Over the Town (1914-1918) Marc Chagall State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow ; GREAT WORKS

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), March 9, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Over the Town (1914-1918) Marc Chagall State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow ; GREAT WORKS


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


"I suddenly felt asif wewere 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... Then together we floated up above the room with all its finery, and flew. Through the window a cloud and a patch of blue sky called to us. The brightly hung walls whirled around us. We flew over fields of flowers, shuttered houses, roofs, yards, churches."

We can fly: it is one of our deepest convictions. Contrary to all experience, humans seem to believe that the power of unaided flight is well within their range. Leaving the ground is a capacity that appears perfectly natural to us, even though, strangely, it eludes us. And when we read a passage such as the one above, it doesn't sound like something utterly impossible or unbelievable. We have imagined it, dreamt it, read about it, seen it filmed and pictured, so often.

Human beings don't show the same kind of belief in their ability to burrow through the earth like a mole or a terrier, or even to swim underwater like a fish. Those are alien, non-human powers. In fact, we're nearer to being able to do both of those than we are to being able to fly. Still, the air feels like our medium. We move in it. We breathe it. Why shouldn't we fly in it?

Pictures may help to sustain this conviction. The pictured world is not under gravity. Sculptures require some solid engineering or behind-the-scenes fixing to get them convincingly off the ground. Statues often weigh more than people. But painted figures weigh nothing. They can go wherever the artist chooses to put them. Whether you're painting the Resurrection, the Ascension, various miraculous assumptions or some magical lift-off, a picture offers no resistance to slipping the surly bonds of earth.

Magritte, whose work often draws attention to the peculiar features of the pictured world, made a painting about this fact. Golconda (1953) shows rooftops, and a sky filled with hundreds of men in overcoats and bowler hats. They 're spaced out at regular intervals, and each one is just standing there, in mid-air, as if standing on the ground. It's not an image of flight, in other words. It's an image of completely unexplained levitation. That's Magritte's point: a picture can just do it. It doesn't need any story about the way humans might manage to leave the ground.

But pictures mostly do have a story about this. There are several different ways that human ground-leaving can be envisaged. Putting wings and broomsticks and all external aids aside, it can be imagined as a form of swimming, or an extension of leaping, or as self-powered zooming. It can be a matter of being transported by some invisible force, or of being in a weightless environment.

All those imaginings preserve the mass and momentum of the human body - but flight can also be conceived as the body becoming much less heavy than it is, rising and floating and playing in the air like a balloon or a kite.

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