Chagall at the Jewish Museum
When I was invited to see the Chagall show at The Jewish Museum, indelible images of Russian mythology inspired by old folktales came to mind, led by the jaunty fiddler in stove pipe hat perched on a roof.
The show “‘Love War And Exile” focuses on another iconic figure: Jesus. Chagall was obsessed with Jesus throughout his life, starting with his days in St. Petersburg when he was a student, the painter depicted Christ many times. Some Christs recall the Eastern Orthodox icons he remembered from his childhood. Others don’t resemble Christs anywhere on earth: they wear prayer shawls, instead of loincloths and sometimes tefilin, the leather boxes orthodox Jews sometimes strap to their foreheads and wrap around their arms. These haunting ambiguous searing images dominate the show, which focuses on Chagall’s life from 193—1948, the most trying in his life. It shows how he reflected in his paintings and poems the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, and the death in 1948 of Bella, his wife.
There is a jaunty fiddler, flying blue cows, but most of the works reflect horrible dreams: villages burn, patriarchs cry, Jews clutch Torahs fleeing with others. These are not the images we associate with the artist: Isolated men include the gaunt “Sleeping Talmudist” There’s a man clutching a Torah with small Jesus on the right edge. One of the most arresting is “Descent from a Cross” (1941) which depicts an angel holding a palette and brush. Cubo-Futurist Jesus, “Calvary”, borrowed from MOMA and dated 1912, proves his interest during his formative years. Among his wartime works, the artists react to the news reports of a battle in his Byelorussian, birthplace, Vitebsk, with images of Jewish villagers nailed to crosses.
While this portion shows the artists dark side, the show resurrects child-like Chagall by presenting his early life in Vitebsk, his early years with Bella, enjoying a budding romance with a woman hired to care for him, Virginia Haggard McNeil. Jesus is still there, though in “Self Portrait with A Clock” seen in a painting on the easel near a ghostly bride representing his wife. The artist here is seen as a red goat embraced by a blue-faced woman. The show leaves us with a happy ending: In “The Wedding Candles” from 1945. A bride and groom float in a mystical fog, a cow toasts the newlyweds, and as if to say L’chayim” to the world.# (Jewish Museum 1109 Fifth Ave/212-423-3200, until Feb. 2)