“A Rebel, A Martyr, And A Creative Spirit”


Chagall: Love, War, and Exile, a new exhibit of Marc Chagall’s work at the Jewish Museum in New York, focuses on “the years 1930 to 1948, the darkest and most desperate time of Chagall’s life” and “examines the ways he responded in his painting (and poetry) to the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, and the death of his wife, Bella, in 1948.” Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the show? Of the 53 paintings and drawings on display, 20 of them feature Jesus:

As the exhibition’s curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, notes in the catalogue, the museum is aware that some constituents might find the subject transgressive. Crucifixions are a staple of Western art, but not of Jewish museums, namely because they depict an event for which Jews were blamed and often persecuted.

The counterintuitive twist is that Chagall deployed the crucified Jesus as a tragic, urgent messenger whose purpose was to bear witness to the suffering of the Jews and bring it to the attention of the world.

Chagall, who was raised in a Hasidic home, had his own doubts about using Christian imagery, at various points consulting the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Israeli president Chaim Weizmann on the matter. But in the end, he kept painting Jesus, attracted to his qualities as a rebel, a martyr, and a creative spirit. In some paintings, the man on the cross is the artist himself.

Chagall described the act of painting Jesus as “an expression of the human, Jewish sadness and pain which Jesus personifies,” he explained. “…Perhaps I could have painted another Jewish prophet, but after two thousand years mankind has become attached to the figure of Jesus.”

(Marc Chagall, The Fall of the Angel, 1932-33-47, oil on canvas, 58 ¼ x   63 3/8 in.  Private Collection, on deposit at the Kunstmuseum Basel. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)