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