Part Fairy Tale, Part Fact Marc Chagall: The Jewish Artist

by Patricia Goldblatt July 26, 2018


the-praying-jew-rabbi-of-vitebskMarc Chagall (born Moyshe Shagall in 1887) is well known, one of those artists whose brilliant style makes him readily recognizable. From his paintings of his early life in Russia, his enduring romantic love for Bella, his first wife, to his biblical depictions recalling Hasidic traditions and Jewish folklore, Chagall’s work lodges in one’s memory and we think of jewel-like colors, dislocated, floating icons or size incongruities, but always an image or two we associate with Jews. Although the psychological and physical abnormalities in his paintings would pigeonhole him as a Surrealist, his works grew from other movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Suprematism as well as his association with other artists and poets in Paris. Chagall’s work appears to be in a category that transcends the labels applied to the stylistic tenets that define it. However, no one could ever ignore him as a Jewish artist.

Years back, more than 20, I met with our synagogue’s rabbi for the before bar mitzvah chat. Newly returned to Graduate School to do a Masters in art history, I was entertaining a theory regarding Chagall. I found that most of his paintings combined both Jewish and Christian icons of his Russian home of Vitebsk where he had grown up, a small, poor shetl in Russia. I was excited that perhaps Chagall was suggesting a visual dialogue in representing two religions. The rabbi dismissed my contention absolutely, and shut down any reverie for coexistence.

Examining Chagall, one does notice so many references to his Jewish youth. With the prohibition of graphic representation of anything created by G-d in his humble orthodox home (the Second Commandment pertaining to graven images), there would not have been any pictures or images hanging on the walls in his hut.  Vitebsk, near the Polish border, contained roughly 66,000 people, half of whom were Jews and prohibited from state schools. Chagall was educated at a heder where he would have been immersed in Hebrew, Old Testament and the Talmud. One of his teachers was the Realist portrait artist, Yehuda Pen. Pen encouraged Chagall to emphasize the poetic Jewish narrative in his work. Later in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1907 where Jews were required to carry passports on them, at the Zvantseva School, Leon Bakst, also a devout Jew, continued to introduce Chagall to Jewish themes and history. Bakst was best known as a set designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Eldest of nine children, Chagall related that his childhood smelled of smoked herring. His father was a fishmonger and his mother worked in a grocery, selling flour, fish and spices. His uncle not only kept farm animals but named them, welcoming them into the house as family members(see Green Donkey, 1911). With these early influences, we can comprehend the anthropomorphic animals, the peasants, the pedlars, Jewish references, dishevelled refugees, travelers, community and pastoral life that are all observable in his paintings. Growing up in a racially segregated town with hostility towards Jews, Chagall would also have gleaned the impact of the numerous churches topped with crosses and domes that are evident in his work. Likely he would have listened to the Russian fairy tales of his neighbors’ children, as well, perhaps interlaced with his own hearing of Yiddish.

In 1910, he is off to Paris to work in a bohemian area in Montparnasse known as La Ruche or the Beehive. Chagall referred to it as a second Vitebsk. This area was populated by Jewish émigré artists and poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars. And it is here we observe certain icons connected with Yiddishkeit such as “ fardreiter kop” or a twirling head that does seem to exemplify dizziness verging on silliness. Yet the bright colours of Delaunay, the Fauvist movement, the advance into Modernism, and the lush brushwork of Renoir stimulate Chagall’s  developing visual vocabulary and personal set of images we have come to associate with his paintings. Besotted by his fiancée, the beautiful Bella Rosenfeld, he returns to visit his birthplace in 1914. However, war confines him in the village and his work, such as in The “Rabbi of Vitebsk” assumes a more realistic style.

Then, in Moscow in 1915, he receives a commission to paint theater murals in designated panels for the State Jewish Theatre, Kamerny, one for drama, another for dance.

He opens his murals with the line “Amol iz geven” (Once upon a time), suggesting a fairy tale’s fantastical beginning or magical approach. His depiction of The Wedding Feast features Jewish egg bread (challah), chicken and fishes to symbolize fertility and harks back to Hasidic traditions. Here is the figure of the “ badchen” or professional jester, an entertainer hired to lighten up the serious business of the wedding, creating  a festive mood. Another Jewish figure, the scribe and calligrapher, or “ sofer” is present to document the proceedings. These figures reminiscent of Tevye the Dairyman by Russian writer Sholem Aleichem populate much of Chagall’s work. Here he is also commissioned to create costumes for Sholem Aleichem’s plays. And during this time he illustrates Yiddish books with ink drawings, for example Il Peretz’s The Magician. Of Chagall’s theatre murals, one critic calls them “Hebrew jazz in print.”

Returning to Vitebsk in 1918, he is appointed to serve as the Commissar of Plastic Arts. That year he founded the Vitebsk People’s Art College, Narodnoy Khudozhestvennoye Uchilische. In a letter to the Futurist communist newspaper, Chagall emphasizes the upheavals that had occurred: “The City of Vitebsk has changed. This used to be a provincial ‘backwater’ … thanks to the October Revolution, it was here that revolutionary art with its colossal and multiple dimensions was set into motion.” Yet internal disputes about the direction of teaching art causes a major split at the school, and all of Chagall’s students abandon him for Kazimir Malevich’s vision of Suprematism. Chagall resigns and leaves, never to return to Vitebsk.

But Chagall is drawn back to Paris with Bella and his daughter, Ida, remaining from 1923-41. He is commissioned by the famous art dealer Ambrose Vollard to illustrate the Old Testament. But even in his depictions such as Moses (with the divine sprouts in his head) receiving the Ten Commandments from G-d, the orange hoards at the edge of the prints recall not just the biblical wanderers in the desert but his contemporary landsmen displaced, driven from their homes because of war and discrimination. With encroaching war, Hitler’s identification of Modernist art as “ degenerate,” the deportation of artists and musicians to Dachau, Nazi invasions and the  Vichy government, Chagall’s time here is coming to a close, and he is able to flee for America brought to safety by Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Years later, Chagall, never truly comfortable in the U.S., does relate that he enjoyed New York: buying strudel and gefelte fish, reading Jewish newspapers, strolling through Lower Manhattan. During this time, his palette darkens and his paintings are filled with burning towns and fleeing rabbis. Themes of Russia, pogroms, life vignettes, Hasidic traditions are never far from his heart with the saga of the traveling Jew, unwanted and forced to flee over and over again. Feelings of loss, yearning and sadness underpin his imagery. Interestingly, this purveyor of Jewish traditions and themes is a non-observant Jew himself, a witness and recorder of the shetl’s past that has merged into the diaspora’s present.

We might think of Chagall’s symbolism as a kind of cultural Judaism, one recognizable with the traditions we associate with in our religion such as the prayer shawls, the Torah, symbolic food, Bible, ghetto life and imagined depictions, for example from the Garden of Eden…. Yet ironically, Chagall, a non-practicing Jew, even in his desire to be an artist and represent humans in his artwork, taboo in Hasidic tradition, has immortalized the life and rituals of Jewish life in Belarus. And he has come to be identified as a Jewish artist, chronicling our history in and out of time.

Some say his imagery is poetic and refers to his own psychic reality, but much he paints we affirm because in spite of disparity in size, space, time and pictorial organization, it enfolds a true emotional reality of human emotions we have come to identify as our own as Jews: such as overwhelming familial love, sadness, displacement and loss. Childhood memories are depicted in the intensity of color. Chagall often creates a kind of free visual association of thoughts, one idea prompting or propelling other associations in his paintings. Part fairy tale, part fact, Chagall’s paintings enthral particularly as we identify with his actual and imaginative journeys.

Throughout history, there have been many artists born to Jewish parents: for example Pissarro, Modigliani, Lipchitz, Soutine, Shaun, Gehry, R.B. Kitaj … but perhaps none reflects the folk art of their youth as well as Chagall, using it as a touchstone that speaks to an experience of oppression, upheaval, melancholy, migrations and marginalization, but also the soaring joy and the bliss of love:  all symbolic of the life of a Jew.

A few bibliographic references:

B, Avram. Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th Century Art. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Chagall, M. My Life: Marc Chagall. Da Capo Press.1994.

Kampf, Avram. Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th Century Art. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Lewis,M.J.,”Whatever happened to Marc Chagall.”Commentary, 2008, pp36-37.

Meyer, Franz. Marc Chagall. Harry Abrams.1963.


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