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.”
I disagree with Harshav on several counts. First, there’s no reason to assume that the people in the shul are actually praying at the moment that Chagall captures them, so it’s specious to say the mood is disinterest and apathy because the seated figures in the top left corner don’t seem to be paying attention. Perhaps the man at the bimah has no Torah scroll because he’s either at a different point in his prayers than reading the Torah, or perhaps he’s not praying at all. And the man at the podium holds his hands up to his mouth—much like another figure on the right—so one wonders how Harshav knows that the man is “embarrassed and lost.” Maybe he’s just stroking his beard.
When we approach the two other Sotheby’s shuls—the 1931 Interior of the Ashkenazi Ha’ari Synagogue, Safed (lot 13) and the 1935 Synagogue in Vilna, the ‘Kloyz’ of the Vilna Gaon (lot 15)—it’s important to be careful about projecting too much of what we know about Chagall onto the works, which is why I acknowledge the speculative interpretation of the blue door.
The Tzefat-based synagogue represented in Lot 13—that of Rav Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), the “Ari”—may be familiar to some readers, with its iconic vine- and grape-encrusted pillars on the ark. Here Chagall shows a unique perspective of the shul. Rather than showing the bimah, like he does in Lot 14, Chagall depicts the Aron in profile. The shul looks a bit cluttered and chaotic—like a parking lot of benches and study lecterns. Two seated men either engage in study or prayer, but they are dwarfed by the enormity of the shul interior. Yet, however quiet and cluttered the shul looks, Chagall achieves a handsome balance between the white (with touches of blue and ochre) solemn columns and vaulted ceiling and the colorful and organic details on the Aron. The painting is surely not about a clash between Classical architecture and Jewish decorative arts, but if the work were a metaphor for that divide, one cannot help but think that Chagall seemed more interested in the Aron as a ritual object than he was with the shul’s architecture.
Lot 15 shows a view of a shul that plants the viewer much closer to the Aron than do the other two Sotheby’s paintings. Instead of hovering above the ground level, the viewer is cast looking up at the Aron. Here, Chagall has paid more attention to the interplay of light and shadow than in the other works, and the dabs of white light evoke the work of French landscape painter Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875).
According to Sotheby’s, a Kloyz is a “private synagogue and study hall of a great Rabbinic leader.” The shul was destroyed in World War II, and none of the “few rare photographs” of the structure show the Aron, according to Sotheby’s, and “Only close associates who exemplified Torah learning and piety were invited to pray and study in the Rabbi’s ‘Kloyz.’”
Chagall also visited Vilna in 1935, and Sotheby’s includes a translation of the Yiddish poem that he wrote about the Great Vilna Synagogue. “The old shul, the old street/ I painted them just yesteryear./ Now smoke rises there, and ash/ And the parokhet is lost./ Where are your Torah scrolls?/ The lamps, menorahs, chandeliers?/ The air, generations filled with their breath?/ It evaporated in the sky,” begins the poem. “Trembling, I put the color,/ The green color of the Ark of the Covenant./ I bowed in tears,/ Alone in the shul – a last witness.”
Even if Chagall didn’t worship in shul regularly, the aspect of “last witness” clearly comes through in his paintings. Sotheby’s also has letters in which Chagall suggested he wanted to buy the three paintings back from Jack Cottin, but “the request was poignantly but firmly declined.”
It’s clear that Chagall was deeply affected by the shuls, but it’s not necessarily correct to refer to these paintings as rare. Sure Chagall didn’t paint a lot of shuls, but how many do we expect him to have painted? In a sense, Rembrandt rarely painted trees, Michelangelo rarely added seascapes to his repertoire, and Monet rarely painted portraits. It’s far more productive to look at how the paintings fit (or don’t) into Chagall’s larger body of work than it is to focus on their rarity. That’s fine for a release promoting the Sotheby’s sale, but reporters should give the paintings the deeper consideration they deserve.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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