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Philadelphia Museum Exhibit Showcases Chagall’s Jewish Circle

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Paris through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle

Through July 10, 2011

Philadelphia Museum of Art

26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway



Although the subject matter of Marc Chagall’s 1910 painting Resurrection of Lazarus clearly comes from Christian scripture, the artist put his decidedly Jewish mark on the image twice over. Chagall depicted both a Star of David and two hands – signifying the priestly blessing – on the tomb from which the haloed Lazarus has emerged. Although Jewish burial traditions tended to represent the priestly hands with the index and middle fingers touching and the ring and small fingers touching and a gap in between, Chagall, perhaps forgetting the convention, elected to spread all the fingers out evenly.


“Chagall reminds the viewer that the tale concerns a Jew,” writes Michael Taylor, Muriel and Philip Berman curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the catalog essay. “A key transitional work, Resurrection of Lazarus anticipates the haunting series of Jewish cemetery paintings that the artist would begin later that decade.” Taylor’s final point about Chagall’s cemetery works is amplified by Chagall’s decision to call attention to the above-ground vault that Lazarus has emerged from, whereas the New Testament refers to the tomb as a “cave, and a stone lay upon it.”


That Lazarus (possibly from the Hebrew name Elazar) was Jewish is beside the point. Chagall’s choice to cover the tombstone with Jewish symbols has everything to do with his view that even, and particularly, Christian stories – like the crucifixion, which he depicted many times (see Richard McBee’s excellent and informative June 5, 2011, article in these pages, “Chagall and the Cross“) – are about Jewish themes as well.


The Lazarus painting is one of several works in the Philadelphia Museum’s exhibit “Paris through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle” that has strong Jewish content. The doorpost to the extreme right in The Smolensk Newspaper bears the three-letter divine name that one would expect to see on a mezuzah. Though a podcast on the Philadelphia Museum website misidentifies the door post as a mezuzah – unless the door post features a six-foot tall mezuzah, which would be unheard of – but Chagall has clearly used the divine name (shindaledyud) to identify the men, who are looking at a copy of the Smolensk newspaper with the headline “War,” as Jewish.



Marc Chagall. “The Smolensk Newspaper.” 1914. Oil on cardboard, 14 15/16″ x 19 3/4″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.



The two men depicted in the painting are clearly distressed by the article headline. The younger mustachioed man lifts his hat as he wipes his brow with “a mixture of terror and disbelief,” perhaps fearing being called up for military service, as Taylor describes it in the catalog. “Dressed in traditional Jewish peasant garb, the older man is beyond the age for active service but may be a veteran of previous wars, especially given the compulsory conscription that Czarist regimes had imposed on the Jewish population in the 19th century,” Taylor writes. The ominous green light cast by a lamp on the table mirrors the green yud in the divine name. The shin and daled (spelling the Hebrew word for “demon”) are rendered in red. One wonders why Chagall includes the vowel under the first letter but neglects the vowel under the second letter, but, as I have shown previously (see “Did Chagall Know Hebrew” in these pages, December 10, 2008), Chagall’s seemed to make a lot of mistakes in his Hebrew inscriptions.


According to Taylor, Half-Past Three (The Poet) might contain another reference to Chagall’s religious upbringing. The portrait contains an upside-down portrait of the Russian poet Mazin, who was one of Chagall’s best friends. In Mazin’s head, where his forehead touches his shoulders, while his chin faces the heavens, “Chagall may have intended the illogically upturned head as a visual expression of the Yiddish idiom fardreiter kop (turned head),” Taylor writes, “which denotes a state of giddiness or disorientation bordering on madness, an appropriate description for such a delightfully tumultuous image of the poetic inspiration that-as the painting’s title suggests-flows like wine at half-past three in the morning.”



Marc Chagall. “Half-Past Three (The Poet).” 1911. Oil on canvas, 77 1/8″ x 57″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.



A Yiddish expression might also be behind Chagall’s Over Vitebsk, which shows a Jewish man with a sack and a cane floating over a snowscape with an Orthodox church in the background. The painting plays on the Yiddish expression genen iber di heiser (going over houses), used to describe beggars’ door-to-door supplications. “This whimsical turn of phrase allowed Chagall to transform an otherwise naturalistically rendered scene of Vitebsk in winter through the addition of a strange airborne character,” Taylor writes, “whose presence imbues the composition with a dreamlike otherworldliness.”



Marc Chagall. “Over Vitebsk.” C. 1914. Oil, gouache, graphite, and ink on paper. 12 3/8″ x 15 3/4″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.



The Jewish content in Purim is far more readily apparent. The work, titled in Hebrew in the top right corner, shows a man and a woman delivering mishloach manot, while hidden away in the top left corner (reminiscent of the gallows 17th century Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp depicted in his paintings of Kampen) are three hanging (or impaled) effigies of Haman. Chagall’s Purim was a study for a larger mural series commissioned for a school that was part of the Petrograd synagogue. The Russian Revolution, which broke out in 1917, sent Chagall and his wife Bella back to Vitebsk and precluded finishing the mural.


Taylor speculates that the “gruesome” figures might have been intended to serve as “chilling reminders of the pogroms inflicted on Jewish populations in recent times” for the school children.


Although possible, there are accounts of medieval Christian laws designed to prevent Jews from crucifying effigies of Jesus on Purim (for more information, see my article “Why Crucify Haman? Artistic representations of the Purim villain shed light on medieval Jewish and Christian interpretations of the holiday” on the website, MyJewishLearning.com), so there is precedent for such effigies on Purim.


Purim itself underwent a tough journey. It was one of several of Chagall’s works confiscated by the National Socialist authorities and sent to Munich. It toured 12 other cities as part of the exhibit on so-called “degenerate art” and was seen by more than 3 million people, according to Taylor’s essay.



Marc Chagall. “Purim.” C. 1916-17. Oil on canvas. 19 7/8″ x 28 5/16″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.



It’s a special treat to see all the Jewish content and themes packed into the Philadelphia Museum’s exhibit, but it’s also worth paying attention to the work Taylor and his colleagues have done on Chagall’s circle of friends and fellow artists, many of whom were fellow Jews – most prominently Leon Bakst and Amadeo Modigliani – and immigrants, who were attracted to the religious tolerance of Paris.


           Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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