The Darker Side of Marc Chagall

The Darker Side of Marc Chagall

Chagall: Love, War and Exile at The Jewish Museum (Sept. 15-Feb. 2, 2014) is not an easy exhibition to love. This is not the celebratory, lighthearted, Fiddler on the Roof Chagall. Nor is it the seductive colorist of the Metropolitan Opera House’s two enormous lobby paintings. The show covers the period from the 1930s through 1948 (the first to do so), when Chagall was at his most somber: in pain and in exile from World War II in New York, a city he did not much like and where his beloved wife and muse, Bella, died. No, this is not an exhibition to be taken lightly. Rather it pulls at the emotions, challenges the intellect and only occasionally engages one aesthetically. The most powerful aspects, for this viewer, involve the Jewish artist’s repeated use of Christian iconography, particularly Jesus and the Crucifixion, as visual metaphors for war and the persecution and martyrdom of the Jews. Images of the dead Bella, a spectral figure in a wedding dress, abound and haunt as emblems of the artist’s profound love for her. But the images that most linger in this memory are not the images Chagall conjures up with either paint or pen (the sketchbook on view has charm), but the images he creates with words. The wall texts are chilling, like this from one of Chagall’s poems:

I see them: trudging along in rags.
Barefoot on mute roads.
The brothers of Israels, Pissarro and
Modigliani, our brothers—pulled with ropes
By the sons of Dürer, Cranach,
And Holbein—to death in the crematoria.

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Photo: Marc Chagall, “The Fall of the Angel,” 1932-33—1947, oil on canvas
Photo credit: Private Collection, on deposit at the Kunstmuseum Basel. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris