Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 10, 2014
Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Kenneth E. Silver Chagall: Love, War, and Exile Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2013. 148 pp.; 72 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300187342)
Exhibition schedule: Jewish Museum, New York, September 15, 2013–February 2, 2014
Marc Chagall. Self-Portrait with Clock (1947). Oil on canvas. 33 7/8 × 27 7/8 in. Private collection. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

The fourth exhibition dedicated to the work of Marc Chagall and mounted by the Jewish Museum since 1965 (with the three most recent—in 1996, 2001, and 2008—also organized by senior curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman), Chagall: Love, War, and Exile trained a specific focus on the artist’s work in France during the run-up to World War II and the difficult war years he spent in New York. The show was organized into four sections, “Time is a River,” “War and Exile,” “The Jewish Jesus,” and “The Colors of Love,” and consisted of thirty-one oil paintings and twenty-two works on paper, as well as letters, poems, photographs, and ephemera related to an important but overlooked phase of the artist’s career,.

Marc Chagall (b. Moishe Shagal in 1887 near Vitebsk in the Russian Empire) first moved to Paris in 1911 in order to live and work among the avant-garde. Chagall had found Russia’s dominant Orthodox icon tradition too limiting, although elements of its primitivism and spirituality helped inspire the fantastic and mystical elements for which he would become well known. While Soviet rule posed a serious threat to continuation of the shtetl culture that inspired Chagall’s creative imagination (he spent World War I back in what soon became Soviet Belarus), trips to Vilna and Palestine strengthened his commitment to Yiddish culture and Jewish themes, even after his return to Paris in 1922. When war clouds gathered in the late 1930s and the Nazis eventually occupied France, Chagall moved to a former Catholic girls’ school in the Vichy-controlled south hoping to wait the war out; by 1941 this situation also became untenable. Under the auspices of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art and through arrangements made by Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, he fled to the United States with his adored wife and muse, Bella, and their daughter, Ida. As seen in a preponderance of the works featured in Chagall: Love, War, and Exile, the fate of the Jews under the Third Reich (for which the Cossack pogroms had been a mere rehearsal) added to a deeply felt sense of guilt over his own family’s escape, and feelings of dislocation more severe than he had experienced moving around in Europe led Chagall into a dark rumination on global events. Works such as The Fall of the Angel (1923/33/47) dramatically hung in the Jewish Museum’s galleries displayed Chagall’s conversion of key elements of Christian iconography into a Holocaust indictment, as did poetry by the artist quoted both on the dark blue walls and in the catalogue.

Labeled a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis (one of his paintings of a rabbi was ignominiously dragged in a cart through the streets of Mannheim), Chagall experienced this fate as a kind of agony, one lesser in kind to the more dire suffering of Jewish martyrs throughout history, but emotionally freighted nevertheless. Somewhat surprisingly, not the least of these martyrs to Chagall’s mind was Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross he depicted obsessively during the war era and with whom he obviously identified. “And like Christ,” Chagall wrote in a love poem to Bella, “I am crucified / Fixed with nails to the easel” (Poèmes, published in Geneva, 1975). He depicted this trope visually as well in a variety of ways, many of which were exhibited together for the first time. In one 1941 drawing, Descent from the Cross, borrowed from a private collection, “MARC Ch.” replaces INRI, the letters inscribed atop the cross that stood for “Jesus Christ King of the Jews.” Since this work is signed at lower right, Chagall’s substitution has clearly autobiographic connotations. “For me,” Chagall once declared, “Christ has always symbolized the type of the Jewish martyr” (quoted in Ziva Amishai-Maisels, “Chagall’s White Crucifixion,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 17, no. 2 (1991): 143; from an interview in the Yiddish newspaper Unzer Wort, January 22, 1977). Elsewhere (blasphemously in the eyes of some) he claimed that Christ was “a great poet, the teaching of whose poetry has been forgotten by the modern world” (James Johnson Sweeney, “Art Chronicle: An Interview with Marc Chagall,” Partisan Review [Winter 1944]: 91). For Chagall, Jesus presented the most easily identifiable quintessence of suffering mankind, but, as noted by Harold Rosenberg, he was always represented in the artist’s work as “the human victim of violence,” never the Son of God whose death would redeem the world. Chagall explained to Rosenberg in 1945 that he recognized in the persecution of the Jews throughout the centuries, “the crucifixion of quality by the material world” (Harold Rosenberg, “Marc Chagall Modern Master,” New Frontier [April 1945]: 33).

As carefully explained in the exhibition’s beautifully produced catalogue, it is not generally acknowledged that Chagall (the most Jewishly fixated of all Jewish modernists) was preoccupied by the Crucifixion; he is more readily identified the world over with paintings like I and the Village of 1911 that depict fantastically colored animals, whimsical fiddlers on the roof, and folktale-inspired, often highly sentimentalized, romantic imagery. This sometimes mawkish type of subject, typically featuring enormous bouquets and floating lovers, was perhaps overrepresented in the final section of the Jewish Museum’s show. Bella’s unexpected death in the United States in 1944 devastated Chagall. Although he became involved with the companion his daughter hired to help him cope in the aftermath (and with whom he had a son), the feelings of boundlessness engendered by his and Bella’s mutual adoration—described by her as soaring or flying in a memoir entitled Burning Lights (1946) on view in a case nearby—continued to permeate Chagall’s compositions long after she was gone. Works in the section “The Colors of Love” display both his melancholy longing for Bella, which never seemed to dissipate, and his newfound joy in loving again.

The catalogue’s primary essays, to a somewhat greater degree than the show itself, concentrate less on the “Love” aspect of the subject, and more on the intertwined ramifications for Chagall’s career of his personal experiences of “War” and “Exile.” As Goodman and Kenneth E. Silver acknowledge, many Chagall scholars (most notably Israeli art historian Amishai-Maisels) have studied the relationship of his Crucifixions to the Holocaust. The sheer number of these—a total of twenty were on view—provided an eye-opening, in-depth look at his unusual exploration of this traditional Christian theme. Of Chagall’s three most important treatments of the Crucifixion in a Jewish context, two were included in the show. In the large color-blocked Orphist composition, Calvary (1912; also known as Golgotha or Dedicated to Christ), Chagall represented the crucified Christ as a fat baby Jesus mourned by the artist’s own parents at the foot of the cross. In so doing he both reversed the terms of the blood libel canard underpinning the concurrently notorious Mendel Beilis trial, in which a Russian Jew was falsely accused of killing a Gentile child to use his blood to make matzo, and made his personal investment in the subject already evident. Chagall’s triptych, Resistance, Resurrection, and Liberation (1937–52), provided another high point of the exhibition. Its final image, in which a rising fiddler replaces Jesus, is interpreted in the catalogue (along the lines of Aaron Rosen’s thesis in the first chapter of Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj [London: Legenda, 2009]) as signaling, in large part, the painter’s own optimistic postwar rebirth. A key work in explicating Chagall’s intertwining of Holocaust and Christian iconography, the Chicago Art Institute’s White Crucifixion of 1938, was unfortunately not on view. Painted around the time of Kristallnacht, it is here that Chagall first presented Jesus wearing a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) as a loincloth; in the background synagogues and shtetls are being destroyed, a boat with imploring refugees sails by, and Jews flee on foot in all directions—including one with a sign around his neck that formerly bore the words “Ich bin Jude” obliterated to get the work through German Customs. White Crucifixion, about which Amishai-Maisels has written extensively, is reproduced in the catalogue, and its imagery is discussed at more length in Silver’s catalogue essay, “Fluid Chaos Felt by the Soul: Chagall, Jews, and Jesus” (103, 108, 114).

As Goodman recognizes in her catalogue preface, much of the material featured in Chagall: Love, War, and Exile could present a serious challenge for visitors, especially those in the Jewish Museum’s core audience. A number of reviewers writing for American Jewish media outlets praised the exhibition’s presentation of “a vexing subject” as “groundbreaking and courageous.” Interestingly, when similar subject matter by a variety of artists, including Chagall, was exhibited in 2010 at Ben Uri, the London Jewish Museum of Art, in Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion, vociferous criticism ensued. One shocked reviewer erroneously complained, “What type of material is this for our Jewish museum? This would never happen in New York or Jerusalem” (see commentary in Marcus Dysch, “Jewish Art Museum’s Crucifix Exhibition,” The Jewish Chronicle Online [June 24, 2010]). As with such previously bold and thought-provoking shows as Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities (1996) and Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (2002), the Jewish Museum in New York considers a part of its mission to present exhibitions that break interesting and sometimes controversial new ground, stretching the boundaries of how Jewishness has and continues to make itself felt in visual culture. In this case, the museum succeeded by interrogating anew a subject we thought we knew all about.

Ellen G. Landau
Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emerita of the Humanities, Case Western Reserve University

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