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  • Molly Gosewich

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

By: Molly Gosewich


Paris Through The Window

Marc Chagall, 1913

In Part 1, I brought up the influence of Jewish iconography, culture and even language on Chagall's work and on the School of Paris. Though Paris played an influencing role in his oeuvre, Chagall was a Jewish artist, and many of his paintings were inspired by Jewish life — specifically life under the heel of tsarist Russia and the Russian revolution. Despite his immersion in this Russian-Christian culture throughout his early life and the charming, kitschy work from his time in Paris, his art was emphatically and recognizably Jewish. Straying away from Paris as a setting for his paintings, Chagall’s most revered works are actually set in his hometown of Vitebsk. Marc Chagall, then Moishe Hatskelev Shagal, was born in 1887 into a poor Hasidic family living on the outskirts of Vitebsk, Russia — a moderately sized, conservative Jewish shtetl now located in modern-day Belarus. Vitebsk had also become a center of Hasidism, a populist branch of Judaism that embraced a more egalitarian approach to religion, eschewing the “elitist intellectualism of Talmudic Judaism” for a more spiritual, intuitive, and devotional relationship with the immanent God (Koch, 61). This bled into his work – heavily. Chagall is the truest representation of two worlds – the old traditional world of Russia (evident in his work of the shtetl and relevant figures) and the new world of Paris, complete with figuration and abstraction. Besides the undeniable Jewish allegories, imagery, and iconography, his association with the School of Paris is clear, Chagall is almost synonymous with quasi-deformations of the face and physique; phantasmagorical arrangements of objects in space, foreseeing surrealism. We can find a Fauvist-inspirited use of colours, either unworldly, romantic, or outside the natural bounds of objects and forms; abstract shapes and semi-geometric depictions of figures, drawn from Cubist tradition. Also present in various works are: Orphism’s fondness for expansive light and colourful circles, the focused chromatic shapes of Suprematism, the dynamic movement and distinct diagonal lines of Futurism, and abstraction of Russian Rayonism (Harshav 35).

The Marketplace, Vitebsk

Marc Chagall, 1917

Chagall was not an artist who focused on physical perfection or idyllic images in the ways other artists were; those who are familiar with Chagall will find that the mood of his work changes with the passing of time. His pictures can be exuberant, tender, frightened, cynical, emotional, intense, witty or sorrowful, depending on the timbre and circumstances of his life at a given time. During the early years of his happy marriage with his wife Bella, his paintings, frankly sensorial and gratifying, reflect the depth of his love for her. His colour, resonant, vivid, and wild during his happier days, became appropriately hollow, dissonant, and fatigued recalling his work from the more sombre environment of Vitebsk.

The Falling Angel

Marc Chagall, 1923-47 Here I’ll circle back to the question I posed in Part 1 of this article: What is Jewish art? Scholars, critics, and historians alike have pondered this term, which has been in use for around one-hundred years but has never been explicitly defined or used without prejudice. Avram Kampf, one of the foremost Jewish art historians and scholars of modern and Jewish art, once defined it in terms of "content, in terms of iconography, in terms of the specific use to which objects were put, or the fact that the artist happened to be a Jewish birth." Chagall happened to do all of the above — his connection to and experience with Judaism was crucial to his work. To some, Chagall’s work might be seen as kitschy, naive, childish or fantastic, but he was an unconsciously conscious artist. Although Chagall’s work can certainly be studied through the lens of imagination, yearning, and love, the motifs that make his visual language so distinctive have their origins in something much more mystical, divine, and richly complex. Chagall was an individualist who played with assorted modernist motifs, icons, and themes unbeknownst to some rooted in his Jewish nature — which were of course highly stigmatized and subject to virulent attacks of cultural racism much later in his career (See “Entartete Kunst”) (Griffin, 9). Where Chassidic spiritualism, the shtetl, and other Jewish themes are present in Chagall’s work, the same is true for Litvak-Jewish artist Emmanuel Mané-Katz. But some who joined La Ruche, such as Pinchus Kremegne, Michel Kikoine, Soutine and others, developed different approaches, influenced by French motifs and contemporary currents such as Cubism and Fauvism, which dominated both the Salon d’Automne and Société des Artistes Indépendants (Levin, 2021). Chagall’s fantastic rendering and use of colour and space ultimately evokes contemporary French and Russian avant-garde styles as well as the ecstatic practice of Hasidic Judaism and the traditions of folk art associated with shtetl culture. Despite attacks from Antisemites and French Nationalisms set on the purity of French Art, mahJ's exhibition pays homage to and illuminates the legacy of this generation of artists unique to the city. To answer the question, what is Jewish art? — you might have to start in Paris to understand. Click here to visit mahJ's website and read more about "Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine ... Paris pour École, 1905-1940"


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