Most people associate the work of Jewish modernist painter Marc Chagall with with dynamic colors illustrating Eastern European Jewry’s vibrant folk culture. But Chagall also had a deeper, darker side to his art, one that reflected the artist’s tormented conscience after witnessing Europe’s anti Semitism, persecution, and poverty in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
“Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” a new exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum open through February 2, 2014, offers 53 pieces of the artist’s work that explore the darker ethos of Chagall. Focusing on the years between 1930 and 1948, during the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, the exhibit provides a visual reckoning with the emotions that plagued the artist.
Born Moishe Segal to a Hasidic family in now-Belarus in 1887, Chagall was already an accomplished painter when he left the Soviet Union for Paris in 1922 following the Bolshevik Revolution. During his early career years in Paris, Chagall flourished by creating joyous, lyrical pieces of art that incorporated cubist and surrealist themes. He often painted poetic, classic scenes of Jewish culture, such as wedding ceremonies, klezmer bands playing the fiddle, and bustling shtetl streets.
Chagall’s artistic expression took a drastic turn when he visited Vilna for the inauguration of a new Museum of Jewish Art with his wife Bella in August 1935. Chagall had heard rumors of persecution in Eastern Europe, but came face to face with the truth during this trip.
“Chagall had supplemented his Jewishness to rush to acculturate in Paris, but he was quite stunned with what he saw in Vilna,” Susan Tumarkin Goodman, the exhibit’s curator, explained. “For the first time, he really saw the anti-Semitic incidents which prevailed in Eastern Europe. He felt he needed to document that world, whose days were numbered.”
After his trip, Chagall began to paint frightening images of European Jewish life. Suddenly, the colorful shtetl streets were covered in blood. In the exhibit, paintings feature bearded Hasidic men running with Torahs in their hands, looking over their shoulders, and women with head coverings grasping their babies as they attempt to escape the violence.
On July 19, 1937 a “Degenerate Art” exhibit opened in Munich, part of a propaganda campaign against modern art. On display were some 700 works confiscated by the German government, including three of Chagall’s paintings. Years earlier, Chagall had been targeted as a Jewish artist by the Nazis, and his painting “The Rabbi” was mockingly paraded in the streets of Mannheim, Germany.
Chagall moved from Paris to Gordes, an unoccupied zone in southeastern France, in 1940, but after laws were passed depriving French Jews of various rights, it became clear that Europe was not a suitable home. Chagall and his wife received an invitation from New York’s Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition of his work in December, 1940, and they fled Europe for America in 1941. A sense of guilt and shame for abandoning his people is reflected in his work from this time.
“I see them: trudging alone in rags, barefoot on mute roads. The brothers of Israels, Pissarro, and Modigliani, our brothers—pulled with ropes by the sons of Durer, Cranach, and Holbein—to death in the crematoria,” Chagall wrote in his 1951 poem, For the Slaughtered Artists.
“He was tortured about being removed from the world he grew up in, and the world that was being destroyed,” Tumarkin Goodman said. “There’s a personal sense to his work because he didn’t want to leave Europe, he felt like he was in exile in America.”
In many of Chagall’s paintings in the exhibit, the surprising image of a crucified Jesus wearing a tallit and tefillin is featured next to a burning shtetl. “The figure seems to be a Jewish Jesus, except for a few paintings where it’s the Christian messiah, Tumarkin Goodman explained. “He felt there was no more powerful image, especially during the war years, to convey his anguish of the annihilation of his people.”
Chagall’s post-war works eventually returned to joy, although they remained imbued with melancholy. He once again began to paint with spirit, offering a psychological narrative that was badly needed at the time: Jewish culture had survived.
Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.