By Susan Tumarkin Goodman, with an essay by Kenneth E. Silver
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 148 pp., 72 color illustrations, 27 black and white illustrations, $45.00 (clothbound)
Reviewed by Megan Sauter
For many people, the name Chagall conjures up images of colorful, ethereal paintings and stained glass windows—likely felicitous scenes. However, this is far from the focus of Chagall: Love, War and Exile, a recent exhibit at The Jewish Museum of New York. The exhibit—and catalog of the same name—chronicle a darker period of Marc Chagall’s life: the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, Europe—and life as Chagall knew it—dissolved into war and strife. Forced into exile, Chagall was helpless to intervene in the atrocities of World War II. It should come as no surprise that these tumultuous years had a major impact on his art, with images of Jewish suffering and persecution becoming prominent. One image in particular is pronounced: the crucified Jesus.
While BAR readers have been exposed to many perspectives of the historical Jesus, Chagall offers an interesting view of Jesus and the crucifixion that was influenced by his Eastern European upbringing and Jewish roots. A pioneer of modernism, Chagall was innovative and unique; his imagery derived from his childhood in the town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus. He used a variety of media, including painting, stained glass, book illustrations, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries and fine art prints.
Highlighting the Jewishness of Jesus, Chagall uses the image of the crucified Jesus to epitomize the true type of Jewish martyr. From his poetry, it is clear that to Chagall, Jesus represents the collective pain of the Jews:
A Jew with the face of Christ appears
And cries out: the scourge is upon us
Let us run and hide in the ditches.
Thus, for Chagall Jesus becomes the perfect example of Jewish suffering and a meaningful way to represent the Holocaust.
Chagall portrays Jesus with Jewish emblems, such as a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) for a loincloth and phylacteries (Hebrew tefillin—little leather boxes with passages of Scripture worn on the forehead and left arm during morning prayers). Underscoring the Jewishness of Jesus was a way to confront anti-Semitism.
In Chagall’s painting Yellow Crucifixion, Jesus is shown with phylacteries on his head and arm and a Torah scroll covering part of his other arm. He is surrounded by other Jewish symbols: an angel blowing a shofar (ram’s horn used on Jewish holy days), a shtetl (Jewish village) engulfed in flames, Jewish refugees, the Wandering Jew carrying a sack on his back, and a mother and child escaping on a mule—meant to evoke the Flight to Egypt and Jewish exile. Yet in this painting Jesus is also depicted with a halo, weaving together Christian and Jewish imagery.
Chagall painted Yellow Crucifixion in 1942—after the Holocaust had begun. The anguish in the scene is almost tangible. His painting Christ in the Night from 1948—after the war had ended—carries a much different emotional tone: It projects calm and melancholy and can be read almost as an elegy. Clothed in a tallit, the crucified Jesus symbolizes the millions of murdered Jews.
The catalog Chagall: Love, War and Exile by curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman consists of three parts: an overview of Chagall’s life with a focus on the 1930s and 1940s by the editor of the volume, poems by Chagall, and an essay “Fluid Chaos Felt by the Soul: Chagall, Jews, and Jesus” by Kenneth E. Silver, professor of art history at New York University. Illustrated with scores of colorful images, these essays come alive and offer new insight into the life and art of Marc Chagall.
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