For many, Marc Chagall’s paintings are easy to love. His vibrantly colored landscapes are dreamscapes full of life and longing, with many motifs drawn from his observant home in the Russian town of Vitebsk.
A new show at The Jewish Museum that opened earlier this week shows a darker side of the artist. “Marc Chagall: Love, War, and Exile” covers the years 1930 to 1948, during the time he was living in Paris, then displaced in 1939 to the south of France to escape the Nazis, and then displaced again in 1941. That year, he and his wife Bella fled to New York, helped by Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee. Chagall’s daughter Ida arrived in New York a few months after he did, bringing hundreds of his paintings. In 1944, his beloved wife died suddenly, his personal grief adding to his distress over world events.
The Jewish Museum has hung the 31 paintings and 22 works on paper on deep blue walls that bear excerpts of Chagall’s poetry and writing. The earliest paintings are full of flowers, reflecting his and Bella’s love of Paris, and the final paintings show a return to lightness, freedom and even love.
The introductory wall text prepares readers for what might otherwise be a shock in the middle section of the exhibit: a series of paintings depicting Jesus Christ and the crucifixion that fills one of the rooms. In fact, Chagall did more than 25 major paintings on this theme, with many variations: the Christ figure wearing tefillin, appearing at night, floating in the sky, dressed in a tallit or a loincloth that appears to be made of a tallit, or presented as a Christian with a halo. Sometimes the painter put himself on the cross.
In many works, the Christ figure shares the canvas with Chagall’s more familiar imagery, now looking endangered, with the buildings and streetscapes of his native Vitebsk in flames, men holding Torahs and trying to flee, women sheltering babies, floating angels, ladders, bird-headed figures, clocks and candles.
In a poem, he asks, “Should I paint the earth, the sky, my heart? /The cities burning, my brothers fleeing? /My eyes in tears. / Where should I run and fly, to whom?”
Susan Tumarkin Goodman, senior curator emerita at The Jewish Museum, who curated the exhibition, has worked on several Chagall shows previously at the museum, but almost all of the paintings in this show are being shown here for the first time.
Asked how working on this show influenced her view of the painter, she says, “We see a connection between his life and his experience and his art. He is a much more serious, reflective, responsive individual than we may have thought.” She adds, “The level is deep, dark, in response to the times and dislocation in his life.” For Goodman, it was a surprise, too, to learn that he had done so many paintings with the crucifix image.
Goodman makes the point that the crucifixes “were not — or not primarily — an expression of Christian theology.” Rather, as she explains in her essay in the exhibition catalogue, he was using Christian iconography to express his anguish at the tragic situation of European Jewry, connecting the suffering of Christ with the suffering of the Jewish people.
Goodman quotes the artist, “For me Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr.”
To paint a crucifixion was transgressive, for sure, for a Jewish artist, but not new. Other modernist painters, like Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, had also depicted the figure of Christ in their work. In fact, in 1942, the Puma Gallery launched a show, “Modern Christs,” and of the 26 artists represented, 17 were Jewish.
Chagall, who was born Moishe Segal to a chasidic family in what is now Belarus, first began drawing the figure of Christ in 1908, when he was a student in St. Petersburg. And though the focus of the exhibit is on Chagall’s paintings and drawings from the ‘30s through 1948, the curator has juxtaposed those works with others from different eras. “Calvary” (1912) shows the crucified Christ as a child, with his parents nearby — Chagall said he was thinking of his own parents when he painted them. Next to it hangs “In Front of the Picture” (1968), painted when he was over 80; that painting includes a painting within the painting of Christ.
“Persecution” (c. 1941) was painted soon after Chagall arrived in New York, as he was hearing news of the death and destruction of European Jews. The Jesus figure on the cross is in the foreground, while there’s a shtetl burning in the background, as though a pogrom has just occurred. Painted in shades of blue, people are fleeing with their belongings, while a rooster steps forward, and one man continues reading his book. Goodman suggests that Chagall felt guilty sitting out the war from the safety of America.
Several of the paintings have two dates, referring to his initial painting (in Europe) and then the reworking (in New York). A very large painting, “The Fall of the Angel,” was painted in 1923, then reworked in 1933 in France and then again in 1947, with each version progressively darker, reflecting the growing tragedy. The crucified Christ figure is small and off to the side, while the central figure is a bright red angel on fire, falling to the ground, surrounded by a mother with child, a grandfather clock, a cow playing a violin, a religious man carrying an open torah, a golden moon and a lit candle.
Three vitrines showcase letters, catalogs, photographs and books Chagall illustrated, including Bella’s memoir, “Burning Lights,” about her childhood in Vitebsk. Written in Yiddish in 1939, the book was translated and published posthumously in France in 1945. The title links Bella and memories of Vitebsk with many of the paintings that feature candles and candelabras, both radiant and unlit.
Throughout his marriage to Bella, Chagall painted a series of wedding portraits. “In the Night” (1943) has the couple embracing on a dark snow-covered street, peaceful in each other’s arms. She wears a white veil, and they are illuminated by a lamp hanging over their heads.
After Bella’s death, Chagall continued to paint her. In “The Wedding Candles” (1945), created from a larger painting that he brought from Europe and cut in half, the bride and groom stand under a chuppah, but they are out of focus. After the war, his paintings have more light. His “Cow with Parasol” (1946) again shows his playful side — the cow’s tail becomes the bride and groom.
Chagall’s daughter was worried about him after Bella’s death and hired a French-speaking English woman to take care of him. The two had a romance, and moved back to France in 1948, where he was warmly received and celebrated. He continued to paint his world that was no more, but the images were no longer in flames. Chagall died in 1985, at age 97.
“Marc Chagall: Love, War, and Exile” is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (at 92nd Street), through Feb. 2, 2014. (212) 423-3200.