Thursday, January 14, 2010

Exhibition: Newly Acquired Chagall Apocalypse Painting on View in London

Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac: Capriccio (1945)

Exhibition: Newly Acquired Chagall Apocalypse Painting on View in London
by Samuel D. Gruber
Many of you have probably already read that the Ben Uri Gallery: London Jewish Museum of Art has acquired an important work by Marc Chagall – one of a series of depictions of Crucified Jewish Jesus – an image he favored in the late 1930s and early 1940s as he watched German Nazis and German, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Bylorussian and Ukrainian Christians participate – actively or as passive bystanders – in the murder of millions of Jews. The painting was acquired through the sharp and adroit acquisition policy of my friend David Glasser, Chairman of the Museum, which was founded in 2001 and has since then built an impressive collection and staged important exhibitions – though the institution is still looking for a permanent home.  

The painting is on view until January 31st at Osborne Samuel, 23 Bruton Street, London W1 (Opening hours: Monday – Friday, 10am-6pm, Saturday 10am-2pm, Sunday, 12-4pm). The new acquisition is a gouache (a heavy dense watercolor) made by Chagall in 1945, who kept it his private collection. It was first sold in 1985, two years after the painter’s death. It is titled in pencil in Russian, “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio." You can read more about the acquisition in an article from the New York Times. 

Despite the title’s use of the term Capriccio, the work is remarkable for its depiction of anger – much more pronounced here than in Chagall’s earlier crucifixion works which are more infused with helpless pathos than any other emotion. Here Jesus is identified as Jewish not only because he wears a tallit (prayer shawl) but also, as in Yellow Crucifixion of 1943, with tefillin (phylacteries). In the Yellow Crucifixion, which is linked to the sinking of the Struma, this Jewish Jesus is paired with an image of the Torah scroll.

In the “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” Jesus’s facial expression is similar to that of the Jewish Jesus in the large painting Resurrection, which Chagall began in 1937, but continued to work on through 1947. In 1944, the year before the gouache, Chagall painted The Crucified, but in that work there is no Jesus, only village Jews who have been nailed to crosses placed along a shtetl street. This is a variation on Chagall’s 1941 painting The Martyr, set in a very similar scene. Here, however, in the foreground is a Jesus-like figure, not crucified, but bound to an upright post. He is a young man, wearing a tallit-like covering, with tefillin-like strips on his arms, and the cap of Jewish worker. At his feet is a grieving woman, presumably a conflation of a Jewish mother of the shtetl, the traditional grieving Mary at the cross, and a more general allegorical representation of grief. The 1944 painting is a reaction to the news, known at this time, of the “liquidation” of the Ghettos, the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and the destruction of Jewish Vitebsk – Chagall's home town, which he had depicted so lovingly in previous decade.

The theme of Jewish Jesus in Chagall’s art and in the work of other artists since the 19th century has been explored by several art and cultural historians. The best and most thorough treatments are by Ziva Amishai-Maisels in her classic work Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, especially Part II, chapter 3, “ The Crucified Jew,” pp 178 197. The topic is further explored in Amishai-Maisels article “The Jewish Jesus” in Journal of Jewish Art 9 (1982): 84–104. Prof. Amishai-Maisels has advised the Ben-Uri on the current exhibition.


Mott said...

You are very clear on why Chagall would use Christian iconography, occasionally with Jewish elements added on. But it is still difficult for Jewish viewers to look at such works. Did Chagall understand that?

lcNlc said...

The Martyr was certainly a reaction to horrific events in Europe, but the Warsaw Ghetto uprising occurred in 1943, and Vitebsk was destroyed in 1944, so the painting (actually done in 1940) was not a reaction to those events.