on October 13, 2013
This volume is published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at The Jewish Museum in New York from September 2013 to February 2014. It is not an exhibition catalogue in the usual sense of a numbered series of reproductions of the exhibited items; it consists, rather, of two essays centered around and commenting on the fifty-odd paintings and drawings in the show and a small selection of Chagall's poems in English translation. (In fact, the only serious argument I have with this book is that the originals of the poems--in Russian, Yiddish, and French--are not also given. Poetry is, as is well known, the first thing to be lost in translation, and surely a great number of the people who would want to see this exhibition and have the publication would be able to read the originals.) The focus is on the years between 1930 and 1948--although these are bracketed by the inclusion of both earlier and later works of a similar kind--and it should put to rest the notion that only the early Chagall is worthy of serious attention. For these are serious works indeed, and in fact rather shocking in their insistence on the figure of Christ as their central image. Who would have thought that the godfather of fiddler-on-the-roof imagery, for which this transplanted Russian Jew became most widely known, would have created during these years at least twenty-five images of the Crucifixion? How this came about, why Chagall went in that direction and what the figure of the crucified Christ ultimately meant to the artist is the subject of the fascinating seventy-page essay by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, the Senior Curator at The Jewish Museum, an established Chagall scholar whose many publications on the artist include the excellent "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater," the catalogue of an exhibition she curated at the museum in 2008 (see the reviews on this website). Dr. Goodman calls her essay about Chagall in the '30's and '40's "The Fractured Years," a title concisely evocative of the "Love, War, and Exile" theme of the exhibition: years in which Chagall was forced to flee the Paris he had come to love, first to temporary refuge in the south of France, and then to the United States, where the increasingly credibly documented reports of the Holocaust caused him excruciating existential anxiety in his exile, and where at the same time he had to suffer the death of his beloved soul-mate, Bella, his muse and wife of over thirty years.
The second essay in the book is by the noted art historian Kenneth E. Silver, who has written extensively on French art in the early twentieth century and on French-Russian Jewish artists such as Chaim Soutine. His essay is titled "Fluid Chaos Felt by the Soul," a formulation used by the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, a friend of Chagall's, to describe the artist's work. Prof. Silver notes that the artistic theme of the "Jewish Jesus" had been evolving since at least the late eighteenth century, and he situates Chagall's Christ iconography well within this tradition: the connection between the Christian savior and Jewish martyrdom is at the bottom of the "flood of turbulent imagery [that] was the aesthetic rule of Chagall's oeuvre" (114).
There are about fifty full-page reproductions of the works, as well as numerous companion illustrations and photographs. The color of the reproductions is excellent, which is crucial with Chagall: as Picasso said, "when Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only person left who understands what color really is." Everyone who has seen a general survey of Chagall's works is familiar with one or two of his Christ paintings. But it is quite a different thing to see so many of them gathered from over thirty-five institutional and private lenders world-wide and to realize how important the image of the crucified Christ was to him in the insane years of World War II and the Holocaust. Having seen these paintings and read these essays, it is not likely one will ever think of Chagall in the same way again.