Readers in NYC should make sure to visit a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” before it closes on February 2. Besides being a lovely show, the exhibition illustrates well a point my colleague Marc DeGirolami and others have made in the context of public religious displays: religious images can have multiple meanings.
The exhibition focuses on Chagall’s work in the 1940s, which he spent, in exile, in the United States. Several canvases suggest the tender love he had for his wife, Bella. These paintings are quite touching, particularly the dreamlike portrayals of their wedding day. Chagall seems to have been genuinely broken up when Bella died suddenly in 1944, though he did shortly find a new love. He was a famous artist, after all.
The most interesting paintings at the exhibition, however, and the ones that have drawn most attention, are the religious images. Chagall famously used Jewish themes throughout his work. Although he wasn’t observant, he drew inspiration from his upbringing in a Hasidic family in Russia. Here, however, Chagall uses Christian imagery. As the notes to the exhibition explain:
The most prevalent image Chagall used during World War II was of Jesus and the Crucifixion. For Chagall, the Crucifixion was a symbol for all the victims of persecution, a metaphor for the horrors of war, and an appeal to conscience that equated the martyrdom of Jesus with the suffering of the Jewish people and the Holocaust. While other Jewish artists depicted the crucified Jesus, for Chagall it became a frequent theme.
Chagall didn’t paint the Crucifixion, in other words, to convey a Christian message about the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and no one seeing the paintings would draw that message. Rather, he used images of the Crucifixion for a political purpose. The Crucifixion “means” unjust suffering; we Jews in Europe are suffering now, at your hands, Chagall was saying. He was making an appeal for solidarity to the wider Christian world, especially artists in the wider Christian world.
The results disappointed him: “After two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent… I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.” But that doesn’t suggest the meaning of his paintings was incomprehensible. Whether or not they acted on Chagall’s appeal, most people who saw his paintings in the 1940s surely would have understood the message. So will most who see the paintings today.