A magical flight of romantic imagination

Marc Chagall: 'Over the Town', 1917-18, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

"I suddenly felt as if we were taking off. You too were poised on one leg, as if the little room could no longer contain you. You soar up to the ceiling. Your head turned down to me, and turned mine up to you... We flew over fields of flowers, shuttered houses, roofs, yards, churches." That's how Chagall's fiance, Bella Goldenberg, remembered the elation of their engagement.

The feeling was mutual. The artist painted a series of pictures celebrating their love. Some of them are pictures of flying and, as in Goldenberg's description, there is no "as if" about it. His images take the romantic metaphors of feeling lighter than air, being uplifted, soaring, swept off your feet quite literally.

You can almost believe it. Chagall's love pictures are among the most vivid imaginings of human flight. The couple dart like tadpoles, they tug like kites in a strong breeze. In Over the Town, the picture has left the ground too. The flyers are large, compared with the townscape down there. The curve of the ground beneath them reflects their aerial perspective on the world.

They are both active and passive. There's some swimming in their flying; a suggestion of backstroke on the waves of the air. They're like bits of crumpled, fluttering paper, blown here and there on the winds. They feel empowered and totally helpless.

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