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Three remarkably realist Marc Chagall paintings of synagogues, to be sold at Sotheby’s tomorrow, tell the story of the artist’s Zionism

Jeannie Rosenfeld
December 13, 2011

Marc Chagall’s stature among 20th-century artists owes much to the way he straddled movements and worlds to invent a distinctive visual language. His 1913 cubist “Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers,” the cover illustration for Jonathan Wilson’s 2007 Nextbook Press book on the artist, embodies this, portraying Chagall in his studio with a view of the Eiffel Tower but imagining, and capturing on his canvas within the canvas, the iconography of his native Vitebsk.

Chagall lovingly portrayed shtetl life, of course, and, by his own account, his childhood home was “the soil that nourished the roots of [his] art.” But he turned away from formal religion after his bar mitzvah, left Russia for good in 1922, and became a vital member of the École de Paris. While his work never fully escaped charges that it was provincial, the dream-like depictions of floating brides and animals for which he is best known mostly universalized his enduring spirituality.

All this makes the three relatively straightforward paintings of synagogue interiors being auctioned by Sotheby’s tomorrow somewhat remarkable. Rare documentary representations from trips Chagall made to Palestine and Vilna in the 1930s, the paintings are among only six known examples of the kind. The others are in the collections of the Israel Museum and Amsterdam’s Stedlijk and on long-term loan to the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris.

Perhaps because the works are atypical, the estimates for their sale prices, in the $300,000 to $600,000 range, are modest for Chagall. (Prime examples bring several million dollars, and his auction record is $14.8 million.) But the realism in the paintings is striking, given how strongly Chagall is associated with the fantastic, and was also a factor that helped Sotheby’s identify the sites. “This was one of his modes of painting,” Hebrew University scholar Ziva Amishai-Maisels told me. Chagall painted several churches around that time, though notably those are all exteriors.

Sotheby’s consignments come to the market from heirs of the collector who acquired them in 1945 at the inaugural exhibition of the short-lived Gallery of Jewish Art in New York. It was a low point in Chagall’s life, when he was still mourning the premature death of his beloved wife, Bella, and coming to terms with the recent destruction of European Jewry. Letters sent by Chagall and on his behalf to the buyer’s son two decades later suggest he cared deeply about these pictures and was interested in getting them back, a request that was evaded. Beyond their sheer radiance, which doesn’t come through in reproductions, the details surrounding the creation of these pictures shed light on why they were so personally significant.

In a presentation at Sotheby’s earlier this month, the artist’s granddaughter Bella Meyer said Chagall always wanted to visit the Jewish ancestral homeland. His opportunity ostensibly came when Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned him to make a book of prints illustrating the Bible. In fact, it has been established that Vollard had no intention of sending him to Palestine for the project but, fortuitously, Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, invited Chagall around that time to partake in the founding of that city’s art museum. Sailing aboard the Champollion from Marseilles to Alexandria in the spring of 1931, Chagall encountered Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, an old friend, and met the French Jewish philosopher Edmund Fleg. His own Zionism was emboldened by visits to sites like the Wailing Wall and Rachel’s Tomb, which he also depicted.

According to Meyer, Chagall “was very moved to be in the place where the prophets had been,” and, in a sense, the Holy Land replaced Vitebsk as his spiritual home. The experience seems to have reshaped his sense of Jewish destiny. As he put it upon his installation of stained-glass windows representing the 12 tribes in the synagogue at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center in 1962: “How is it that the air and earth of Vitebsk, my birthplace, and of thousands of years of exile, find themselves mingled in the air and earth of Jerusalem?” (He also noted that such thoughts first occurred to him on the 1931 trip, the first of eight visits.)

Curiously, of all the synagogues in Jerusalem, the one Chagall rendered was the inconspicuous Hagoral (meaning “lottery” and referring to a late-19th-century housing solution for poor Yemenite immigrants), on the second floor of a nondescript building in the Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood. With the help of Reuven Gafni, the preeminent expert on Jerusalem’s synagogues, Sotheby’s Israeli art specialist Jennifer Roth tracked the site down and, upon discovering the accuracy and detail with which it had been captured, was awed to find herself “literally in the footsteps of Chagall.”

Despite it being Sephardic and very modest, Roth surmises that Hagoral would have appealed to Chagall, with its tripartite ark most likely carved by Galician artisans and the surrounding streets—narrow, windy, and impenetrable by cars—reminiscent of his Eastern European shtetl. Meyer echoed this, noting her grandfather’s passion for rich textiles, which she imagines was stirred by the synagogue’s Orientalist rugs and the colorful fabrics adorning its parochet, bimah, and benches: “I can’t help but thinking he saw it and said ‘Look how beautiful,’ and that it brought him back to such a deeply folkloric sense of his origins.”

Chagall also traveled to the town of Safed, where he painted two versions of the Sephardic Ha’Ari synagogue and one of the Ashkenazi Ha’Ari. (Both synagogues are dedicated to the 16th-century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, whose ideas would have been familiar to Chagall from his Hasidic childhood, but the former dates from the 13th century while the latter was built during the Ari’s lifetime.) Here, perhaps playing up the supernatural, Chagall emphasized soaring Gothic-like architecture and imparted an almost unnatural blue hue. In the Ashkenazi example, the only Safed painting at Sotheby’s, Chagall particularly elongated structural columns and lavishly illustrated the ark, with its red parochet and decorations of leaves and grapes in green, gold, and brown.

That vivid sense of color is also evident in the Vilna painting but the mood is more somber, reflecting that when Chagall traveled there in 1935, to help establish a Jewish art museum, he clearly sensed the impending danger. Whereas Chagall’s depictions of Palestine synagogues show them occupied by lingering worshipers, his Vilna sanctuary seems eerily empty. Tellingly, upon his return from Lithuania, Chagall and Bella ardently tried to shore up their French citizenship, though they would ultimately have to spend the war years in New York.

Sotheby’s initially had difficulty pinpointing this synagogue as well, but senior Judaica consultant Sharon Mintz found archival photos that helped identify it as the “kloys,” or private shul and study hall, of the Vilna Gaon. It was destroyed in World War II—a concrete Soviet school building now occupies the space—and Chagall’s rendering is actually the only image of this direct view, with the central ark flanked by three arched stained-glass windows. A testament to its historic value, it will be included in a forthcoming catalog of Lithuanian synagogues. More poignantly, the painting is an elegy for a lost world, also memorialized by Chagall in a Yiddish poem he later wrote about the Great Vilna Synagogue, included in Yale scholar Benjamin Harshav’s monumental 2003 biography, Marc Chagall and His Times:

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.

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.

Chagall would go on to do a series of controversial Crucifixions, expressing the horrors of the Holocaust by linking Jesus’ suffering with the cruelties inflicted on his people, and he finally published his complete Bible prints in 1956. Toward the end of his prolific career, he also created seven monumental paintings that formed the core of the collection at the Musée Message Biblique in the South of France, designed mosaics and tapestries encapsulating the destiny of the Jewish people and its connection to the land of Israel for the Knesset, and (some say urged by his second wife, Valentina, a fellow Russian Jew who converted to Christianity) took several commissions for church windows. But there would be no more synagogues in the strict sense, no imagery as direct and intimate.

Whether because of his widow’s leanings or, as Meyer suspects, his love for his nearby home and the fact that he remained very Jewish but was no longer Orthodox, Chagall is buried in the Saint-Paul-de-Vence cemetery, near Nice, France. It is a far cry from his 1917 “Cemetery Gates,” with weathered stones marking centuries of Jewish life in stars of David and Hebrew letters. But this duality mirrors Chagall’s uniquely successful convergence of tradition and modernity, while the synagogue paintings affirm that he never really took off the mantle of the wandering Jew.

Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.

Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.