Chagall: Love, War, and Exile: An Exhibit Review
Chagall: Love, War, and Exile at The Jewish Museum, on display until February, brings together a collection of Marc Chagall’s paintings from the 1930s and 1940s that capture a period of intense change in the artist’s life and dynamic iconographical experimentation in his paintings. The body of work is comprehensive and spans Chagall’s youth spent abroad in Paris, his marriage to Bella Rosenfeld, his experience of the Holocaust and European fascism, his exile in America, and his tremendous grief at Bella’s death in 1944. Though the themes fluctuate as the exhibit moves through time, Chagall’s style remains consistent. There is a duality of the old and the new world in many of his paintings, and a merging of the past and the present is often implicit. His work—marked often by fauvist colors, surreal flying objects, and farmhouses and animals of his Belarussian hometown—displays a strong sense of emotionality across his choice of subject.
Born to an observant Jewish family in 1887, Marc Chagall was the eldest of nine children. The family was working class—his father was a herring merchant and his mother sold food from their home—and Marc Chagall was first exposed to art when he saw a classmate drawing at age thirteen. The young Chagall was entranced and immediately decided to become an artist. As his career developed, he faced the question of whether to make his Jewish identity invisible or to artistically proclaim it, and he emphatically chose the latter. Chagall was steeped in the modern art movements of the early twentieth century but regularly returned to the Jewish folk art of his childhood for the treatment of his figures and inspirations for his landscapes.
Some of his most common motifs—such as fish, angels, or villages—nostalgically recall his hometown and cultural roots. A vivid example of this nostalgia is the show’s opening piece, Time is a River Without Banks(1930-1939). The painting features a landscape of blue riverbanks and blue houses, a village community that could be the artist’s hometown, Vitebsk. Above the river soars a colorful flying fish with red, blue, and yellow scales, said to be representative of Chagall’s father. The flying fish bears a clock with a large gold face and soars above the river, passing above a pair of lovers in the lower right-hand corner. The use of blues produces a strong sense of regret and longing. The work captures the nostalgia brought on by the passing of years, and this preoccupation with time and is often at play in Chagall’s works. The artist is known for incorporating violins, which evoke the sentimentality and wandering of memory that recurs so often in his works. Even his earliest paintings in the show recall nostalgia and mysticism, which may represent Chagall’s preoccupation with Jewish history.
Nearby is another of Chagall’s works, The Lovers (1937), which depicts a couple surrounded by an oversized pink and violet bouquet. The painting is representative of both the artist’s time spent in Paris and his love for his wife, Bella, whom he married immediately after returning from France in 1915. The flowers’ immensity dwarfs the couple within them, affecting a sense of being subsumed by Chagall’s feelings of love. Though there is nostalgia, it is a lighthearted piece and does not possess the darker themes found later in the exhibition.
Chagall’s work extends beyond the personal to tackle the political shortly thereafter in his artistic career. As I moved past his sunny paintings of Paris, I paused in front of his mocking Study for the Revolution (1937). The work depicts a swarming crowd of people drawn in vigorous black line, carrying guns and farm equipment, waving red flags, and surrounding a high stage upon which political figures seem to be having a discussion. On the stage’s table, Vladimir Lenin balances upside-down on one hand, emphasizing the circus-like chaos of the Soviet Union’s politics. The work emits a claustrophobic, disordered atmosphere. In creating this mood, Chagall criticizes the rapid rise of fascism in Europe and his disillusionment with Lenin’s political regime in the Soviet Union. He imagines Lenin as a sort of performance joke, far-removed from the rabid, desperate crowd. Chagall’s personal and emotional investment in this political cause cannot be overlooked—the Soviet Union had rejected Chagall’s colorful expressionism in favor of a socialist, realist style.
Marc Chagall’s intense political commitment deepens into grief as Europe descends into World War II and he and his wife Bella are forced into exile in the United States in 1940. The artist remarked that he felt helpless as he watched the war unfold from safety in America, and that “the only way for him to fight back is to paint.” Many of the works in the show from the war years boil with red and black – they almost seem to be burning. A particularly arresting example of this color scheme is The War (1943), a small painting and the last one in the exhibit’s first room. On the composition’s left side is a bearded man running with a candelabra and a laid down, crucified, green Christ, who is protruding from a burning red house with a thatched roof. In the foreground is a stationary blue mule attached to a cart that contains a praying woman and an infant. Behind the house are more houses, some upside-down, and outlines of armies and civilians. In the sky is a huddled, weeping woman, reminiscent of the older Belarusian women that doubtless populated Chagall’s Vitebsk. The entire painting is awash in dark, flaming colors. Red overwhelms the composition as Chagall reckons with personal safety yet far from his suffering home. His depiction of the destruction of war is a seamless merging of personal horror with political outcry. As the war unfolded and Chagall remained in exile, he increasingly looked to his religious roots, employing Judeo-Christian iconography to express the horrors of war. One of his preferred motifs is the above-mentioned crucified Christ, often colored brilliantly in yellow, green, or red and set against backdrops of somber townspeople and fiendish, wide-eyed farm animals. The exhibition at The Jewish Museum has an entire room devoted to these violent, otherworldly Christs. The exhibition’s curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, notes that Chagall’s dedication to the theme of the “crucified Jewish Jesus” was a deeply personal one, as “Chagall equated the martyrdom of Jesus on the cross with the contemporary plight of the Jews.”
In the next room, Chagall’s works revert once again to a position of non-political, and intensely personal experience in reaction to a monumental life event – the death of Chagall’s wife, Bella. In his grief, he ceased work for nearly a year, and when he resumed, his art sought to understand Bella’s death and honor her memory.
Like the other works in Love, War, and Exile, these emotional paintings come alive with color and explore mystical elements of folk art, such as his Self Portrait with Clock (1947). In this work, produced shortly after his return to painting, Chagall seeks to honor Bella’s memory and come to terms with her passing, doing so with vibrant color and mystical, animal motifs. He configures himself as a red donkey holding a painting palate and working on a composition of Christ on the cross being kissed by a woman dressed in white. A woman with a blue face and long blue hair, representing Bella, is watching the donkey attentively. A yellow clock flies above them and casts yellow light on the paintings and the figures below. The presence of the clock denotes the passing of time and unifies the composition in primary colors. The presence of all three colors—yellow, red and blue—was for Chagall an acknowledgement of an emotional and spiritual oneness or truth. As seen in the exhibit’s first painting, the flying clock hints at the immense weight brought on by the passage of time.
Chagall was an artist who worked during a time of upheaval. He witnessed political revolution, war, and genocide, and transmits his experience in the way he wields his brush. It is evident for a visitor to The Jewish Museum that Chagall’s works change in tonality as the exhibit passes through time. His paintings grow darker and more melancholy, but they maintain a deep connection to his origins and his images are strongly tied to cultural memory. Chagall: Love, War, and Exile demonstrates the versatility of an artist who bore witness to tragedies both political and personal, one who managed to respond with an artistic style rooted in his cultural history and informed by the rapid changes of modernity.
Photo courtesy of www.deviantart.net.
\\ EMILY HYATT is a senior at Columbia College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.