Israeli & International Art
Sotheby’s New York
Auction: December 14, 2011; 2 p.m.
It’s hard to imagine an authentic Chagall painting or drawing that isn’t important, particularly to people who care about Jewish art. The three synagogue paintings (lots 13-15) slated to be sold at Sotheby’s, as part of its December 14 Israeli & International Art auction in New York City are no exception, which is why the high end of Sotheby’s estimate for the trio is $1.6 million (the low end is a cool $1 million). But it’s interesting to note not only the amount the works are promising to be sold for, but also how the works are being “sold” to the public.
According to the Sotheby’s New York press release, the works are “exceptionally rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors” by Chagall. Perhaps seeking to justify why the works are the rarest of rarities, Sotheby’s adds, “In all, only six finished oils of synagogues by the artist are known to exist.”
Apparently, news reports are buying the publicity materials that Sotheby’s has to sell. Writing for the Examiner.com New York art auctions page, Alison Martin calls the works “rare” and mostly cribs from the release. And, countless media outlets ran an Associated Press story, which began, “Three rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors by Marc Chagall are going on the auction block in New York City.” Sadly, the AP story also adds no details beyond the Sotheby’s promotional materials.
The truth seems to be that there isn’t a lot of information about the three works other than the name of their original owner (Max Cottin) and the fact that they last came to market 66 years ago, when they were acquired from an exhibit at the Gallery of Jewish Art in New York in 1945. Of course, provenance—or a work’s detailed past ownership—is particularly important these days, when many paintings were lost, stolen, or forcibly sold during World War II. But one wishes there was more information about the three works than just their previous owners.
Lot 14, Interior of the Yemenite Hagoral Synagogue, Jerusalem (1931), is the largest and most expensive of the group. Sotheby’s calls the shul, which it says is near the market, Machne Yehudah, a “little-known” house of worship, which one accesses via “a maze of winding pedestrian streets, impassable to motor traffic.” It’s worth noting that the name of the shul, which Sotheby’s says is still in use, suggests the casting of lots—certainly an unusual name.
Chagall’s depiction shows the ark, the Aron—which has three parallel compartments, one of which is open to reveal several Torah scrolls—the podium, bimah, where the prayer leader stands, and an elaborate rug and other interior decorations. Above the ark is a depiction of the Ten Commandments, with seemingly correct Hebrew inscriptions, although a Hebrew verse on the ark itself seems to mis-transcribe the quote from Psalms 16:8, “I have set God opposite me always”—a verse that frequently appears in shuls. Chagall also represents a window, a kabbalistic-style amulet-drawing bearing God’s name, three hanging “Eternal Flames,” and what looks like two figures (albeit small ones, who are out of proportion) seated on benches. Most bizarrely, Chagall writes a Hebrew word (perhaps the Tetragrammaton?) above the top of the ark, as if it is written on the wall, or on a hovering halo.
This is pure speculation, but one wonders if Chagall didn’t intentionally decide to paint the ark off-center so as to include the blue door on the right side of the piece, and thus allow the viewer a point of exit. Of course, there are a variety of formal reasons for placing the door there – its arched top balances with the window and the Ten Commandments, and its deep blue color offsets the redness of the rug. And yet, after spending a good amount of time looking at the work, I can’t help but be struck by that door.
Knowing what we know about Chagall, he might have sought an easy exit strategy. “For a period of his childhood Marc Chagall was a singer at a synagogue, but he abandoned religion after his Bar Mitzvah, as did most of his generation,” writes Benjamin Harshav in the book Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World: The Nature of Chagall’s Art and Iconography (Rizzoli, 2006). Addressing a 1917 Chagall synagogue painting—which isn’t one of the three at Sotheby’s—Harshav notes, “This synagogue is colorful but hollow, not performing its authentic functions. The man on the stage is supposed to read the Torah scroll, but he looks embarrassed and lost with no Torah in front of him. No one pays attention to the reading …. It is an exotic, old, and weary world, however vivid the memories about it may be.”