Home»Artful Traveler»The Artful Traveler: Chagall’s Years of War and Exile

The Artful Traveler: Chagall’s Years of War and Exile

Marc Chagall, "Time is a River without Banks," 1930-1939, oil on canvas, 40 ½ x 32 5/8 in. Collection of Kathleen Kapnick, New York. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Marc Chagall, “Time is a River without Banks,” 1930-1939, oil on canvas, 40 ½ x 32 5/8 in. Collection of Kathleen Kapnick, New York. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

By Bobbie Leigh

If you are able to set aside your previous notions about  Marc Chagall (1887-1985),  you are in for a surprise.  The new show at The Jewish Museum will introduce you to a neglected and for many viewers,  an unknown  group of  paintings  which were created  during  a   tragic period in the artist’s life.  Gone are the luxuriant colors, green-faced fiddlers, and loving couples floating in the night.  Here the joy Chagall experienced in his early years has been abandoned. It doesn’t return until  later in his career.

Chagall: Love, War, and Exile  presents works from the 1930’s through 1948, years the artist  moved from home to home, city to city, country to country,  Throughout this period he and his beloved wife and muse Bella, moved from Moscow,  to Berlin, to Paris,  then Gordes, Marseilles,  and finally on the eve of the war to Manhattan (which he never liked). He retreated  eventually  to upstate New York where  Bella died  suddenly  from a virus in 1944,  As soon as he could, Chagall moved back to his beloved  France  in 1948 where he lived until his death at 98.

Before this dark period in his life,  Chagall’s paintings were  often  lyrical, dreamy narratives. Yet by the late 1930s, his work began to reflect  exile, war, and  the destruction of  East European  village life as he knew it. His sense of loss are reflected in many of  the  exhibition’s 32 paintings  as well as works on paper, letters, and poems.  Chagall was a prolific writer and poet. In  a memorial book dedicated to Jewish artists who lived in France and were killed by the Nazis, Chagall wrote: …”I go to  their unknown grave… They ask me: Where were you? —I  fled…”  Throughout his life,  at least based on some of  his writings, Chagall felt reality was tragic: “The vision of peace is still a mirage,” he wrote in 1969.

 

Marc Chagall, The Soul of the City, 1945, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 32 in. Musée National d'Art Modern Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, gift of the artist, 1953. Art © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.  Photo: Philippe Migeat. Photo © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
Marc Chagall, “The Soul of the City”, 1945, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 32 in. Musée National d’Art Modern Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, gift of the artist, 1953. Art © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Photo: Philippe Migeat. Photo © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

 

The most prevalent and powerful images in this show are of Jesus and the Crucifixion.  According to Susan Tumarkin Goodman, Senior Curator Emerita who organized the show and edited the stunning exhibition catalog, Chagall  “believed that no other image was powerful enough to convey his profound distress at the annihilation of European Jewry.”   As she describes in an essay in the catalog, Chagall’s depictions of the Crucifixion were intended to reach Christians by equating the martyrdom of Jesus with the  plight of the Jewish people.  As Goodman  states, “this treatment of the figure of Jesus is complex… In addition, Jesus may be  understood as a symbol of the artist’s own suffering…”

 

Marc Chagall, "The Flayed Ox," 1947. Musée National d'Art Modern Centre Georges Pompidou
Marc Chagall, “The Flayed Ox,” 1947. Musée National d’Art Modern Centre Georges Pompidou

 

Although the crucifixion paintings are  powerful, nothing quite matches the savage impact of “The Flayed Ox,” 1947.   It depicts a butchered ox hanging from a crossbar and may refer  back to Chagall’s childhood visits to his grandfather, a ritual slaughterer. He began  work on this painting in 1929. At that time it  was seen as a  premonition of the political  and personal unrest he felt in the Soviet Union. Reworked after the war, Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager  calls it “a self-portrait as a crucified cow, the carcass crimson and vermillion against a night shtetl scene: an expression of his fears for a Europe in which his art was inextricably rooted.”

According to Goodman, as the war ended and after leaving the U.S for France, Chagall’s mood gradually shifted. “He offered a narrative that met the psychological needs of the moment, affirming that Jewish culture had survived. He gave pleasure and consolation as could no other visual artist at that time.”

Chagall: Love, War, and Exile  is at The Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY)  through February 2, 2014.

 

bobbie     Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, andDepartures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

Previous post

Smart Deals: Best Western

Next post

Alexander Lobrano's Letter from Paris: La Rotisserie d'en Face

No Comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *