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'Marc Chagall. The Crucifixion, 1964' by Sherry Fyman



poster from exhibition
Poster. CHAGALL. The Colour of Dreams

What images come to mind when you think of the work of Marc Chagall? If you’re like me, you’ll think of the boyhood scenes of his native Vitebsk in Russia, the stain glass windows of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the surreal characters of his dreams that populate his canvasses. I’m guessing that depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus might be the last thing you would think of. Yet, beginning in 1938, Chagall would go on to create a series of striking and unforgettable images of the Crucifixion. I recently saw one of Chagall’s profoundly disturbing crucifix paintings in the exhibit, “The Colour of Dreams” at the Centro Culturale Candiani in Mestre, Italy.


Chagall. Aaron and the Menorah in black and white
Chagall. Aaron and the Menorah

While so much of Chagall’s work seems rooted in the unique world of his childhood, he saw himself as a part of a universal and timeless conversation that transcends national boundaries:

Have you sometimes seen in Florentine paintings, one of those men whose beard is never trimmed with eyes at once brown and ashgrey with the complexion in the color of burnt ochre and all lines and wrinkles? That is my father.

 

He often visited Russian Orthodox churches as a child and became fascinated with images of the Crucifixion. For Chagall, Christ symbolized the ultimate Jewish martyr, and he used his Crucifixion images to call attention to the suffering and persecution of the Jews. The suffering of Christ becomes a symbol of violated humanity.  All of Chagall's Crucifixion pieces represent a unique interpretation of a frequently depicted subject and all are far from the devotional poses we are used to.

 

Chagall experienced Jewish persecution personally. He encountered anti-Jewish sentiments in his youth in Russia that limited his opportunities. He was forced to flee France, his home for over thirty years in 1941 in the face of the Nazi threat. In addition to being Jewish, his work was condemned by Hitler as degenerate art.


Chagall. Crucifixion. 1964
Chagall. Crucifixion. 1964

This Crucifixion was done in 1964 and far from depicting the anguish we usually associate with crucifixion scenes, I find elements of celebration. If we look closely, we see a man at the foot of the Christ figure enfolded in a prayer shawl holding an open book – a posture that would have conveyed hope and comfort. We see candlesticks and a smiling mother holding an infant. And above the crucified Jesus is what looks like a floating, disembodied Torah scroll but it is actually the body of a man floating free. The Torah scroll forms his torso. Chagall’s statement in 1964 was that Jews had survived unprecedented horror but their traditions would lift them and carry them forward.


The exhibition, CHAGALL. The Colour of Dreams, was held 30 September 2023 – 13 February 2024 at the Centro Culturale Candiani in Mestre (Venice), Italy

Sherry Fyman has previously contributed with 'Bologna and The Scholar in Art' https://www.thepainterseye.com/post/guest-writer-sherry-fyman-bologna-and-the-scholar-in-art

 

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