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  • Molly Gosewich

What Even Is Jewish Art? Marc Chagall and The École de Paris at mahJ (Part I)

By: Molly Gosewich


How long has it been since the world effectively shut down? As restrictions loosen (and I say that loosely), jabs administered, and life begins to show some signs of normalcy, I cannot be the only one who has been plotting (more like pining for) their return across the Atlantic.

For Musings Abroad, continuing this year, I’ll continue to spotlight the goings-on of international museums/galleries with a deeper dive into specific exhibition topics, and to hopefully provide some travel inspiration for when we can step foot inside international museums again.

To start us off, we have the mahJ – formally known as the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of the Art and History of Judaism) – which I was fortunate enough to visit back in 2019.

Photo courtesy of the author (2019)

Located in the Marais District, once the Jewish hub of Paris, the mahJ is home to the largest collection of Jewish art and antiquity in France – documenting the rich history and culture of Jews across Europe and North Africa, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Among other stunning Judaic objects, archival manuscripts, and works of art, the mahJ’s collection includes pieces by the legendary Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani, which are conveniently on display until October 31 in an exhibition focusing solely on Jewish artists within the “École de Paris” (School of Paris). The term coined sometime before 1925, was in fact tinged with antisemitism, due to the tendency to lump foreigners together in this way (Fayard, 2001). Many Jewish émigré artists from major European cities and the Russian Empire (plus Asia and Africa) belonged to the cosmopolitan generation of the School of Paris (or Paris School), one without a common style but with a shared desire for freedom amid pogroms and creative internment (see Entartete Kunst for how art was stifled under the Nazi regime). As we know, Paris was the artistic epicentre of Europe — from La Ruche (“The Hive”) building or on Cité Falguière, in the streets near the Boulevard Raspail to the cafés of Montparnasse.

Marc Chagall

Sotheby’s posits that the School of Paris first appeared at the turn of the century and ended roughly after the conclusion of World War II. However, this “school” was completely abstract, including luminaries associated with several assorted avant-garde movements (such as les Nabis or Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism). Because of the diversity of abstract genres part of the School of Paris, it begs the question: what is Jewish art?

Of course, there are many other Jewish artists within the Paris School (Jules Pascin, Otto Freundlich, and Chana Orloff to name a few) that are captivating in their own right. But, especially to me, as a student in the Jewish Studies Collaborative Specialization, Marc Chagall is of a particular interest to me. Why you may ask? His artistic archive and legacy is deeply imbued with Jewish signifiers and signals a certain collective memory.

A prominent figure in the School of Paris, the Jewish artist Marc Chagall had lived in the city from 1910 to 1914, and quickly absorbed many of the stylistic influences of the avant-garde working in the French capital. Chagall’s “Bride with Fan” of 1911 is simply enchanting and is indicative of the very delight and radiance typical of his work at this time. Naturally, he became a leading artist of the School of Paris during this time and after his exile from Russia in 1923. In the School of Paris, around 200 artists, most of them being foreigners, had occupied La Ruche at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was a legendary building in the Passage de Dantzig where Yiddish (the language of the Central and Eastern Ashkenazi Jews) reigned supreme.

When Marc Chagall arrived in Paris, he settled there with sculptor Zadkine and artists Michel Kikoine and Chaïm Soutine. It is said that Soutine, the native of a small village in Belarus, knew only Yiddish and it was in La Ruche that he learned a few new words in Russian, perhaps in conversation with Chagall (Levin, 2021). Essentially, there was an obvious Jewish influence on a movement that encompassed many Jewish artists, though not calling itself outright a "Jewish" School of Art. Below you will be two of Chagall's paintings, one of a praying man and one of a shtetl, which both evoke a collective Jewish memory that would have been understood by the Yiddish speakers in the movement.


To understand the full extent of Chagall’s contribution and participation in the School of Paris scene, and his contribution to Jewish art — we have to look back into his earlier days, before he became (to many) one of the greats of art — that'll come in Part 2.


Consulted Sources:


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