NEW YORK CITY — One of the most important and interesting Twentieth Century Modernists, Marc Chagall (1887–1985) created a unique style, melding elements of colorful motifs from Eastern European Jewish folk culture, the Russian Christian icon tradition, Cubism, Symbolism, Fauvism and Surrealism. His fame rests largely on bright, idiosyncratic, dreamy evocations of life in his native village of Vitebsk in Belarus. Reflecting his poetic sensibility, these images of a vanished past are beloved for their lyrical color and phantasmagorical imagery. Suggesting his widespread popularity, “The Fiddler,” 1912–13, inspired the title of the acclaimed musical production Fiddler on the Roof.
Less well known and appreciated are darker works from a neglected period in the artist’s life from the rise of fascism, through the trauma of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, 1930–1948. This significant era is explored for the first time in the United States in the exhibition “Chagall: Love, War and Exile” at the Jewish Museum through February 2. Organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, the museum’s senior curator emerita, the show includes 30 paintings and 24 works on paper, plus selected letters, poems, photographs and ephemera.
“Chagall produced paintings of great distinction in these decades,” says curator Goodman, “as he grappled with the world drama that had upended his life, sent him into exile and destroyed the culture of his childhood.” As Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould observes, “Chagall has long been beloved for his adroit, idiosyncratic fusion of folk motifs with the most radical artistic currents, and for the sheer pleasure of his vivid imagery. The exhibition and book focus on… a time when the upheaval of war led him to produce artworks of extraordinary emotional intensity.”
Born Moishe Segal in a working-class Hasidic Jewish family, Chagall grew up in an environment tightly confined by the tsarist Russian government that in effect segregated Jews within communities. His hometown of Vitebsk was a sizable town in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews had their own markets, schools, hospitals and other community institutions. At the same time, “The Russian Orthodox church — its architecture, spirituality and rituals — was a dominant influence in Chagall’s youth,” notes Goodman — and was responsible for “periodic” pogroms against Jews. As part of his acculturation, Chagall became familiar with the architecture and icons of the church.
Chagall attended local Jewish schools, studied briefly at a drawing school and trained with famed theatrical designer Leon Bakst in St Petersburg, where he was exposed to Modernist movements. Refusing to hide or deny his Jewish heritage, young Chagall openly embraced Judaism in his art. “The alternative that Chagall chose,” says Goodman, “was to cherish and publicly express his ethnic Jewish roots by integrating them into his art as a form of self-assertion and an expression of principle.”
At the same time, Goodman observes that “Christian images were an essential part of the acculturation process, and painting the Jewish Jesus was part of the artist’s rite of passage into modern European culture.” Starting in 1908, at age 21, Chagall depicted the Crucifixion, believing, as he said, that “Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr.”
In 1911, Chagall escaped the hardships of Russian life and moved to Paris, where he hobnobbed with Cubists, Fauvists and other advocates of avant-garde art, and soaked up stormy debates about Modern art and the importance of rejecting traditional artistic ideas. His paintings of bouquets of flowers, enlarged and vibrant, amounted to lyrical expressions of joy and drew on memories of his childhood in depictions of people, buildings and events in Vitebsk, evoking symbols meaningful to both Jews and Christians. “Vitebsk,” a nostalgic 1911 drawing, features church domes topped with crosses in the largely Jewish town.
In Paris, contradictions between the artist’s life and his visual expressions intensified. “Artistically, Chagall found himself between two worlds: traditional Vitebsk and avant-garde Paris,” says Goodman. Moreover, she points out, “His art celebrated and memorialized a vanished Jewish shtetl life, steeped in custom and ritual, though he personally abandoned that lifestyle.”
He did not rebel against all tradition; rather, “He adopted those aspects of the contemporary movements that suited him: a degree of Cubist fragmentation; Dadaist juxtapositions of unlikely objects and figures; Expressionist gesture; dreamlike, delirious imagery; and color that functioned independently of realist representation,” says Goodman. “Above all,” she adds, “he was drawn to combine Jewish, Christian, autobiographical, European Modernist and Russian iconic sources to create an entirely new visual statement.” In rendering the world he grew up in, replete with Russian orthodox churches and icons, he invoked the Crucifixion as a symbol of Jewish sadness and suffering.
Returning to Russia in 1914, after four formative years in Paris, he found his homeland in a state of unrest, leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Chagall welcomed the founding of the Soviet Union with its anti-tsarist vision of a socialist utopia, but before long became disillusioned. Chagall’s disappointment with the aftermaths of the Russian Revolution were summed up years later in “Study for the Revolution,” which contrasted armed, violent masses of revolutionaries with peaceful folk clinging to their cultural heritage.
The outbreak of World War I made it impossible for Chagall to return to Paris for eight years. In 1915, he married Bella Rosenfeld, an emancipated young woman from a wealthy Vitebsk family. Building on their intense love, she became his muse and model. Daughter Ida was born in 1918. Chagall’s “Bella in Green,” painted some years later, conveys her handsome, strong-willed appearance.
Although his paintings made him a major figure in contemporary Russian art, by 1922 the ruling Communist Party’s crackdown on experimental, avant-garde art prompted Chagall and family to decamp for Paris.
Re-embracing French culture, Chagall felt increasingly at home in Paris and flourished in the company of leading members of the avant-garde. By the mid-1930s, however, the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany alarmed the artist, who feared the outbreak of another war and the collapse of his good life in France. As a consequence, his palette became more subdued and his once joyful paintings gave way to works reflecting the anguish of people threatened by totalitarian repression and violence. His state of mind was reflected in “Solitude,” 1933, depicting an ox, a violin and a forlorn Jew holding a Torah on the outskirts of Vitebsk as an angel overhead flies away, leaving the man to his lonely fate.
In the late 1930s, as war clouds gathered, Chagall turned to religious themes — the Wandering Jew, men cradling Torahs, desecrated Torah scrolls, burning villages, throngs of Jewish refugees, mothers fleeing with children — and the agony of the Crucifixion as a symbol of discrimination and suffering recognizable to Jews and Gentiles alike. For Chagall, says Goodman, “the cross was a symbol of persecution and oppression rather than a sign of redemption and hope.” “My Christ, as I depict him,” the artist declared, “is always the type of Jewish martyr, in pogroms and our other troubles.”
When the Germans occupied France, Chagall and his family fled to the south, hoping to wait out the war. But the artist knew he was a likely Nazi target as a Jew and “degenerate” Modern artist, so in 1941 he welcomed an invitation from Alfred Barr, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to sponsor his emigration to the United States. By the time he arrived in New York, Chagall had gained an international reputation. Henri Matisse’s son, Pierre, who became his art dealer, organized exhibitions that further exposed his art to American audiences. The Chagalls divided their time between an apartment in New York and a rented house in New Preston, Conn.
The Jewish Museum exhibition repeatedly emphasizes that Chagall’s most frequently used image during World War II — more than 100 paintings and drawings — was of Jesus and the Crucifixion, with Jesus often depicted as a Jew. “For Chagall, [the crucified Christ] was a natural and intensely meaningful way to represent the Holocaust: Jewish suffering expressed in the figure of a martyred Jewish man,” says museum director Gould.
“Persecution” shows a skewed Christ on a cross with a shtetl burning in the background. News of the wartime razing of Vitebsk inspired “The Crucified” of 1944, showing figures on crosses, bodies in the street and a man cradling a Torah on a snowy roof.
Chagall, who had flourished in and enjoyed Paris so much, was never fully comfortable in America. He felt disconnected from his roots in Russia and his more recent life in the City of Light. He explored his sense of dislocation and exile in works like “The Flight into Egypt” and “The Juggler.”
Chagall’s unhappiness was compounded when his beloved Bella died suddenly in 1944. “The Soul of the City,” painted the next year, summarized his devastation: the ghostly form of Bella descends from a Torah scroll, while the figure of Christ on the cross symbolizes the artist’s personal grief rather than universal suffering.
Before long, Chagall established a new relationship with French-speaking, British-born Virginia Haggard McNeil, moving with her to High Falls, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley. His fraught but revealing paintings from this time, such as “Self-Portrait with Clock,” reflect tension between his memories of Bella and the new presence of Virginia. They lived together for seven years and had a son, David.
Following the end of the war, in a final summary of his Holocaust scenes, Chagall painted the deep and brooding “The Fall of the Angel,” 1947, depicting a fiery angel plummeting to earth next to a Torah-toting figure and a crucified Christ.
Over time, as the artist emerged from his sadness, and the trauma of war receded, his work began to revert to the more familiar Chagall, expressed in more upbeat compositions characterized by intense color and levitating figures. His sense of whimsy and joy infuses “Cow with Parasol,” while the cock, a folk symbol of virility and love, began to appear in works like “The Bride and Groom on Cock.” These postwar canvases signaled the start of the artist’s emotional recovery.
Warmly received on his return to France in 1948, Chagall’s work — emphasizing themes of love, spiritual renewal and the virtues of religious faith — was highly successful, especially in a Europe longing for better times. He remarried and lived to 97, ever the Jewish artist able to evoke a lost world in colorful, expressive and instantly recognizable compositions filled with idiosyncratic symbols.
This valuable and revelatory exhibition helps round out the full dimensions of a great career, solidifying Chagall’s standing as one of the titans of Twentieth Century art. As Goodman concludes, Chagall “offered a narrative art that met the psychological needs of the moment and gave pleasure and consolation as could no other artist.”
The 148-page, lavishly illustrated catalog contains insightful essays by Goodman and Kenneth E. Silver, art history professor at New York University. Co-published by the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, it sells for $45, hardcover.
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