by Dawn Denham
I have always loved the paintings of Marc Chagall, fairy tales in lush and fresh swirling colors and light. His cast of quirky, misshapen characters coming and going and doing. Rich vibrancy and warmth eliciting in me the same visceral response as did the works of Debussy, Faure, and Mahler when I was young and a serious musician singing and studying them.
Chagall knew suffering. A Jewish artist born into a Russian shtetl that would not survive the second World War, a man who suddenly lost his beloved wife Bella to a viral infection. After which he wouldn’t paint for nine months.
Joan Didion writes in the opening pages of her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking,
Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. . .This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.
In the Rijksmuseum at age 22, three years before I married, I stood before Van Goghs, Rembrandts and Monets not understanding that painters, too, work to figure stuff out. To comprehend. To name. Look at the body of Chagall’s work: painted scenes of shtetl life, marriage, angels, women in white with veils and flowers, men in suits floating across canvases. Iterations of Bella, the artist himself, marriage, his village, love. Later, I understand Chagall was reinventing the lovers he and Bella had been, maybe until he got it right or maybe to change the story’s outcome. Or maybe, as with Didion, until he could believe in what was real.
I’ve been re-visioning my story. There was a time I wasn’t ready to believe what was real. I wouldn’t believe for years, not enough to do something about our sick and dying marriage. Now the probing and excavating of shadows and figures on the page teaches me everything I need to know.
In January 2009, seven years before I fled my marriage, my friend Angelynne and I attended a one-night concert version of A Little Night Music starring Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. It was a veritable who’s who of Broadway at this benefit performance, including Stephen Sondheim in the front row and Richardson’s husband Liam Neeson. Within months, he’d be bedside, whispering to her, It’s OK; Let go, hours after her unremarkable fall on a Canadian ski slope when her brain silently began to swell.
Inside the theater lobby, I gasped at a very thin, very frail Joan Didion sitting in a corner, looking remarkably out of place, staring straight at me. I thought, She’s here because Vanessa Redgrave starred in her play The Year of Magical Thinking. I froze. She seemed to shrink with every beat. It would have been easy to walk up to her, hold out my hand, tell her I was a writer and that the way she’d written her memoir–circling around and back in on herself and grief–was keeping me up at night. The idea of repetition was significant because events in my life were also circling around and back on themselves. The day before, my husband had come home from work mid-morning, wailing and saying, “I do not honor you, Dawn, and I don’t know why!” Some of the details: one drunken night around a restaurant table at a recent conference. Following a colleague up to her room. Leaving before the worst that could happen happened. Someone had claimed sexual harassment. That’s what he told me.
I didn’t speak to Joan Didion that night. I was too self-conscious. Timid. I felt unworthy.
I turned around.
The next morning, over scrambled eggs and thick bagels smeared with cream cheese, I wept as I told Angelynne everything.
“I know this is not the end for you two,” she offered gently.
I explained as we walked the few blocks arm in arm from the diner toward the Museum of Biblical Art at Lincoln Center that it was my mother (who would be gone in a year’s time to lung cancer) who asked me to see the Chagall exhibit. Mom was a painter, a lover of words, a musician, gardener, intellect, academic, a devout Christian. Inside the two-story building, no one talked; Angelynne’s shoes click-clacked as she walked away from where I stood staring at one small painting. I was struck by what seemed to be uncharacteristic details for Chagall. I didn’t know enough about his output to know that his biblical paintings were of a different palette and intent, a different time. This was what my mother had wanted to see.
On the 11×15 canvas covered with thick and dark paint, one prominent figure, a woman in red, filled the center. A man’s figure floated horizontally above her as if he were flying—Is he entering or exiting? Coming in from the right side of the canvas was the chest, arms, neck, and head of a lighter-toned being; I realized instantly it was a winged-angel, mid-flight. I didn’t know about Chagall’s angels.
I giggled because the floating figure was my husband. I giggled because Angelynne’s father was Greek—her name means angel. I giggled, now a hand at my mouth, because an angel had arrived precisely at the moment I’d needed her. I needed her because of a different figure, that of my deflating husband, falling to our dining room floor, contrite, confused, scared. Already half gone like that angel there. I giggled (but you wouldn’t say it was hysterics) because the title of the painting was Marriage.
Didion writes, A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.
The last time I saw Chagall’s original work in person was in the Art Institute of Chicago where his stained-glass panels hung in front of a bank of windows. It was September 2015, and the effect was astonishing, light through glass, creating such an impossible blue. Six months later I drove out of my marriage of 30 years in our old silver Passat wagon, my Felt bike strapped on top. In every memory loop, I see myself at my desk that morning, reading emails from a stranger about my husband–We love each other, we do everything, I can’t go on without your knowing–and then sitting on the back stoop off the kitchen, looking up at another impossible blue, saying aloud to only myself, OK. OK. I was gone in less than 90 minutes.
Didion writes, Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Chagall married three times, but it was his first wife, his beloved Bella he honored, painting her again and again as bride, wife, lover, saint. Angels watched over her. Often, she and he floated upon his canvases together. His world may have gone empty, but he filled ours with her. They lived together in a world of his creation. She lived because of his repetition. Had he worked something out? Or was grief perpetual in the endless loop of his art making?
I know marriage is not a fairy tale. I know myths must be unscrewed to get at the heart of truthful living, to live a life that is right for us. But I believed in magic and for too long, looping back and forward through awful acts, choices, reconciliations. Hope. Always returning to the canvas.
One late afternoon a few months after I had left my marriage, I sat with a friend’s daughter, someone I was just getting to know, and told her my story. I was confused. I couldn’t see what was next. Nothing felt clearly defined. The before. The after. I couldn’t tell if that life was really over.
“Has anything died?” she quietly asked.
I could not answer her.
I took to the road and to words to work it all out. It took years.
Chagall often claimed to have been “born dead.”
It was said he discovered art by chance.
Everything is chance, isn’t it? Living. Dying. The how and when and what.
In the midst of life we are in death. . . We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired, that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.
Art, its story of love and death and unpredictability remains when we the makers do not.
I’ve never seen that Chagall painting again. I’ve spent hours online, scrolling through gallery prints; I’ve searched in libraries and bookstores, rifling through pages. Was it real? Had I invented it or simply misremembered it? Maybe it went by in a flash as I scanned images and I missed it. The painting is unfindable, like an angel who appears when needed but doesn’t come when called.
Dawn Denham’s recent work appears in American Writers Review, Barnstorm, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, Entropy, and Waterwheel Review. She lives and teaches in Mississippi and is completing her first memoir, The Blue House.