In the middle core section 25 paintings utilize the crucifixion as a major element. The archetypical Calvary (1912) establishes Chagall’s earliest and most hallucinogenic use of the subject to express his artistic and familial trials. Chagall has commented that the figures at the bottom of the cross represent his mother and father. All throughout the 1940’s Chagall’s paintings and drawings search for a balance between the terrifying news reaching him of Jewish suffering and his own increasingly precarious existence in Paris and subsequent exile to New York in June 1941. Fire in the Snow (1942) employs Chagall’s frequently used motif of a fleeing mother and child, here cloaked in green shadows, to fully bring home the horror of losing home, family and community. The Crucified (1944), in response to the battle for Vitebsk, Chagall’s birthplace, brutally confronts the murder of the entire Jewish populace in 1941.
Are we convinced after seeing Chagall’s works that the use of the crucifixion does somehow add to our understanding of the holocaust? For this reviewer, only rarely. White Crucifixion (1938) [Art Institute of Chicago; sadly not available for this exhibition], The Crucified (1944) and Christ in the Night (1948) have a calm horror that convinces in a totally unique manner. It is important to remember that when these works were created, Chagall (among many other artists) was actively inventing an aesthetic to talk about the most horrible crime humanity has ever seen. Their search for image and metaphor, let alone comprehensible meaning, continues to be daunting to all who consider this aspect of Jewish experience.
The third section of the exhibition explores Chagall in exile. While the war continued to haunt him, the sudden death of his beloved wife Bella in 1944 plunged him into grief only to be finally relieved by a new relationship and marriage in 1946. These 13 works reflect an artist in recovery from both catastrophic national tragedy and personal loss. The Wedding Candles (1945) is haunting in its poetic vision of a romantic past Chagall never had.
The brilliance of this exhibition lies in presenting us with a Jewish artist who is unflinching in his determination to engage the world in all its beauty and horrors using a visual language uniquely Jewish. As the excellent catalogue essays by Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Kenneth E. Silver explicate, Chagall’s use of the “Jewish crucifixion” arose within ample precedent going back to the 19th century as well as other contemporary artists grappling with the Holocaust and persecution. It is deeply significant that this view of Marc Chagall teaches us that one essential quality of great art is a relentless engagement in the unredeemed world we live in.
From: For the Slaughtered Artists (Paris, 1950):
And as I stand – from my paintings
The painted David descends to me,
Harp in hand. He wants to help me
Weep and recite chapters of Psalms.
After him, our Moses descends.
He says: Don’t fear anyone.
He tells you to lie quietly
Until he again engraves
New tablets for a new world.