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Diaspora and Identity: The Modern Jewish Painter by Larry Silver (Part 2 of 2)


Generalizations are always false.  So any characterization of the conditions and characteristics of a twentieth-century Jewish painter are doomed from the start.  However, examination of a few telling and famous cases might at least show us some of the variables that go into the formation of what seems in retrospect like an invention out of whole cloth (what better metaphor for a Jewish preoccupation than a tailor?).


Consider the following situation, which encompasses all three of the celebrated Jewish artists who will comprise this essay: Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, and Mark Rothko.  Each of these men was born within a few miles of each other—in the Russian Pale of Settlement—and at almost the same moment, the very end of the nineteenth century.  Yet their works seem to have nothing in common, and they are even identified with completely different aspirations.  How is this possible, and what could they possibly have taken from their Jewish roots?


It is a cliché to note that the condition of modern mankind is alienation, with the condition of the Jewish community a special subcategory, diaspora.  This Jewish condition stems from the biblical and historical situation of exile, denoted by the Hebrew word Galut, which refers explicitly to Jewish expulsion from the Holy Land during the “Babylonian Captivity.”  Then later after the fall of the rebuilt Second Temple under the Roman Empire, Jews again were expelled from their center in Jerusalem, and this concept of exile took on an extended meaning, denoted by the Greek word for dispersal, diaspora, to indicate the aggregation of scattered Jewish people(s) throughout the world.  It is a powerful experience to visit a fourteenth-century synagogue in Cochin on the west coast of India or modern synagogues in Capetown, Stockholm, or even Waco, Texas, as markers of this global dispersion.


The term diaspora still holds its original association with exile, and its embodiment, the Wandering Jew, symbolizes perpetual personal alienation.  Not surprisingly, some of the principal avatars of modernity have been Jewish analysts of their own condition, extended to encompass the wider, universal human condition: Marx, Freud, Arendt, Levi-Strauss. 


This essay will examine three modern Jewish artists to consider how their diverse responses to a seeming oxymoron of irreconcilable parts, “modern Jewish artist” could be invented and defined in personal terms against the background of diaspora.  In my view, two basic reactions to Jewish diaspora emerge, even if the artist in question never feels a literal state of exile or migration as a biographical fact. 


One group of artists revels in nostalgia, seeing a lost heritage as a harmonious small community.  In this respect the imagined shtetl provides the Gemeinschaft society that sociologists contrast with the impersonal, modern “lonely crowd,” or Gesellschaft.  Some artists even make the ambitious attempt to reconcile conflicting loyalties or identities in modern culture, especially between the minority Jewish and the dominant Christian or even secular culture.  For them art serves as a laboratory for an imagined new harmony and integration.


By contrast, other artists attempt to deny any separate identity or isolation from the main centers and beliefs of their adopted homeland.  In the process, they seem to favor acculturation (or, in the phobic Jewish reaction, assimilation) to the shared host culture.  This kind of artist espouses universal ideals, which frequently take the form of activist political agendas, either on behalf of society’s victims or in the service of some greater vision of a socialist or utopian society.  Other attempts at universalism can take a purely visual form, as artists aim for pictorial transcendance, often in the form of abstract or essential visual communication with a modern audience.


Marc Chagall


Epitome of the strategy of reconciling past and present, Jewish and Christian, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was born Moyshe Shagal.  Son of an observant Jewish laborer in the Belorussian provincial city of Vitebsk, Chagall was initially attracted to the metro-polis of St. Petersburg and the artistic designs of Leon Bakst.  Bakst himself was a Jew, born Lev Rosenberg (1866-1924), who taught Chagall in art school while also encour-aging him to move to Paris, his eventual permanent home (1910).  Chagall did return to Russia in the wake of the Soviet Revolution; like many artists, he was encouraged by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the new head of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment.  Indeed, Lunacharsky, a friend from Paris, encouraged Chagall to become Director of Fine art in the Petrograd/Leningrad Ministry of Culture, but the artist demurred and returned to his native Vitebsk as regional Commissar for Art.  Ousted soon from his headmastership of the Vitebsk Art School, Chagall was forced to move to Moscow in 1920 and to work for the State Yiddish Chamber Theater.


Tellingly (especially contrasted with other, leftist Jewish artists, such as Nathan Altman, who headed the art political art programs in Petrograd and organized the temporary anniversary decorations around the great square of the Revolution outside the Winter Palace), Chagall found the new Soviet art world uncongenial, and he returned to Western Europe, where he had a reputation in Paris.  His hopes for reconciliation with his mother country made him a self-conscious political and cultural exile from Leninist Russia, but his early autobiography (1922) concludes with the wish-filled line, “Perhaps Europe will love me, and, with her, my Russia.”


Ironically, his brief time in Weimar Berlin seemed to Chagall more Russian that what he had left behind, as he immersed himself in an exile community, soon to be replicated in circle of Montparnasse or “The School of Paris,” where émigrés like Soutine and Modigliani joined Chagall.  Another irony is that the art of Chagall that made his reputation in Paris was fully steeped in his Russian roots, presented as the exotic, rural antipode of Paris, City of Light.  He painted boldly colored, simply rendered images of Russian village life (even though Vitebsk was a relatively large city).  This village life was presented as manifestly imaginary, a world of fiddlers on the roof and flying animals akin to the magic realism of Latin American novelists of the late twentieth century.


Sometimes Chagall explores expressly Jewish subjects: Sabbath (Cologne, Ludwig Museum) or Rabbi of Vitebsk (1914; replica of 1923, Chicago Art Institute).  But for the most part he presents more generic images of village life, e.g. Birth (1911; Chicago Art Institute; I and the Village, New York, Museum of Modern Art).  The omni-present animals (goat, cow, donkey, chicken) remained staples of Chagall’s art throughout his career.  Many of them were reintroduced to Russia in Chagall’s large surviving mural decoration for the Moscow State Yiddish Chamber Theater (1920), a work that thematized the sister arts of Music, Dance, Drama, and Literature, but through Jewish figures (klezmers, Torah scribes, and the like).  His schtick  for shtetl imagery is one reason why Chagall is often considered repetitive, even kitsch, by modern critics today.


But it is equally clear that these subjects had a deep and abiding resonance for the painter, reworked memories of a lost home.  His companion right after World War II, Virginia Haggard McNeil, recounts how Chagall treasured his personal version of the Rabbi of Vitebsk, considering it the closest he ever came to the sublimity of Rembrandt.  For that reason he made multiple versions of the work, which he sometimes was forced to sell.  He once told a friend during a boat ride to Palestine in 1931, “All that I paint, all that I do, all that I am, is just the Little Jew of Vitebsk.”  He still considered himself a “Russian painter,” and said in 1934, “In my paintings there is not one centimeter that is free from nostalgia for my native land.”


Chagall continually strove to reconcile his Jewish identity with Christian majority culture, most notoriously (like Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev) through the Judaized figure of Christ on the cross.  Even before taking on the controversial figure of a Jewish Jesus, Chagall represented rural church buildings, topped with a cross, within his village settings (e.g. in the top center of I and the Village).  During the 1930s Chagall became a close friend of Catholic philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain and his Russian-born Jewish wife, who had converted to Catholicism.  As the 1931 trip to Palestine sug-gests, Chagall was newly conscious of his Jewishness in that decade, which also saw a reversion to public anti-Semitic attitudes.  In the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 he produced a large canvas, Solitude (Tel Aviv; donated by the artist himself in 1951), which shows a solitary seated and brooding rabbi figure (like a melancholy Jeremiah) before the typical village skyline, accompanied by a violin-playing heifer as an angel flies away overhead, presaging destruction and death.  With many other modern artists, Chagall was vilified by Nazis, who included him in their notorious 1937 exhibition of degenerate modern art in Munich.


At just this critical moment, Chagall began to respond pictorially.   A 1937 sketch (Paris, Pompidou Center) contrasts Revolution at the left with village life on the right, filled with lovers and artistic creativity, while the center is occupied, like Solitude, with an old rabbi at a table.  Chagall transposed this tripartite image into three large separate canvases, a 1948 triptych of Resistance (formerly titled Ghetto), Resurrection, and Liberation, but now the first two are dominated by a central image of Christ on the cross.  Moreover, this is an explicitly Jewish Jesus, whose loincloth is a prayer-shawl (tallit).  In 1938 Chagall distilled the three triptych images into a single painting, White Crucifixion (Chicago Art Institute), where the background shows a Russian village with a burning synagogue.  Individual figures flee, away from the cross, in the foreground; one of them carries an identifying placard like the Jews under Nazi discrimination laws.  At the left, another scene of revolutionary violence appears at the horizon under the red banners of Bolshevism above the burning village; at the right a Nazi storm trooper with an armband sets fire to the synagogue.  Meanwhile, hovering above the cross, a trio of rabbinical figures and a young girl react with grief to both the pogroms and the Crucifixion itself.


Perhaps this image was linked to the particular event of the 1938 Kristallnacht, when Nazis destroyed synagogues throughout Germany.  But it points to a wider sense of acute ethnic persecution as well as an effort by Chagall to communicate through Christianity’s central act of suffering, Christ’s death on the cross at the hands of another unjust persecution.  Of course, in the process, Chagall emphasizes the common heritage of Jews and Christians by showing Christ as an observant Jew; he also writes out the traditional inscription atop the cross (“INRI,” Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews in Latin) with Hebrew/Aramaic letters.  The overall white tonality in the Chicago picture replaces the vivid red and blue colors of the triptych to denote sorrow as well as the harsh winter snows of Russia; but it is also a traditional color of purity, and it is punctuated in the painting by bright spotlights of illumination: the candles of a menorah beneath the loincloth as well as the halo around the head of Christ and a descending beam from the heavens.


With the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, Chagall went into further exile, emigrating to New York (1941-48) and showing at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, famously part of the 1942 exhibition—nomen est omen, given our theme—Artists in Exile.  During this period (when he spoke Yiddish as well as Russian, for he knew no English), he continued to paint images of the martyred Christ as symbols of his own suf-fering as well as that of the Jewish people (e.g. 1943, Yellow Crucifixion, Paris, Pompi-dou Center, which features an open Torah at the end of the cross).  His Crucified (1943; Jerusalem, Israel Museum) shows a martyred Jew of the war, dressed in eastern European garb and bearing an identifying Nazi placard, mourned by a second Jewish figure on rooftop with a red Torah scroll.  Chagall either intuited or already knew about the Holocaust and the death camps, which encompassed the region of his beloved Vitebsk.


Chagall’s latter decades increasingly turned him towards the traditional Jewish center of Jerusalem, particularly after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and a repeat visit in 1951.  After the 1931 visit, he had begun to paint local monuments (e.g. Wailing Wall; donated by the artist to Tel Aviv in 1951).  And in backgrounds of his paintings some Jewish monuments began to supplant the village backgrounds: Rachel’s Tomb, the Tower of David, and the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Often the Jerusalem sites refer to King David, historical figure but also ancestor of Jesus, to suggest a futuristic, prophetic dimension through a visionary city that embodies the artist’s own spiritual quest, as Mira Friedman has argued.  Images of the Song of Songs also use Jerusalem as an image of Solomon’s love for the Shulamite Woman as an image of divine love for the Jewish people, according to the covenant.


Yet Chagall remained a Yiddish-speaker, not a Hebrew-speaker, and he never seriously considered emigration to Israel, aliyah.  What he could do was to decorate the new country and its capital.  The beginning—and the masterwork—was his stained-glass window project (1962), The Twelve Tribes, for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center, a site that the artist personally visited in 1957.  At the same time, Chagall began to work on sets of oil paintings with Old Testament subjects, which formed the basis of his own personal, ecumenical museum—the National Museum of the Biblical Message—in Nice (dedicated 1969; opened 1973).  His designs for tapestries, produced by the French Gobelins manufacture, featured Exodus, Isaiah’s Prophecy, and related themes; and he also designed for mosaics installed in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.


Marc Chagall was buried without religious rites and interred not in a Jewish cemetery, but rather in a Catholic site.  His latter career moved from the provincial shtetl village imagery towards an increasingly biblical oeuvre.  Seemingly he sought to transcend his personal exile and the attendant feelings with a new transnational art—suitable for France, for America, for Israel, if not longer for his original homeland.  Incrasingly, Marc Chagall used art to celebrate life and love, using color and fantasy in the service of spiritual transcendance, for an art that is quite literally composed of sweet-ness and light.


Mark Rothko


Born as Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Latvia, Mark Rothko (1903-70) was the son of a pharmicist who emigrated to Portland, Oregon when the boy was seven, sending for him when he was ten, in 1913.  Rothko’s early memories recall anti-Semitism and fear of Cossack threats, in contrast to the nostalgia of Chagall’s native city.  His father, active in radical politics, died shortly after he arrived in America, so he felt doubly displaced, an outsider as both an immigrant and a Jew in his adopted country.  He held an outsider’s healthy resistance to authority throughout his life.  In 1923 Rothko moved to New York, where he studied with the Jewish artist Max Weber (who had studied with Matisse in Paris in 1908, thus further mingling his background with Chagall’s).  Like the ambitious young Chagall in Paris, Rothko cast his artistic lot with modernism.


Like many modernists, Rothko insisted on how much he was self-taught as well as influenced by leading older contemporaries, such as the Jewish artists Milton Avery (1885-1965) , and his own peers, Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) and Barnett Newman (1905-70), both of them born, like him, to immigrant parents.  From Avery Rothko absorbed a simplification of shapes and colors, still in the service of representation, but with the two younger artists he shared a new sense of generational community and common purpose.  Even though this was the Depression, Rothko never really became a political activist like some other members of the Artists Union in New York, though he did participate in the Works Project Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project (1936-39), which further fused a common generation.


Gottlieb’s distinctive creations, the “pictographs” with archetypal mythological themes, during the early 1940s first showed Rothko the means to find a new and serious art.  Such Jungian imagery had particular potency and universality in the wake of Surreal-ism’s dominance as the leading European art movement of the 1930s—well represented in New York at the time through the actual presence of those exiled artists (André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Yves Tanguy) in New York, showing alongside Chagall with Pierre Matisse in the Artists in Exile exhibition (1942) during the war.


Together with the learned Barnett Newman, Rothko and Gottlieb produced a now-famous statement for the Sunday art page of the New York Times (1943).  Under the banner of “The New Globalism,” the artists declared their “aesthetic beliefs,” notably:


1.      To us art is an adventure into an unknown world . . .


2.      This world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense . . .


4.      We favor the simple expression of the complex thought . . .


5.      . . . We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.  That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.


Building on this manifesto, Rothko moved towards such mythic themes as Antigone (ca. 1941; Washington, National Gallery), complementing Gottlieb’s own mythic subjects, in an attempt to follow the model of the Surrealists in an attempt to represent the universal — In this case, the link between primitive imagery and archetypal myths and mentalities.  Their goal was to evoke the heroic, the tragic, and the irrational beneath the veneer of civility.  At a period of cruel wartime as well as the news of anti-Semitic atrocities under Nazi occupation in Eastern Europe (including Rothko’s Latvia), these sentiments seemed timely and topical.  The primitive (or archaic) provided an opposing counter-culture to the discontents and the deceptions of modernity, revealing a primal humanity in its “tragic” essence, but also in a simpler, more communal, more spiritual cohesiveness.


Rothko would eventually discard his early fascination with Surrealism’s techniques of automatism and arbitrary combination of fragments.  But he continued to strive for “global” imagery that could directly communicate with the viewer yet convey the most profound content on a non-verbal, fundamental level: “our [abstractions] are finding a pictorial equivalent for man’s new knowledge and consciousness of his more complex inner self.”  Thus Rothko forms an opposite pole to Chagall’s motivation to capitalize on the specifics of a provincial, rustic, Russian village ideal.  In some respects, these extremes touch: Chagall’s themes also strive for a primal meaning beyond their particular setting, in which birth, love, fantasy, and creativity arise (Ironically, while Chagall was claimed by Breton for the Surrealists, he spurned the association). 



Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.

Marc Chagall

Sabbath (Cologne, Ludwig Museum) - Click Here

Rabbi of Vitebsk (1914; replica of 1923, Chicago Art Institute). - Click Here 

Birth (1911; Chicago Art Institute - Click Here 

I and the Village, (New York, Museum of Modern Art). - Click Here 

Solitude (Tel Aviv; donated by the artist himself in 1951 - Click Here

White Crucifixion (Art institute of Chicago) - Click Here

Yellow Crucifixion, Paris, Pompi-dou Center, which features an open Torah at the end of the cross) - Click Here 

Mark Rothko

Antigone (ca. 1941; Washington, National Gallery) - Click Here

Rothko Chapel in Houston - Click Here (Full Interior - Click Here)

Ben Shahn

(1932) of Sacco and Vanzetti with the title “The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti.” - Click Here

The Jersey Homestead Mural (1937-38 Study for the Mural) - Click Here

The Jersey Homesteads Mural - Click Here

Allegory (1948, 1953, 1955 Third Allegory 1955, Rome, Vatican Museums) - Click Here