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There’s a preponderance of mothers clutching babies to their breasts — Madonnas and children — usually fleeing the scene of an atrocity, the village on fire, the men hanging from trees. This is Mary, not the mother of God but the mother of a small Jewish boy who is not old enough to realize his world has just been destroyed.
In what is surely the most provocative gesture in the exhibit, one entire room is filled with paintings Chagall made of the crucified Christ. Though they were created mostly in the years leading up to and during World War II, they date back at least as far as his 1912 painting “Calvary,” and at first, they seem to be metaphors for the artist himself.
In “Calvary,” that same Jewish baby, saved by his mother from the burning village, is now martyred — his parents stand below him reaching out as though in hopes of catching him if he falls —but martyred to what cause? Chagall doesn’t say. The claustrophobic strictures of Jewish culture perhaps.
In the 1930s and ’40s, the image takes on a less personal, more political meaning. The crucified Christ becomes the Jewish people. In painting after painting, he depicts bearded men, sometimes wearing tallits or the familiar brimmed caps he so often places on his peasants who are tortured and dying with no hope of resurrection. The image loses all Christian context. Its power resides in its depiction of a murdered Jew, dead at the hands of a European empire (which isn’t so far from the historical truth).
At this point in the exhibit, we’re a long way from dancing roosters and whimsical lovers floating in the trees. The story “Love, War, and Exile” tells is one of a gradual descent into nightmare, of a people’s sentimental celebration giving way to a testament to their extinction.
And after all of this death and destruction, it’s jarring to return to Chagall’s softer, more sentimental side at the end of the exhibit. The final room is dedicated to Bella, and though it contains numerous paintings exploring his grief at her early death from a viral infection, its focus is on the way he worked through his grief, allowing Virginia Haggard McNeil, the woman Chagall’s daughter hired to look after him, to reopen his heart to the possibility of love. It points toward what feels like a happy ending tacked onto a grim, haunting tale in order to make it more palatable to the public — a resurrection of sorts, the very element of the Jesus story that the artist stripped from his crucifixions.
Joshua Furst is the author of “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf 2007). He writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.
“Chagall: Love, War, and Exile” will run through February 2, 2014 at the Jewish Museum New York.