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The history behind Chagall’s Christs

2013 September 20
by Paul Vallely

For a Jew, the great painter Marc Chagall, was intriguingly obsessed with the person of Christ. The exhibition Chagall: Modern Master, at the Tate in Liverpool until next month, powerfully immerses the visitor in a dream world of love and cruelty, birth and death, myth and magic in which floating figures, symbolic shapes and strong emotive colours conjure a new kind of psychic reality.

Marc Chagall was born Moyshe Shagal in 1887 in Vitebsk, a city in what is now Belarus, where Jews, who were banned from key parts of Russia, were tolerated. Revealingly Vitebsk’s 60,000 inhabitants were split almost equally between Christians and Jews. That balance had a significant impact upon his formation as an artist. The division created in him not a dichotomy but an enriched ambiguity.

One of the first pictures in the exhibition is Birth painted in 1910.  Chagall, the eldest in a large family, was around for the birth of all seven of his siblings. The painting depicts a scene in a Jewish shtetl in which the men wait with anticipation in a gaggle for news from the birthbed. But with the cow at the back of the room, wise men at the door, and the father secretly present at the birth, the scene has echoes of the Christian nativity, crossing boundaries in a way which was to characterise Chagall’s entire career.

The forcefield of energy which was Chagall is an extraordinary fantastical mystical jumble of images – of his native Russian homelife,  of the woman who was to be the love of his life, and of scenes of Paris where he widened the artistic horizons which had blossomed in Russia. It is a world which pays homage to Orthodox iconography as much as to the influence of avant-garde Western art.

There is no doubt how important his Judaism was – the Hebrew scriptures and the community are constantly represented in his art.  He quoted the Torah in Yiddish to the end of his life. But one of its most striking paradoxes is the way that in a number of paintings Jewish and Christian images sit side  by side and play off one another.  Chagall’s Wandering Jews move amidst a landscape dominated by churches and suffer beneath the shadows of Christ upon the cross.

Chagall painted more than 100 scenes of Jesus and the crucifixion throughout his life. After early allusions it was absent from his work for two decades until the figure of Jesus made an eerie return in 1930 after the painter, on a visit to Berlin, witnessed an increasing tide of German anti-Semitism and was seized by a premonition of catastrophe. But it was from 1938, when news of the Nazi concentration camps began to leak through to the outside world that Christ on the cross became a recurring emblem.

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