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January 21, 2017 / 23 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Marc Chagall’

Pushkin Museum Exhibition Celebrating Leon Bakst’s 150th Birthday

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

The Pushkin State Museum of Arts in Moscow is featuring an exhibition dedicated to the 150th birthday of Léon Bakst (1866–1924). Bakst was a Russian theatrical designer, painter, portraitist, book illustrator, interior designer and fashion designer in the 1910s and 20s. He published numerous articles on contemporary design and dance, was also interested in photography and the cinema, and wrote an autobiographical novel. Being fond of the art of Ancient Greece and the Orient, Bakst’s art merged classical motifs with the eccentricity of Art Nouveau.

Bakst was born in Grodno (today Belarus), to a middle-class Jewish family. His grandfather was an exceptional tailor, good enough to receive a special post from the Czar, and owned a large mansion in Saint Petersburg. After his parents had moved to Moscow, Léon would visit his grandfather’s house every Saturday, later reporting how impressed by it he had been as a youngster and how much pleasure he experienced there. At the age of twelve, Léon won a drawing contest and decided to become a painter, but his parents did not support his decision. He nevertheless studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a noncredit student, because he had failed the entry exams, working part-time as a book illustrator. He was eventually admitted in 1883, at the tender age of 17.

Bakst's Self-portrait, 1893

Bakst’s Self-portrait, 1893

At the time of his first exhibition (1889) Léon took the surname Bakst, derived from his mother’s maiden name, seeing as his father’s surname, Rosenberg, wasn’t helping his career in Russia’s art world. In 1893 he moved to Paris, studying at the Académie Julian, but still visiting his grandfather in Saint Petersburg often. In 1899, he co-founded with Sergei Diaghilev the influential periodical Mir Iskusstva, or World of Art. His graphics for this publication brought him great fame.

Bakst preferred to live in western Europe because, as a Jew, he did not have the right to live permanently outside the Pale of Settlement. During his visits to Saint Petersburg he taught in Zvantseva’s school, where one of his students was Marc Chagall.

Beginning in 1909, Bakst worked mostly as stage-designer, designing sets for Greek tragedies, and, in 1908, he made a name for himself as a scene-painter for Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes. In 1914, Bakst was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1922, Bakst broke off his relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

Girl in kokoshnik - Léon Bakst

Girl in kokoshnik – Léon Bakst

Bakst visited Baltimore in 1922, staying with his friend and patron, art philanthropist Alice Warder Garrett. Having met in Paris in 1914, when Mrs. Garrett was accompanying her diplomat husband in Europe, Bakst soon depended on his new American friend as both a confidante and an agent. Alice Garrett became Bakst’s representative in the United States, organizing two exhibitions of the artist’s work at New York’s Knoedler Gallery, as well as subsequent traveling shows. When in Baltimore, Bakst re-designed Garrett’s dining room in a shocking acidic yellow and ‘Chinese’ red confection. The artist subsequently went on to transform a small gymnasium on the grounds into a colorfully Modernist private theater.

This first retrospective exhibition of the artist to be shown in Russia includes more than 200 paintings, drawings, theatrical costumes and archive photos of Léon Bakst from Russian and Western state and private collections, gathered together by an international group of curators..

In late 2010, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London presented an exhibit of Bakst’s costumes and prints.


Germany: Greatest Double Robbery in the History of Art?

Monday, November 11th, 2013

Originally published at Gatestone Institute.

Anger is growing over the way the German government has handled information regarding a secret trove of some 1,400 works of art confiscated or fleeced by the Nazis and discovered in a Munich apartment nearly two years ago.

German prosecutors confirmed on November 4 that they had discovered the trove — by artists including Marc Chagall, Albrecht Dürer, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir — in early 2012 as part a tax-evasion investigation. But they concealed that fact from the public until they were forced to reveal it after the German newsmagazine Focus revealed details about the discovery in an exposé published on November 3.

Jewish groups in Germany and elsewhere, as well as the families of Holocaust survivors seeking to recover looted art, are asking why German authorities allowed two years to pass before disclosing the find, and the U.S. State Department is calling on Germany to return the artworks to their rightful owners.

The art trove — estimated to be worth about €1 billion ($1.35 billion) — was unearthed in a trash-filled apartment of an 80-year-old man named Cornelius Gurlitt. According to Focus magazine, much of the art was bought at a pittance by Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, from Jews fleeing Germany during the Second World War.

The trail leading to the artworks began in September 2010 aboard a German train from Switzerland to Munich. Customs officials carrying out a routine check on passengers asked Cornelius for his papers and became suspicious when they found he was carrying an envelope with €9,000 ($12,000) in cash inside, all in crisp €500 notes.

The amount was within the legal limit of €10,000 for travel within Europe and Cornelius was allowed to go on his way, but the customs officials remained suspicious. In March 2012 (not in 2011, as Focus had originally reported) police conducted a raid on his Munich apartment on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. Once inside the flat, they discovered a stash of 121 framed and 1,285 unframed works of art — sketches, oil paintings, charcoals, lithographs and watercolors — that were professionally stored behind mountains of canned food.

According to Focus magazine, at least 300 pieces in the Gurlitt collection are 20th century modern classics, so-called “degenerate art,” a term used by the Nazi regime to describe virtually all modern art. The trove also includes masterpieces and many previously unknown artworks of “amazing quality.” The oldest painting dates back to the 16th century.

Cornelius inherited the artwork from his father, an art dealer who, in the run-up to the Second World War, had been in charge of confiscating art for the Nazis. Some of the works were seized from museums, while others were stolen or bought at a fraction of their value from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell. The art was often sold outside of Germany in order to raise hard currency for the Nazi regime.

Hildebrand Gurlitt — who evidently kept much of the artwork for himself — was detained and questioned by Americans investigating art looting after the war ended in May 1945. But Gurlitt, who had an apartment in Dresden during the war, told the authorities that his collection had burned in the bombing of that city in February 1945.

Hildebrand Gurlitt died in a car accident in 1956; after the death of his wife, Helene, in 1967, the collection passed on to Cornelius, who — judging by the empty frames found in his house — apparently sold the art one piece at a time to provide himself money on which to live.

In October 2011, for instance, Cornelius sold one painting — The Lion Tamer (Löwenbändiger) by the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann — through the Cologne auction house Lempertz for €864,000 ($1.2 million). A staff member at Lempertz said Cornelius was “friendly and charming” and had told them “his mother had given him the work.” No one, he said, “suspected a thing.”

Officials at the auction house said they were surprised to learn from news reports that Gurlitt was under investigation. “No one from the government ever came to us or alerted us about him. What does it say about the federal prosecutors that they didn’t feel the need to alert the auction houses?” a spokesman said.

Soeren Kern

Chagall Lithograph Sells for $314,000 in Unique Hi-Tech Auction

Monday, February 25th, 2013

A Marc Chagall work from 1981, “Bouquet in a Green Vase”, was sold at the Tel Aviv Hilton for $314,000 in an auction that was held simultaneously in several countries, Globes reported Monday.

The Matsart auction house brought more than $800,000 in the sales, which included a 1959 work by Mané Katz, “Four Musicians”, that was sold for $206,500, and an untitled work from 1982 by Yaakov Agam, sold for $170,000.was established by the collaboration between the sales points and the auction house’s sophisticated technology that made it possible to hold simultaneous auctions.

Jewish Press News Briefs

Sotheby’s Auctions Three “Long-Forgotten” Chagall Paintings

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

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. Collection of Lillian and Jack Cottin. Marc Chagall. “Interior of the Yemenite Hagoral Synagogue, Jerusalem.” 1931. Oil over pencil on canvas. 28 7/8 by 36 1/4 in.

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.”

Menachem Wecker

Philadelphia Museum Exhibit Showcases Chagall’s Jewish Circle

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

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.

Menachem Wecker

Chagall’s Influence: Mystical Storytelling at MOBIA: Chagall and the Russian Jewish Theater

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling
Museum of Biblical Art    
1865 Broadway (at 61st Street)
New York City
Until January 18, 2009

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
New York City
Sunday – Wednesday 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
$12 adults; $10 senior citizens; $7.50 students
Children under 12 free
Until March 22, 2009

In 1931 Marc Chagall embarked on a series of etchings of the Bible that would become a pervasive, creative theme for the rest of his life. For all of his forays into the world of myth, shtetl fable and imagination, Chagall would always return to the Bible as a fundamental means of expression. He was commissioned by the legendary gallerist Ambrose Vollard (1865-1939) to begin a series of 105 black and white etchings on the Bible that were completed in 1939. Because of Vollard’s death, the war and Chagall’s exile in the United States, the complete black and white series was not printed until 1956. At that time, Chagall also hand-colored some editions of the Bible series.

The entire black and white series was printed again in 1956 in a special edition of Verve, the French arts journal. Additionally, this 1956 edition had 16 color lithographs of Biblical subjects by Chagall. A second Verve edition of Chagall’s Bible was published in 1960 with an additional 24 biblical color lithographs. We are extremely fortunate that this series of works – 55 hand-colored biblical etchings, 16 color lithographs (Verve 1) and 24 biblical color lithographs (Verve 2) – is on display at the Museum of Biblical Art until January 18, 2009.

Chagall’s interpretation of the Torah narratives is notable for their tenderness and insight into the complexities of human interaction as the Divine plan unfolds. His depiction of The Blessing of Jacob by Isaac from the first edition of hand-colored etchings is notable not only for the image of the aged, blind Isaac – seen here in profile as a shtetl sage – but also for the extended narrative that plays out in the background. Rebecca is peeping out from behind the kitchen table watching her plan unfold while in the distance she is seen again, perched atop a camel, echoing back to her first romantic encounter with Isaac – the very same husband she now conspires to deceive.



Jacob Blessed by Isaac, The Bible (1957) etching by Marc Chagall
Courtesy The Jewish Museum


Chagall’s sparing use of seemingly arbitrary color actually sets the mood for the tension and conflict implicit in the narrative. In image after image, his cautious introduction of color into the black and white compositions adds a subtle psychological layer to the narrative depicted. The distance between the sleeping Jacob and the angels is dramatically heightened, just as the distance between Potiphar’s wife and Joseph is collapsed – with his flight seen as hesitant and conditional.

While the 1956 Verve color lithographs develop a variety of themes using much of the same imagery that originated in the 1939 etchings, Chagall nonetheless exercises considerable liberty to manipulate the narratives in an even more Modernist direction. Moses Receiving the 10 Commandments feels liberated with the addition of color, the visage of Isaiah becomes an apparition of white on black and, finally, David Mourning Absalom almost merges the bereaved king with his slain son. The 1960 Verve edition unfortunately starts to lose focus, becoming more generalized renditions of biblical themes. Over all, this series of Biblical etching and lithographs spanning almost 30 years of Chagall’s creative life show the breadth and depth of Chagall’s commitment to the Torah as a primary subject.

* * * * *

It is especially interesting that just a bit uptown and across Central Park, the Jewish Museum has mounted “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater,” showing a totally different aspect of the master’s work. In one respect, Chagall’s influence seems limited to the famous murals he painted in 1920 for the lobby and auditorium of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater in Moscow. The six gouaches on canvas murals, painted in a frantic few weeks, were soon dubbed as “Chagall’s Box” because they created a unique visual environment, blurring the distinction between theater and reality. Though Chagall would leave Communist Russia in 1922 and not return until 1973, his stylistic influence was nonetheless greatly felt in much of the stage design for many years afterward.

This is one of the best exhibitions of the Jewish Museum in recent years. The show, along with its excellent catalogue, tells the amazing story of survival of Yiddish culture under Communist totalitarianism. Not unexpectedly, it is also a tale of tragedy. The exhibition opens with a portrait of Solomon Mikhoels by Natan Altman.  Mikhoels was a prominent Yiddish actor and from 1928, the head of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater until his murder by Stalin in 1948. The saga of this tireless advocate and actor to produce and create Yiddish culture weaves through this fascinating exhibition as a kind of moral undercurrent, transforming an extensive history of the time into a eulogy for a fallen hero.

In what was one of the most unlikely alliances, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 actually encouraged expressions of ethnic identity and quickly supported two Jewish theater groups, the Hebrew speaking Habima and the Yiddish language State Yiddish Chamber Theater (known as GOSEKT). They soon became the most visible Jewish presence in an intensively secularized Soviet Russia. Both theater groups were in Moscow and were regarded by the party leadership to be effective tools of Communist propaganda, although the exhibition makes it clear that more often than not, the fact that most party officials did not speak either Hebrew or Yiddish allowed considerable room for veiled political commentary and criticism of the increasingly oppressive regime.

Habima specialized in Jewish mystical and folkloric material that often depended on innovative costume and set design to carry much of the Hebrew narrative to a Russian- speaking audience. One of their signature plays, Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” (1914), was originally written in Russian, then translated by Ansky into Yiddish and finally translated by Chaim Nachman Bialik into Hebrew for Habima. Natan Altman designed the costumes in a Cubist/Futurist style, and the 300 productions in Russia featured a groundbreaking avant-garde Expressionist acting style – securing this play in the forefront of modern theater.



The Court of the Tzaddik (The Dybbuk) (1922) Photograph
Courtesy The Jewish Museum


Similarly Habima’s production of Leivich’s “The Golem” broke new ground for its combination of Jewish folklore and early 20th century science fiction. The Jewish audience that was literate in Hebrew saw the theme of the Golem – a “superman” turned monster – as a satirical symbol of the revolution gone sour, an interpretation missed by the party authorities.



The Fifth Tower (The Golem) (1925) Photograph
Courtesy The Jewish Museum


Eventually the increasingly oppressive government and the extremely limited Hebrew audience led Habima to defect and immigrate to Palestine in 1928 where after much searching, established itself as Israel’s national theater in 1958.

The Yiddish theater GOSEKT had a much longer and more influential history, miraculously lasting until the end of the Second World War and presumably acting as a beacon of hope of freedom to Russia’s millions of Yiddish-speaking and effectively enslaved Jews – especially as Stalin slowly closed down all synagogues, mikvehs, and Jewish schools.

The Jewish Museum documents the State Yiddish Chamber Theater’s impressive productions in set and costume design, posters and film clips by many artists, including Marc Chagall, Robert Falk, Natan Altman and Ignaty Nivinsky. The theater frequently explored radical and often forbidden themes, such as “God of Vengeance” (1928) by Sholem Asch that presented the connections between capitalism and decadence that descended into prostitution and lesbianism. Their production of “The Sorceress” by Avrom Goldfadn offered ultra-modern Constructivist design while exploring an eccentric vision of adventure, magic and sorcery.
A historical film clip from a performance of “The Sorceress” provides us with an example of the extremely stylized, Expressionistic gestures and stage setting that immediately evokes the monstrous fantasies of 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch, somehow blended with the whimsical shtetls of Marc Chagall.



Benjamin Zuskin as Soloveitchik the Matchmaker, from 200,000
Photograph courtesy The Jewish Museum


The narrative of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater from 1919-1935 is told through a presentation of their major productions, including An Evening of Sholem Aleichem, Agents, Mazel Tov, It’s a Lie, (all designed by Chagall), God of Vengeance, Uriel Acosta, The Sorceress, 200,000, Jewish Luck (film), At Night in the Old Marketplace, The Tenth Commandment and The Travels of Benjamin the Third – all of which had explicit Jewish content. Two other productions, Trouhadec and King Lear, were not specifically Jewish – although many saw Mikhoels’s brilliant depiction of King Lear as a thinly disguised critical portrait of Stalin himself.

Such creativity could not last under Stalin’s growing terror, and Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin’s agents in January 1948. Within two years, many of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater’s actors, designers and authors were arrested, the theater was closed and, finally, 13 leaders of the theater were executed in August 1952 in what has become known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Yiddish culture had been effectively crushed in Soviet Russia.

To witness, in this exhibition, the role of Yiddish culture as a vehicle of resistance and defiance is deeply moving. The courage and creativity these artists summoned, frequently using the tools of western Modernism, was nothing short of miraculous. And to see the powerful influence Marc Chagall had in many aspects of this struggle allows us to understand the diversity and creativity of his art. One hand firmly planted in the Torah and his Russian homeland, the other in the color and form of Modernism, Chagall shows us how much an artist can accomplish as long as he never forgets his Jewish roots.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Richard McBee

Did Chagall Know Hebrew?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Chagall’s Bible: Mystical StorytellingThrough January 18, 2009The Museum of Biblical Art1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New Yorkhttp://www.mobia.org/



It’s almost impossible to discuss Jewish art without mentioning Marc Chagall. One of nine children, Chagall was born in Vitebsk (now Belarus), which had about 20,000 Jews. Many biographies of Chagall stress his cheder attendance, where one would assume the young Chagall would have learned Hebrew and probably a bit of Aramaic in classes devoted to studying the Talmud.

But as even a cursory examination of the works in the fantastic show “Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling” at the Museum of Biblical Art reveals, the painter of “The Praying Jew,” “Jew in Green,” and the monumental windows at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem was virtually illiterate in Hebrew. Despite designing sets for Sholem Aleichem, finishing more than 100 plates in a series of etchings on the bible, and completing several hundred other biblical works, the artist everyone thinks of as the foremost Jewish painter ought to be reevaluated.


Nowhere is Chagall’s bulky Hebrew more apparent than in his window dedicated to the tribe of Levi, the original lithograph of which hangs at the MOBIA show. The work is mostly yellow (perhaps celebrating the priests, who would wear golden garments while serving alongside the golden utensils of the Tabernacle and the Temple), and it depicts two birds and two animals, which could be either donkeys or lions, surrounding what appears to be a goblet holding fish. Above the menagerie, Chagall wrote Levi properly in Hebrew, and below he laid out a Shabbat table with candles, goblets, and perhaps even loaves of challah.



Marc Chagall, Levi


In the middle of the table, inscribed on the two tablets of the law, is Moses’ blessing of Levi from Deuteronomy 33:10. Just before he is to die, Moses prophecies of the tribe of Levi, “They shall teach Your law to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense in front of your nose, and a burnt offering on Your altar. G-d, bless his service, and accept the works of his hands; strike his enemies, so they will never rise again.” This blessing was a huge improvement on Jacob’s “blessing” of Levi in Genesis 49:5, where he called Levi (and Simeon) murderers who wield weapons of chaos (“hamas”), but in the hands of Chagall it becomes muddied.


Chagall’s first line is mostly correct, but on the second line, he confuses a vav with a yud in the word “Your Torah,” and instead of writing “to Israel” he writes “to G-d,” truncating the word and forgetting the second, third, and fourth letters. Needless to say, a text that says Levi teaches Torah to the tribes of Israel is quite different from one that boldly claims that Levi teaches G-d. On the next line, when intending to write “they shall place,” the artist mistakenly forms a mem like a tet, which considerably alters the meaning, and he misforms the last letter of “incense” and writes a kaf instead of a bet in front of the next word.

At this point, Chagall would surely have failed a middle school spelling exam, but he is just getting started. On the following line, he again confuses a mem and a tet, confuses the next letter (which is supposed to be a zayen), and swaps a kaf for both the next bet and the first letter of the next word. On the next line, Chagall’s errors yield, “G-d, bless my service” in the place of his “service” — which means Chagall’s blessing casts Moses as the recipient rather than Levi – and he forgets a vav (the preposition “and”) in front of chalil, burnt offering, and stops the sentence midway cutting out the line about smiting Levi’s enemies.



Marc Chagall, Issachar



In the window for Issachar, Chagall turns not to Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33:18, but to Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:14. Issachar’s window employs a mostly green palette, with red and blue highlights. The overall composition gives the appearance of a garden, wherein a rooster-like animal, several birds, snakes (perhaps Issachar’s brother Dan, who is described as a “snake upon the path” in Jacob’s blessing), and a donkey reside. Indeed, Jacob’s blessing declares Issachar to be “a donkey, who is weighed down by his burdens. And he saw that it was good to rest, and that the land was nice, and he turned his shoulder to withstand, and he became a slave to bearing.” Evidently depicting the Hebrew properly was too burdensome to Chagall, who again misrepresented a mem as a tet in the word “burdens,” and who confused a mem sofit with a samech in the second line. To his credit, Chagall spells Issachar’s name correctly (phonetically Issasschar), including the silent letter sin, but his other errors in the Issachar window include another confusion of a bet with a kaf.


Another of the lithographs included in the show – MOBIA has all 12, including another 100 etchings, lithographs, and oil paintings – is the window of the tribe of Reuven. For this window, Chagall again turned not to Moses’ blessing but to Jacob’s. Jacob’s blessing turned out to be more of a curse: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might,” he begins in Genesis 49:3. But then the blessing turns to constructive criticism: “excessive dignity and excessive power. As unstable as water, you will not withstand, because you went up on your father’s bed, then you defiled it.”

Chagall’s Reuven window is a deep blue, giving form to Jacob’s depression and disappointment in Reuven’s betrayal. Birds fly overhead, as fish swim below, in the unruly water that was Jacob’s metaphor for his son’s hotheadedness. And sure enough, Chagall manages to misspell Reuven’s name (he writes Reuchen), and to forget a yud in the second word, so instead of Jacob’s statement “Reuven, you are my firstborn,” Chagall’s window declares, “Reuchen, a firstborn you are.”



Marc Chagall, Reuven


 If not for Chagall’s incompetence with the other inscriptions, it would be tempting to applaud the painter for playing around with the text to further show Jacob distancing himself from his firstborn, whom he has passed over in favor of Judah, by saying Reuven is a firstborn, but not the firstborn. But Chagall has lost the right to the benefit of our doubt, especially as he misforms the letter aleph several times in the work. A painter who cannot even write an aleph surely did not get through many pages of the Talmud in school.


Being a Hebrew scholar is not a prerequisite to creating great art. Raphael produced fine works without knowing his aleph-bet, and El Greco worked splendidly without attending heder. My hope is not to mock Chagall or to discredit his works for their pseudo-Hebraic letters and poor transcription. In fact, Chagall ought to be applauded for creating such Jewish works, and for overpopulating them with Hebrew letters, the likes of which have hardly been seen since Rembrandt.

But it is also vital to study Chagall carefully and to examine his letters and words under the microscope even if he painted so many rabbis. Rembrandt’s Hebrew was not perfect, and neither is Chagall’s. Chagall’s resume makes a great claim for his being the quintessential Jewish artist, but maybe there ought to be an asterisk cautioning that he slept through Hebrew class.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2008/12/10/

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