Marc Chagall. The name alone conjures a world — a simple, superstitious village, smelling strongly of hay and manure. The single story houses all have thatched roofs. The people are poor, uneducated, but their lives are filled with magic. Angels and ghosts wander among them. Sometimes devils, too. And that fiddler you hear on the roof might just be a cow. What does it all mean? Go ask the rabbi. He’s floating over there under the full moon.
Chagall looked at Judaism, that most textually entrenched of religions, and imagined a visual symbolism for it capable of expressing both its cultural history and the mystical reach of its spirituality. He created an iconography — culled from his own memories of growing up in Russia — around the religion and succeeded so splendidly at thrusting this iconography into the public imagination that his work now seems almost a caricature of itself and, by extension, a caricature of the Jewish people.
“Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” the new show of his work at the Jewish Museum New York, curated by Susan Goodman, does not try to challenge the popularly held image we have of Chagall, but it does complicate it. To a large degree, it succeeds at reminding the viewer that the artist was a more serious thinker, and his work more nuanced, darker, angrier and full of despair than the Jewish minstrelsy he’s come to represent.
The show focuses on three particularly difficult periods in Chagall’s life: his exile from Russia after the revolution, and from France during World War II and the melancholy years following the death of his wife, Bella, in 1944. It proposes that art is a form of autobiography and asks the viewer to read Chagall’s life — and the historical changes he lived through — into the paintings.
His use of color, his compositional debt to the icon paintings of his Russian homeland, and the various other formal and conceptual inquiries contained in Chagall’s work are, when noted at all, mentioned glancingly and presented as incidental to the journey of his life. This is a populist approach to art history: accessible, driven by character and story and nary a theory in sight. But then, Chagall has always been a populist artist and his work encourages this sort of approach.
What we learn about Chagall is that he lived a primarily secular life and was first drawn to the Jewish themes in his work not by an overwhelming religious urge but by his fear that the culture in which he’d been raised was in danger of extinction during the upheavals of the Russian Revolution (a cause he’d at first supported, but later denounced).
Wrapping himself up in memory and nostalgia, he painted rabbis and synagogues and villages crawling with bearded figures not to glory in the religion, but to sentimentally linger in its trappings to cushion the pain of what he feared might be its disappearance. This sentimentality and nostalgia became a way for him to create a cultural and historical identity distinct from any yearning to practice the religion.
The images collected in the exhibit highlight Chagall’s unorthodox approach to religion and his appropriation of Christian imagery for use as metaphors for the plight of the 20th century Jew.