Marc Chagall: Between Paris and Vitebsk

Chagall: Love, War and Exile

Exhibition at the Jewish Museum
Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921

Marc Chagall in Paris, 1921

 writes: It’s a testament to the breadth of an artist’s body of work that more than one school of interpretation claims it, especially when those claims seem to be issued on mutually exclusive grounds. Marc Chagall (1887-1985) has inspired impressively schizophrenic critical accounts of his artistic efforts, at once called the “quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” and a “pioneer of modernism.” He is often characterized as both a chronicler of provincial Jewish folklore and an urbane, cosmopolitan aesthete. Treatments of Chagall’s artistic achievements typically either highlight his nostalgic depictions of rural Jewish life in his Russian hometown, Vitebsk, or the sophisticated European universalism he imbibed in Paris.

The apparent polarity of Chagall’s influences often translates into a wild cacophony of images inhabiting the same canvas: Christian and Jewish, Russian and Parisian, urban and rural, sectarian and secular, ancient and modern. It has become increasingly common for his critics to find only unresolved conflict as the abiding theme in his work, the result of which are paintings over-teeming with cramped symbolism, or what the art historian James Sweeny called “curious representational juxtapositions.”

This untidy melange of influences seems to issue from one perceived incongruence: Chagall’s Judaism, and the emphasis on his attachment to a particular community of people, and his modernism, or his magnetic attraction to a universal conception of mankind. The rise of the modern state dictated a split between church and state, relegating religion to a matter of conscience, a private affair conducted by individuals out of the public square. But traditional Judaism defies this compartmentalization, asserting itself primarily as a public practice, authoritative for the whole body politic. While individual Jews generally enjoyed a greater measure of freedom within this new configuration, the cost was the expression of an authentic Judaism which refuses to be numbered merely one pursuit among many, bereft of public power. The eminent Jewish historian Jacob Katz, writing about the tension between Jewish practice and modern German culture, articulated the conundrum for Jews with concision: “Jews had been emancipated, Jewishness was not.”

Chagall’s youth straddled the fault line that separated the explicit oppression of Jews and their qualified invitation to assimilation. In 1887, when he was born, Jews in Russia were still forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, cloistered into religiously homogenous shtetls, denied the advantages of full citizenship. As a child, Chagall’s mother had to bribe a headmaster to gain his admission into a Russian language school usually closed to Jews. But just prior to the First World War, Jews were given the opportunity to absorb themselves into political life, albeit at the expense of a full expression of their Jewishness. The model for this political emancipation was the Prussian edict of 1812, which openly encouraged the suppression of the communal, public character of Judaism for the sake of access to citizenship. Speaking to the French assembly in 1789, Comte de Clermont-Tonnere captured the spirit of the edict, and the political predicament of modern Jews: “One must refuse everything to Jews as a nation but one must give them everything as individuals; they must become citizens.”

Chagall lived during a time when Judaism was already in the throes of a self-directed transvaluation under the philosophical superintendence of Moses Mendelssohn, who attempted to reinvent it as a “religion,” a designation which, in the 18th century, meant its assimilation into the modern state. Chagall’s emphasis on individuality, his excursions into dreamy interiority, the search for moral lessons generalizable to the totality of mankind and his infatuation with refined, worldly European aesthetic forms have often been understood as a betrayal of his provincial Jewishness. According to this common narrative, Chagall fled the artistically arid soil of parochial Vitebsk for the lumière-liberté of Paris.

The first problem with this thesis is that it is undermined by Chagall’s own appraisal of his motivations. Contrary to the view espoused by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger in their otherwise delightful book, Chagall (1996), that he decamped for Paris at the age of twenty-three since “he could no longer find inspiration from Russian art,” Chagall continued to paint tableaus of village life in Vitebsk long after expatriating. In fact, Chagall always insisted he wanted aesthetic adventure “without denying the roots of my art.” His remembrances of Vitebsk are constant amidst experimental detours through Cubism, Fauvism and Symbolism. Even some of his most distinctively modern works, like “The Calvary” (1912), produced two years into his first stretch living in Paris, and clearly already under the spell of kaleidoscopic Cubism, depicts explicitly Russian and Jewish subject matter. Chagall published an open letter to Vitebsk in 1944 while forlornly exiled in America, a billet-doux to the hometown he missed so dearly: “…I did not live with you, but I did not have one single painting that did not breathe with your spirit and reflection.”

Calvary, 1912, Museum of Modern ArtCalvary, 1912, Museum of Modern Art

This is not to suggest that there is no tug of war within Chagall between his Russian-Jewish origins and Parisian inspirations, but rather that this tension expresses itself within him as a Jew. Chagall’s Jewishness is of a peculiarly modern bent, transformed by the German Enlightenment that compelled Judaism to reinvent itself under the banner of Protestant categories. The sum result is twofold: a Judaism simultaneously made highly individual and universal in scope, retrofitted to Christian paradigms; and a hybridized modernism tempered by a reverence for religion, a quixotic attraction to the romantic and a powerful sense of place and particularity. Chagall spent the bulk of his adult life missing his hometown, painfully afflicted with a sense of dislocation, distempered by the experience of exile. But he also cherished his time in Paris and the frisson of artistic exploration he enjoyed there, once referring to that period as the “happiest time of my life.” He was both a modern and a Jew, grappling with the demands of a divided self, acting as artistic witness to the same struggle within Jewish identity writ large.

Two major events have provided the tools for a searching reconsideration of Chagall’s legacy. Jackie Wullschlager’s groundbreaking book, Chagall: A Biography (2008), is the first account that scrupulously explores the correspondence with his first wife, Bella, and creates a portal into the withering anguish he experienced upon her death. And a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum of New York, “Chagall: Love, War and Exile,” assembles a considerable collection of his Jewish-themed production, highlighting both the unmistakable influence of his Hasidic upbringing as well as his nostalgic preoccupation with the reassuring confines of small-scale shtetl life.

Bella’s life, too, exemplified a certain strain of modern Jewishness, combining cosmopolitan sophistication with a profound appreciation for the culture into which she was born. The daughter of wealthy Jews, she studied theater and the arts and, always enthralled with world literature, pined to travel abroad. Nevertheless, even though she translated her husband’s autobiography from Russian into French, when she wrote her own major work, Burning Lights, she was so moved by her trip to Palestine in 1931 that she felt compelled to compose it in Yiddish, which she referred to as her “faltering mother tongue.” Chagall was forever moved by her example, calling her the “great central image of my art.”

Much of the work on display at “Chagall: Love, War and Exile,” captures recurring and familiar Jewish tropes: a fiddler, a Talmudist, men adorned with a tallit and phylacteries, an incessantly reappearing Torah scroll and the recognizable, even kitschy signposts of pastoral, Jewish life. With the exception of a series of paintings inspired by his trip with Bella to Palestine, Chagall documents Jewish experience in a sheltered Russian village, often recognizably his own. Bella is featured in many of these; in one, “In the Night” (1943), even his mother makes an appearance. Chagall’s tableaus are usually not composite constructions of village life for Russian Jews but specific remembrances of Vitebsk, pictorial diary entries recounting the conditions into which he was born and out of which he became a painter.

The most powerful of Chagall’s Jewish-themed productions document his people’s persecution in Europe and Russia with an unflinching eye. “Solitude” (1933), a melancholic depiction of a lonesome Jew cleaving anxiously to his Torah scroll while an angel abandons him, conveys the unnerving sense of desertion European Jews must have felt as their circumstances became increasingly parlous.

In “The Falling Angel,” Chagall tracks the twentieth-century pedigree of Jewish persecution; he started the painting in 1923 as a retrospective on the suffering that beset the Jews during the Russian Revolution but continually updated it over the years leading up to 1947, adding imagery specific to the danger they experienced in Europe from the Nazis. In the original version, a terror-stricken Jew clinging to a Torah scroll flees a blood red angel of death, upside-down and disfigured by evil, as a shtetl burns in the distant background. As in “Solitude,” a cow fiddles, offering feckless consolations and cold comfort. In later versions, Chagall added a hazy Christ figure and a spectral Madonna, surprisingly Christian motifs within a painting that expresses a Jew’s plaintive concern for his fellow Jews.

The Falling Angel, 1923-1947, private collectionThe Falling Angel, 1923-1947, private collection

But these Christian images, however dissonant with the otherwise Jewish narrative, become progressively more common in Chagall’s work, even common enough to become a signature of his accounts of Jewish torment. Not content to merely defy the traditional Hebraic interdiction against the pictorial representation of religious symbols, Chagall ostensibly crosses a line into sacrilege, irreverently peppering his work with Christological imagery. In some of these, Chagall expresses a measure of timidity at the depiction of Jesus, seemingly aware of the audacity of co-opting New Testament themes. In “The Artist with the Yellow Christ” (1938), the painting of a crucified Jesus looks like an everyday Jewish man, appareled in a traditional prayer shawl. The artist who renders him looks away in shame, presumably sensitive to the impiety of his creation.

Chagall’s attempts to weave the Christ figure into his account of Jewish experience eventually grew bolder, and he continued to blur the biblical line that separated the two. In “The Soul of the City,” a two-faced artist both gazes upon and averts his eyes from a painting of Jesus on the cross, again appearing as a typical Jewish man, wrapped in a tallit. But in “Study for the Martyr” (1940), the figure of Jesus seamlessly combines the markers of a traditional Jew and of Christ, his arm adorned with phylacteries, and at the top of the cross, in the place of the expected “INRI,” is the inscription, “I am Jew.”

In “Descent from the Cross” (1941), Jesus is shouldered down from the instrument of his crucifixion, at the top of which the “INRI” is replaced by “I am Marc CH.” Sometimes, the juxtaposition of a crucifixion scene and Jewish symbolism is meant to express Chagall’s own intensely personal distress at hearing ever-worsening news about the predicament of Jews in Europe, what he referred to as the “inhuman war in which humanity deserted itself.”

Descent from the Cross, 1941, Collection of the Rastegar FamilyDescent from the Cross, 1941, Collection of the Rastegar Family

But despite the occasional self-reference, the inclusion of Jesus within his testimony of Jewish persecution was designed to signal its universal import, to link the indignity of a particular people’s misery to mankind at large. The historical references within his work could be very specific; in “Apocalypse in Lilac” (1945), a Nazi stands at the bottom of the ladder that leads up the cross to an agonized Jesus. In “Christ Carrying the Cross” (1941), throngs of dispossessed Jews are herded like cattle for the purpose of mass deportation. In “Study for the Yellow Crucifixion,” a painting muddled with crowded symbolism, there is a pictorial reference to the Struma, a ship transporting Jewish refugees to Palestine that sank, killing all 768 on board.

Some critics have interpreted the significance of Chagall’s use of Christian imagery as an attempt at transcendence, at moving beyond the givenness of his accidental origins to some essential lesson that obtains for all humanity. And Chagall sometimes speaks in terms suggestive of such an ambition: “My painting represents not the dream of one people but of all humanity.” More often than not, though, he speaks of his art not as an attempt to transcend or overcome his origins, but to amplify their significance. In 1933, Chagall wrote, “If a painter is a Jew and paints life, how is he to keep Jewish elements out of his work! But if he is a good painter, his painting will contain a great deal more. The Jewish content will be there, of course, but his art will aim at universal relevance.”

This singular motivation, to use depictions of Jesus to universalize the Jewish experience of suffering, is what distinguishes Chagall’s adoption of Christian imagery from other attempts. Chagall was certainly not the only Jewish artist to commandeer the iconography of Jesus; Mauryey Gottlieb, Max Liebermann and Mark Antoklosky comprise a small but representative sampling of prominent Jewish artists who did the same. However, the impetus common to these three was the desire to broker a kind of detente between Jews and Christians. Chagall was seemingly indifferent to this political purpose. He wanted an instrument for crystallizing the historical grief of the Jews, an “expression of the human, Jewish sadness and pain which Jesus personifies.”

It’s important to note that Chagall’s absorption of Christian memes wasn’t meant to demonstrate an infatuation with Christians, per se. In fact, he was resentful of what he saw as their passivity when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of the Holocaust. In a speech he delivered in 1944, Chagall forcefully related his consternation: “But, after two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent…. I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.”

In order to understand Chagall’s reliance upon Christian categories to universalize the plight of 20th-century Jews, it’s important to situate his own experience as a Jew within its proper historical context. Judaism struggled to fix its identity in the aftermath of the German Enlightenment, which reduced religion to one private pursuit among many. “Religion” came to be defined in Protestant terms, a private, individual enterprise with non-political but universal significance. In contrast, Judaism was traditionally typified by its public character, as a politically charged practice for a particular nation of elected people. The challenge for Jews was to divine a way to preserve their distinctive Jewishness—their ineradicable particularity—while also laying claim to universal significance. The Jewish people were charged with maintaining their status as a people set apart while simultaneously effecting their assimilation into modern society. The history of Judaism’s fractured permutations in the 19th and 20th centuries—Reform, Orthodox, Hasidism, Zionism, etc.—is the history of its attempts to square this circle and gain full admission into modernity.

Chagall’s early infatuation with artistically capturing Jewish life was inspired by the homesick longing of an exile, the sentimental nostalgia induced by his uprooting. As much as he adored Parisian life, he continued to romanticize his youth, his bucolic hometown village, his adoring parents. But after he visited the Vilna Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1935, shocked by the brutal anti-Semitism he witnessed, he began to paint with a view to distilling what he saw as the essence of the Jewish experience, collective persecution. His once cheerful remembrances of life in Vitebsk became overcome with terror that Jewish culture was threatened with extinction.

Chagall grew up in Hasidic environs and, while there is little evidence he followed these developments with any scholarly zeal, he couldn’t help being influenced by them. While most see Hasidism today as a version of ultra-orthodox Jewish life, it was originally considered blasphemously heterodox in its de-emphasis on the study of law, its undergirding mysticism and its valorization of individual spirituality and redemption over collective identity. Hasidism itself was a response to the problem presented by the German Enlightenment: How can one be a Jew and also be modern? The response was by privileging the spiritual, even magical, elements of Judaism over its doctrinal and political ones.

The Hasidic preoccupation with mysticism likely influenced Chagall’s artistic style at least as much as Impressionism and Cubism, both of which he eventually declared were “alien” to him. Chagall’s youthful exposure to Kabbalist philosophy opened him up to the possibility that art could serve as a tool for investigating what he called the “fourth psychic dimension into pictorial representation,” depictions of the fantastical excursions of human consciousness. Still, he always resisted being labeled a Surrealist, refusing to conflate the sometimes wild, dreamlike fragmentation of his paintings with the supremacy of the absurd: “The entire world within us is reality, perhaps more real than the visible world. If one calls everything that seems illogical fantasy or a fairy-tale, all one proves is that one has not understood Nature.”

Chagall grasped for an artistic mechanism that would allow him to pay due deference to the irreducibleness of Jewish culture while also acknowledging the global meaning of its abuse. His artistic solution, to blur the demarcating lines between Jewishness and Jesus, or to magnify Jesus’ actual Jewishness, was his own attempt to find a place for Jews in a modern world confected out of forms foreign to them.

Chagall continued to avail himself of Christian imagery even after World War II concluded, and the horrors of the Shoah had come to an end. Sometimes, Chagall expresses a hopeful sense of survival; in “Exodus” (1952), a triumphant Jesus delivers a jubilant Jewish people out from under the heel of tyranny. More often, though, Chagall’s retrospective work is achingly sorrowful. In “Christ in the Night” (1948), a mournful Jesus, still on the cross, casts his eyes down upon the ground, surrounded by what looks like a deserted Russian village. In “The Crucified,” in place of Christ on the cross are crucified Jews, the snowy streets beneath them strewn with the bodies of their murdered neighbors. A man sits perched atop a roof, but this time he has no fiddle to play—he watches the carnage beneath him with the vigilant eyes of history, a witness to the depredations man visits upon man. The art critic Michael Lewis has noted that Chagall, too, was such a witness and “remains the most important visual artist to have borne witness to the world of East European Jewry … and inadvertently became the public witness of a now vanished civilization.”

Thus the apparent split within Chagall’s soul between Jewishness and modernity is better understood as an expression of his very modern Jewishness, reconstructed to reconcile its ancient particularity with modern universalism. It’s not clear that he was any more successful than the long train of Jewish philosophers and theologians before or after him in attenuating the contradictions between the two. It is clear, though, that he experienced this tension as a Jew and his life’s work is microcosmic of the struggle of an entire people to make a home in an often inhospitable world. The Holocaust stands as the most arresting example, almost too extreme to be comprehensible, of this ferocious inhospitality. Chagall’s body of work is an artistic testament to this struggle, at its heights and depths, a monument and a mausoleum.
Ivan Kenneally is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Open Letters Monthly – an Arts and Literature Review

2 Comments on “Marc Chagall: Between Paris and Vitebsk”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet Chagall: Love, War and Exile Exhibition at the Jewish Museum Ivan Kenneally writes: It’s a […]

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