Marc Chagall – Freak from the Shtetl

The word “luftmensz” appears in Yiddish (“airman” in English). It means someone whose head is in the clouds, someone obsessed, a dreamer and mystic. And it was Chagall who painted various “luftmen”. Because, in a way, he was one of them.

I must admit that I have a personal connection to Marc Chagall's work. The family of this painter were the neighbors of my ancestors in Vitebsk. His works remind me of the genius loci of this city, located in today's Belarus, which I have never visited. But thanks to the artist's works, Vitebsk ceases to be an abstraction in my eyes.

I became convinced of this recently when I visited the “Chagall” exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw. And time is rapidly running out, because it can only be viewed until tomorrow (Sunday, July 24, 2022). The exhibition, which celebrates the 160th anniversary of the Warsaw institution, consists of 16 works by the artist. These include 14 paintings purchased last autumn at an auction in Switzerland and two prints from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.

An important context for Chagall's works is the biography of their creator. The turbulent events of the 20th century left their mark on the painter's imagination.

He was born in 1887 in the suburbs of Vitebsk, to a Hasidic family with many children. It was then a city of many cultures. From the 14th century until the first partition of Poland, it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Then it found itself within the borders of the Russian Empire.

  At the end of the 19th century, Jews constituted a significant ethnic group among the inhabitants of Vitebsk. Even though Chagall grew up in a home where Judaism was practiced, as an adult he followed his own path, but his Jewish identity still played an important role in his work.
Important dates from Chagall's life on a plaque at the National Museum in Warsaw. Photo: PAP / Mateusz Marek
Before World War I, he studied painting in Vitebsk, St. Petersburg and Paris. And it was in the capital of France that he came into contact with the avant-garde phenomenon, including Cubism.

He then returned to his hometown. He witnessed the changes brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution. When the Leninist regime took over in Russia, he even briefly became the commissar of fine arts in the Vitebsk region. But ultimately, he did not find a place for himself in the first communist country in the world. As an artist, he did not fit into the new reality. The subjects of his work differed from the expectations for art put forward by the Soviet authorities.

Chagall was a freak from the shtetl, difficult to tame for any political officer. The painter's mentality is revealed, for example, in the paintings Fantasy Scene Against a Pink-Green Background or Yellow Billy Goat in the Countryside. Both show processions of characters who were mentally close to the artist.

The word “luftmensz” appears in Yiddish (“airman” in English). It means someone whose head is in the clouds, someone obsessed, a dreamer and mystic. And it was Chagall who painted various “luftmen”. Because, in a way, he was one of them.

When it comes to his attitude towards communism, it can’t be ruled out that the painting The Visit of Moses and the Golden Calf in the Studio is a clue in this matter. In it we see a scene from the Book of Exodus: God’s chosen people indulge in an act of idolatry. The golden calf is the false god. Only here it is red, associating it with communism. In 1922, Chagall emigrated to the West. He purposefully settled in France. From 1937 onward he was a French citizen. When his new homeland came under German occupation during World War II, he took refuge from the Holocaust in New York. In 1948, he again moved to France. He lived to a ripe old age, dying when he was nearly 98 years old.

The encounter of Judaism with faith in Christ may seem surprising in Chagall's work. And it is in vain to look for traces of any Jewish prejudices against Christianity in the artist's oeuvre.

It is worth paying attention to, for example, the painting ‘My Life’ between Vitebsk and Paris. It presents a man and a woman, a couple in love, thus the author of the work and his wife Bella, as well as the synagogue in Chagall’s hometown and landmarks of the French capital, the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. It is significant that on the tower... Christ is crucified.

And when it comes to the Passion theme, this is not an exception in the painter’s work. After all, we can point to another work by Chagall, under the all-telling title The Crucifixion.

In turn, Christ appears in a specific context in the painting Around the Book of Exodus. Chagall recalls a certain story: in 1941, a group of Jews, threatened by the Holocaust, attempted to flee from Romania to Palestine. The ship they were on, however, sank. Christ, dying on the cross, accompanies them in this event. He suffers just like they do.

However, I will allow myself to interpret this work in a way that did not occur to the author. Perhaps the Holocaust turned out to be a preview of what awaits Christians in the future. It concerns persecuting them as misfits in a world where believing in Christ is foolish or scandalous.
Chagall used to say about himself: “I am a little Jew from Vitebsk. Everything I feel, paint, do, all of my ‘me’ is contained within this.” He was not a theologian, in the field of religious matters he moved intuitively. But because he wove biblical themes into his works, he remained a Jewish artist.

In Hebrew, the word “Jew” means a worshiper of God. This is why, before the advent of modernity, belonging to the Jewish nation bore a close relationship to the profession of Judaism. Thus, a Jew, by definition, is a person who maintains a relationship with God, regardless of the nature of that relationship. And Marc Chagall is a meaningful example of this.

– Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Nicholas Siekierski

“Chagall”, The National Museum in Warsaw, April 30 – July 24, 2022. Curator – Anna Manicka
Main photo: The purchase of 14 works by Marc Chagall presented at the exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw, was made possible thanks to funds from the budget reserve of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, provided as a special-purpose subsidy by Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński. Photo: PAP / Mateusz Marek
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