By Rav Scialom Bahbout
Marc Chagall’s artworks were multifarious. Many traces from various sources of inspiration can be found in his paintings. It is worth remembering that Chagall was born in Eastern Europe, where different cultural and spiritual tendencies coexisted with the traditional community represented by the rabbinate: Hasidism and Haskalah. Hasidism was opposed to the rationalist tendency represented by the rabbinic group and it focused on the importance of observing precepts with joy and enthusiasm. Haskalah, also known as the Jewish Enlightenment movement, was influenced by the cultural changes brought by Enlightenment and Positivism that significantly affected the whole Europe, especially with regard to the development of science.
The Jews of Vitebsk were obviously divided into various communities and Marc Chagall’s family (originally Shagal) belonged to the Hasidic community: Vitebsk’s Rabbi Menachem Mendel was introduced and initiated to Hasidism by the Maggid of Mezerich, pupil of Ba’al shem tov. The strength of Jewish tradition and customs were highly valued by Marc Chagall’s family members. In fact, they led a life deeply immersed in the Jewish world: the mark of Jewish culture and of the distinctive joy of Hasidism can be found in many of Chagall’s paintings.
Youth spent in the Hasidic community in Vitebsk influenced and left its traces even in the life of people who lost familiarity with traditions and active Jewish life, and Marc Chagall was certainly among them. It must also be considered that the Hasidic and Ashkenazi communities were subject to a form of isolation at the hands of the Christian population. Events such as pogroms were frequent in territories under Tsar domination and in Eastern Europe.
Marc Chagall certainly absorbed the interpretative method used in the Talmud – where every word has a thousand facets – because since childhood the study of the Talmud was taught in shtetl’s schools. In his memoirs Chagall mentions the fourth dimension. The Talmud sets forth the seventy methods in which each single word can be interpreted and the four techniques to interpret a text. Apart from the first three techniques (literal, allusive and interpretative) the last one is the SOD, the secret, the mystery, as if to say that something mysterious is hidden inside and behind every event. Chagall’s paintings are full of mysteries and secrets. They are like a transposition of dreams and as the Talmud says, a dream is a letter that has not yet been opened.
Many of Chagall’s paintings are directly inspired by Jewish subjects. Among these, it is worth mentioning the stained-glass windows of the Synagogue of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, which represent the 12 tribes, and Parliament of Israel’s tapestries, inspired by events of Jewish history. However, very many of his artworks echo universal concepts related in different ways to Jewish culture.
In his paintings people and animals fly, are upside down, or in absolutely unlikely positions. People have no feet on the ground and Chagall himself experiences this situation: the perception of exile is very strong for a Jew who is forced to migrate from one country to another and is always considered a foreigner in the land where he was born or where he managed to move to.
Chagall – forced to move to France – feels like living in an exile of the exile: he knows that as soon as possible he will return to Vitebsk. Chagall continues thinking of Vitebsk, and Russia as his land, because it is the land that gave him birth and that he loves.
The idea of imminent exile is particularly highlighted by the painting of the man in red. Behind the man you can read the verses of the passage where Abraham is ordered to abandon his land, his homeland, his father’s house. But you have the same perception by seeing the painting of Vitebsk and the Jew with a bundle floating in the air on (image above): where is he going without knowing where to go?
The musical instrument that the Jew carries with him in every exile is the violin and Chagall depicts it in many of his paintings. A tale says: Why the violin? Try to escape and carry a piano on your shoulders! Instead, in every place, even where there is no orchestra, it is always possible to bring a violin that you can always find in every village.
It will take long for Chagall to find a way toward reconciliation with the external world and the Christian world in particular. That is due to persecutions and discriminations imposed by both population and the power. The Bolshevik revolution instilled hope in many Jews. However, those hopes were vain, and they soon had to change their mind. Thus, it is no coincidence that Chagall portrays Lenin with his head down in the painting dedicated to the revolution.
Promises were unkept, and even those who took a stand in favour of the revolution because they recognized the values expressed by the majority had to change their mind.
For instance, in the painting “White Crucifixion”, featuring a cross suspended high above the crowd, we see a burnt sacred scroll and other images referring to a perpetual exodus. Here, Jesus is a son of Israel, with a shawl covering part of his body, suffering exactly as others are.
With his presence he admonishes those torturers who forgot the teaching “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (already preached by Moses in the Leviticus and actually erased by centuries of Christian persecutions of Jews).
Other Jewish artists as well had to change their view, being them initially open towards Christian society yet taking their distance after seeing a neglect of Jesus and a betrayal of his message by the Church of Jesus. To Chagall, Jesus was a Jew until his death, as the Tallit, the prayer shawl he portrayed him with, shows.
In the painting “Self Portrait with a Clock In front of Crucifixion”, the red goat could be representing the Jewish people. Anyway, the atmosphere seems to be more serene, maybe because it is 1950 and the Shoah and the persecutions are over.
Maybe even in the painting “Christ with clock” there is a sense of reconciliation. Time can heal wounds and get people closer. Marking the passing of time is one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish culture and liturgy. It was essential having a pendulum clock in every home: it established the time of prayer, the waiting period between eating meat and dairy and, most importantly, the starting and ending time of Shabbat and other festivities. In a country where the sky is often cloudy, it is necessary to own a clock to know at which time the celebration ends.
Judaism is a time religion rather than a space religion, that is why representing places and producing sculpture is not very well liked. Depicting a pendulum clock with a blue wing and a couple (maybe Chagall himself and his wife) shows that, with time passing, the one truly important thing is a couple’s relationship and the family it creates: we know what a crucial institution family is, for the survival of the Jewish community and society in general.
Who has seen Roman Vishniac’s photo collection “A Vanished World”, knows animals are often present in shtetls – villages where Jews used to do even the humblest work. Seeing the number of Chagall’s paintings featuring a rooster and a goat, the exhibit’s curators chose “The rooster” for the catalogue’s cover and “The Green Night”, where a green goat is featured, for the second cover. Chagall illustrated the fable “The rooster, the goat, and the kid”. It is no accident that he decided to do it and to include the two animals.
The first animal is the rooster that crows in the morning and wakes you, as it is reminded in the morning prayer: the rooster knows that the day is starting, it has its own intelligence and knows it needs to pray as a rooster can… even more so man has to.
In the painting illustrating the catalogue’s cover, the man straddling the rooster, leaning his head on it, shows both of them have wits and they instinctively ought to know when to leave, when to pray. Not to forget roosters’ role in kapparoth on the eve of Yom Kippur. Butchering a rooster symbolizes man’s fate if he had to pay for all his sins. Today, the controversial tradition has been replaced with donations for the disadvantaged.
The goat, the other ever-present animal in Chagall’s works, is compared to the Jewish people often suffering from persecutions, like in Eastern European Jewish narrators’ stories. Here in a poem from Umberto Saba, Jew from Trieste, “The Goat”:
I talked to a goat,
Alone in the field, tied to a post,
Full up with grass, soaked
Through with rain, bleating.
That monotone was brother
To my grief. I answered back: first
For fun, but then because sorrow’s
Forever, and is monotonous.
I heard its voice
Sounding in a solitary goat.
From a goat with a semitic face
I heard all ills, all lives,
(Tr. By Martin Seymour Smith)
By choosing a humble animal as the subject for his poem, the poet creates an absolute symbol of sorrow. Even those we deem unable to suffer – a goat, in this case – are wounded and afflicted. The poet’s and the goat’s pain become a symbol for sharing universal pain: identifying with “a goat with a semitic face” is the first step to shed self-centeredness. The sorrow of the persecuted and exiled Jew, is recognized as universal and “eternal”.
It should not be forgotten that the Jewish people has been used as a scapegoat for every calamity or pandemic: the various pogroms in Eastern Europe caused huge suffering, tragic events that Chagall witnessed and somehow represented with his art. Many of Chagall’s paintings feature goats, each of them deserving of a thoughtful analysis. Among them, “I and the Village”, “Study for the Painting Rain”, “To Russia, with Asses and Others”, “Self-Portrait with Seven Digits”.
Though departing from his specifically Jewish experience, with his paintings Chagall can convey a universal message that can reach everyone: exile, time, joy and sorrow are experienced by every man. Nothing to do but stay in front of one of his paintings then, admire and think.
Translated and revised by Silvia Bozzo and Antonella Losavio, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.