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.”

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