He is less celebrated, though, for his paintings of another iconic figure who obsessed him throughout his career: Jesus.
Starting with a line drawing of the Crucifixion he made in 1908 while studying art in St. Petersburg, Chagall depicted Christ on the cross dozens of times. Some Chagall Christs resemble the Eastern Orthodox icons the artist knew from his childhood in Russia. Others don’t look like the Christ in churches anywhere: they wear Jewish prayer shawls in place of a loincloth, and sometimes Tefillin, the leather boxes Jews strap to their foreheads and arms.
These religiously ambiguous figures populate “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” a startling and provocative show opening September 15 at the Jewish Museum in New York. Focusing on the years 1930 to 1948, the darkest and most desperate time of Chagall’s life, it examines the ways he responded in his painting (and poetry) to the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, and the death of his wife, Bella, in 1948.
The green fiddler is here, along with flying blue cows and other popular Chagall motifs. But the dreamscape is now a nightmare. Villages burn, the patriarchs weep, and fleeing Jews clutch their Torah scrolls and each other. The somber nature of the show might surprise audiences used to a more cheerful version of Marc Chagall, infused with nostalgia and joy.
So might the Christian inflection of its contents: out of the 31 paintings and 22 works on paper in the show, about 20 of them depict Jesus.
As the exhibition’s curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, notes in the catalogue, the museum is aware that some constituents might find the subject transgressive. Crucifixions are a staple of Western art, but not of Jewish museums, namely because they depict an event for which Jews were blamed and often persecuted.
The counterintuitive twist is that Chagall deployed the crucified Jesus as a tragic, urgent messenger whose purpose was to bear witness to the suffering of the Jews and bring it to the attention of the world.
Chagall, who was raised in a Hasidic home, had his own doubts about using Christian imagery, at various points consulting the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Israeli president Chaim Weizmann on the matter. But in the end, he kept painting Jesus, attracted to his qualities as a rebel, a martyr, and a creative spirit. In some paintings, the man on the cross is the artist himself.
Chagall described the act of painting Jesus as “an expression of the human, Jewish sadness and pain which Jesus personifies,” he explained. “…Perhaps I could have painted another Jewish prophet, but after two thousand years mankind has become attached to the figure of Jesus.”
Starting with some works from the early teens–among them the luminous, almost Cubist Calvary (1912), on loan from MoMA–the show takes shape after 1930, when Chagall was living in Paris with Bella and their daughter, Ida. As the war began the Chagalls fled Paris for the unoccupied zone, and then, with the help of Varian Fry, Alfred H. Barr Jr., and Solomon Guggenheim, for New York.
Chagall was not alone in depicting a Jewish Jesus. In the late 19th century, when the idea was just taking hold in intellectual circles, Russia’s Mark Antokolsky, the Galician-born Maurycy Gottlieb, and the German Max Liebermann painted Jesus as a Jew as a kind of public-service message to anti-Semites–reminding Christians that those who oppressed Jews were attacking their savior’s own kind. The message didn’t always get through.
Later, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Mané-Katz, and Max Weber were among the Jewish painters who depicted Jesus on the cross. (The documents on view in “Love, War, and Exile” include the catalogue for “Modern Christs,” a 1942 show at New York’s Puma Gallery that featured several of these artists.)
But no one painted as many Crucifixions as Chagall. While the exhibition does not include his most famous Holocaust crucifixion, the 1938 The White Crucifixion (on long-term view at the Art Institute of Chicago), Goodman has assembled a remarkable array from public and private collections around the world: The Crucifix (Between God and the Devil), a 1943 image featuring a diabolical goat; the 1940 Crucifixion, in which Jesus wears both halo and a Talit; and the bizarre 1941 Descent from the Cross, in which the dead Christ is carried by a large figure with a yellow bird’s head.
Then there is Apocalypse en Lilas (Capriccio), a gouache that had been previously unknown until the Ben Uri, a Jewish art museum in London, acquired it in 2009. Painted in 1945/7, it shows Jesus on the cross, naked but for his Tefillin. A storm trooper figure with a tail and swastika armband attempts to move the ladder from the cross. Figures around them writhe in terror and pain. They are thought to be based on pictures of concentration-camp victims.
Starting in 1944, some of Chagall’s paintings from this era also portray the ghost of Bella, who died suddenly of a viral infection that year. The show winds down after 1948, when Chagall found a new love, Virginia Haggard McNeil, and returned to France. There, he continued to paint Crucifixions. But the Jewish Jesus recedes and the Jesus as Everyman takes over.
The last work in the show, In Front of the Picture (1968-71), depicts the Crucifixion as a painting within a painting, a strategy Chagall employed increasingly in his later years. The artist appears in these paintings, too.
“Chagall’s crucified Christ has retreated, as it were,” as Kenneth E. Silver puts it in his catalogue essay, “into the world of art.”
“Chagall: Love, War, and Exile” is on view from September 15, 2013 to February 2, 2014. For a sampling of works in the exhibition click through the slide show.
[SlideDeck2 id=32590 iframe=1]