Unlike many of his fellow modernists, Marc Chagall is both impossible to dislike and difficult to respect. He certainly had one of the most endearing methods in modernist painting–a method that threw together inverted houses and soaring streets, blue cows and yellow bird men, rabbis and lovers and huge flying clocks, all executed in scrubby brushstrokes and gemstone colors.
Part Vitebsk Jewish homebody, part continental European cosmopolite, Chagall always delivers a few ingratiating surprises. If you find Russian abstract artists like Kandinsky and Malevich aloof, affected, and condescending (which they are, for both better and worse), Chagall is your man. But because of the frequent loveliness and approachability of Chagall’s painting, even the best of his canvases–including the much-hyped and rightly hyped I and the Village-can seem like Fiddler on the Roof on LSD. Or like marvelous-hued schlock, to put it less kindly.
Chagall: Love, War, and Exile at the Jewish Museum flips this situation; taken together, the 53 paintings and drawings on display make Chagall a little harder to relish and a lot easier to respect. At the center of the exhibition are Chagall’s World War II-era paintings of Christ and the Crucifixion–which, as curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman explains in her catalog preface, transform “the story of Jesus’s martyrdom” into “an effective expression of the Holocaust.” These canvases don’t overturn Chagall’s reputation for whimsy, but they do impart an indelible dark magic to the experience of looking at him, image by brutal image. As never before, his paintings can be mentioned in the same breath as the devilishly dreamlike novels of Dovid Bergelson, the raucously vicious prose poetry of Osip Mandelstam, the quick and concussive short stories of Isaac Babel–works by other Russian Jewish masters who responded to 20th-century traumas, and responded with the same combination of loving technique and ideological blunt force that is so present in these Chagall’s.
Having already witnessed the wicked, leering imagination that Chagall brought to his work for the theater–and believe me, Chagall’s monster costumes always have been and always will be the best thing about Stravinsky’s Firebird–I feel like I should have seen this coming. But I didn’t, and because the Jewish Museum starts the exhibition with innocuous flight-of-fancy canvases like The Lovers and Lovers Among the Lilacs, maybe you won’t either. To some extent, Love, War, and Exile is a tribute to the private romances that sustained Chagall while the civilization he loved was seething and disintegrating. Composed in the 1930s, the Lovers paintings are tributes to Chagall’s beloved first wife Bella, who appeared and reappeared in Chagall’s iconography until her sudden death in 1944.
Chagall also started tamping down his style during the 1930s, for various reasons and with uneven results. Between 1934 and 1935 he executed a true-to-life portrait of Bella, and executed it with all the misplaced sentiment and technical clumsiness of a high school junior taking a studio art elective. In his fine catalog essay, “Fluid Chaos Felt by the Soul”, Kenneth E. Silver offers a possible explanation for such missteps: “A veritable flood of turbulent imagery was the aesthetic rule of Chagall’s oeuvre. It was as if even the artist’s slightest attempt to tame or normalize his subject matter might lead to a stifling of his creative flow.” Nonetheless, Chagall’s uncharacteristic reserve could serve poignant aesthetic purposes. This is what happens in the superb 1933 canvas Solitude, which has many of the ingredients of a stereotypical Chagall–rabbi, violin, angel, village, personified livestock, so on and so on–and none of Chagall’s typical exuberance. It’s as though Chagall, remembering Russia’s history of anti-Semitism and looking toward Europe in worry, has temporarily put his colors and his fantasies on hold, bracing himself for the hell to come.