By Dennis Raverty
Early 20th-century Russian painter Marc Chagall is beloved for the enchanted, fairytale quality of his work, such as the murals he executed late in his career for Lincoln Center and the Paris Opera — a sort of artistic counterpart to the work of composer Igor Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes, the dance company that so enthralled prewar Paris. And Chagall’s iconic, recurring motif of the fiddler on the roof is perhaps most familiar to us, a representation of the precarious position Jews occupied in East European society.
But there is another, more tragic quality in certain of his less familiar paintings, and these dark works dominate the current exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, “Chagall: Love, War and Exile” (though Feb. 2), featuring works executed by the artist in Russia, Paris, and then in the United States, most of them produced between the beginning of the First World War and ending of the Second World War.
What is surprising, given the artist’s Jewish background and faith, is the number of Christian themes that emerge in his work from these years: more than a dozen depictions of the crucifixion are in the exhibit. Sometimes the crucifixion of Jesus is the principal subject, as in his well-known White Crucifixion. Often, however, the crucifixion itself is not the principal subject of the painting in which it is included — almost, it seems, as commentary inserted in the margins, what Jews call “Midrash.”
This is the case in one of the largest, most ambitious works of the period, his Fall of the Angel, begun in 1923, a year after the artist resigned as director of the Vitebsk School of Art in the Soviet Union, under growing intolerance by the government for modernist art. After spending a year in Berlin, he settled in Paris and then, after the fall of Paris in 1940, he departed for the south of France and later the United States, living the rest of his life in exile, alternating between America, France, and, after 1948, the new state of Israel.
In Fall of the Angel, a huge red-winged creature falls headfirst from the sky with a terrified expression. To the left of the angel, a man dressed as a factory worker with a cane (possibly a war veteran) topples from the sky as well. In the far left foreground, a bearded man rushes off clutching a Torah, glancing behind anxiously.
The fiery scarlet color of the angel amid the overall darkness of the painting is an unmistakable reference to communism and the failure of the Soviet Union as an agent of progressive change, already apparent to many people in Russian society by 1923. It was particularly obvious to Chagall and others who left their government positions as artists, designers, illustrators, professors, art administrators, and museum directors around this time to settle permanently in the West.
In the right background of the painting, Christ is crucified in what appears to be the empty streets of a small Russian village just after sunset. His loincloth is represented as a Jewish prayer shawl. A single candle, traditional symbol for the presence of God, also in the lower right, renders proportions and scale ambiguous so that it is unclear whether the execution is a real event taking place in the street or, alternately, a crucifix on the same scale as the candlestick sitting on the windowsill.
The painting was reworked and substantially altered in 1933, the year the Nazis seized power in Germany; the blue sky of the earlier version became overshadowed by the gloomy darkness that surrounded everything, the sun itself nearly eclipsed by the encroaching darkness. The golden orb and the candle have weak halos, the only glimmer of hope in this otherwise bleak scene.
Chagall added, within the wing of the fallen angel, an image of a woman protectively clutching an infant in her arms, a motif the artist also uses in other works, in which it sometimes represents the flight into Egypt with the child Jesus to escape Herod’s genocide. Here Chagall alludes to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and later in Nazi Germany, and the plight of those refugees desperately fleeing the onslaught.
In 1944, after reading in American newspapers of Nazi occupation and summary executions in his beloved Vitebsk, Chagall painted The Crucified. Here not one but several fully clothed men are crucified along snow-covered streets strewn with the frozen corpses of other victims. Around their necks are placards detailing their “crimes.” Perched high on a rooftop in the middle distance sits the fiddler, still alive but silent, clutching the violin protectively to his chest as if it were an infant he was trying to keep warm. The playing of music is inconceivable in such a situation.
Chagall’s large postwar painting, Exodus, is more hopeful. Here a huge Christ on his cross rises above the crowds fleeing through the Red Sea, as if he were the pillar of light that guided and protected the Israelites when they escaped from Pharaoh. Christ in Chagall’s universe is not the Christian savior but rather the Eternal Jew as suffering servant, the scapegoat and the sacrificial victim unjustly condemned.
But in Exodus Jesus stretches out his arms on the cross not in agony but in an open-armed embrace and benediction, leading the crowds from behind: a reminder of the suffering already endured. Among the crowd is Moses on the far right, the fleeing mother and child in the center foreground, and the wandering Shekhina, dressed all in white, as a bride under the Chupa (or marriage canopy). These are mystical symbols from Chagall’s Hassidic heritage, mixed with personal and Christian iconography in a new, shared visual language recognizable by Jew and gentile alike. It suggests the possibility of new life freed from the totalitarian regimes of latter-day Pharaohs.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, where he is coordinator of the art history program.