Chagall’s Jesus: The great Jewish artist’s controversial Crucifixion years.
Wed, 09/11/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Marc Chagall's "Persecution." Collection Herta and Paul Amir, Beverly Hills, Calif. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Marc Chagall's "Persecution." Collection Herta and Paul Amir, Beverly Hills, Calif. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS)

When most people think of modern painter Marc Chagall, they likely think of lovers flying through the sky and folkloric village scenes; scenes of suffering do not often come to mind.

However, during the 1930s and ’40s, Chagall turned to Christ imagery in his work in response to World War II. According to The Jewish Museum’s senior curator emerita, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, “To Chagall, the figure of the crucified Jesus was the most powerful image to convey his anguish at the annihilation of European Jewry. He equated the martyred Jesus with the plight of Jews.”

This upcoming exhibit, “Chagal: Love, War, and Exile,” the first American exhibition exploring these years, will highlight a period of Chagall’s art not previously focused on in America. It will feature 30 paintings and 24 works on paper in addition to other types of ephemera such as letters, poems and photos.

Following the Russian Revolution, Chagall went to live in Paris where he was inspired to paint his former town of Vitebsk. In 1941, Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, invited Chagall to New York to escape the rise of the Nazis in New York; the move was not easy for the artist.

Chagall’s style and his depiction of Christ shifted over time. As Goodman puts it, in the 1930s, Chagall acknowledged the gravity of the moment. His paintings depict a sense of apprehension. In the 1940s, the art veered towards violence regarding the Jewish Jesus figure. In the post-war period, there is more of a sense of tranquility, with the crucified Jesus appearing calmer, representing the millions killed. Later on in the decade his work shifted again; his compositions became more colorful and focused on the theme of love.

Chagall’s decision to portray the crucified Jesus figure was controversial. According to Goodman, “From the perspective of some Jews, Chagall was depicting the Jewish victim in the guise of his persecutor and employing the Crucifixion for which Jews were so often persecuted. Some Christians were disturbed by a use of such imagery by one of the world’s most acclaimed Jewish artists, and others regarded Chagall’s ideas and his use of Christian symbolism as naïve and misguided.”

These paintings show a sensitivity to world events that is not often seen in Chagall.

Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” opens Sept. 15 and runs through Feb. 2, 2014 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (at 92nd Street).