatural colors, and impossible celestial arrangement.

If you asked me to assign a color to love, I’d be inclined to say red. But this rough draft of the painting makes me think otherwise:

Chagall's study for Song of Songs IVRed skies, red land, red people. Warm, blood thumping, heart beating red. Bloody, maybe, except that the bride’s dress is not at all tainted by it. I am fascinated by the study version, but I would not want to be a character in the scene it depicts. There seems to be hope for the couple, but the rest of the world seems doomed. Here there is no apparent sun or moon or second sun to suggest time of day, only a black hole, threatening to suck the swarm of people below into it. Time feels removed.

There are numerous differences between the red study and the orangey final version, but I find it interesting that the shifts in color make the study feel so much more ominous. The orange and purple final seems whimsical. I’m glad Chagall didn’t stop with the first draft.

What poetry do you see in Chagall’s work? What color would you paint a love poem? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Care to read some odd love poetry?

Next week: Pontormo’s Deposition from the Cross

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5 thoughts on “Magic Hour: Chagall’s “Song of Songs IV”

  1. I love Chagall! I’m more comfortable thinking of this scene coming from a child’s brain. As an adult it seems weird and unsettling but as a child it would make more sense and be fun. Typing one handed. Thanks Elysia!

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  2. Chagall’s sense of whimsey and fantasy draw me into his work, and provide hours of pondering and wondering. The comparison of the darkness in the draft and the vivid life giving color in the final painting challenge me to remember that even when our lives parallel the draft we can experience the life, fantasy and whimsey of the final painting. My goal is to pursue all that creates life and whimsey!

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