Marc Chagall

Images of earth and air co-mingle in this Jewish painter's enduring work

Print this page Print this page

Chagall remained in Russia until 1922, with positions in Vitebsk and Moscow. Works from this time are included his mural for Moscow's Jewish Theatre. Encyclopedia Judaica notes that his work in Moscow showed the influence of artists like Picasso and this"did not please the artistically reactionary party officials." In the summer of 1922, he left Russia with his family and returned to France.

In 1930, Ambroise Vollard commissioned Chagall to create illustrations to the Bible, for which he traveled to the Land of Israel. Chagall revisited Biblical scenes again over the years and Chagall's Museum of the Biblical Message, opened in Nice in 1972, displays his Biblical Message cycle. The wings of the angels portrayed in these Biblical scenes, like The Dream of Jacob (1930-32) and Abraham Approaching Sodom with Three Angels (1929-30), extend nearly from head to toe, affirming the potential to soar, as is typical of many Chagall figures.

chagall's i and my village 1911

"I and My Village" (1911)

 In 1937, the Nazis confiscated 650 works from German museums for an exhibit of "Degenerate Art," to be mocked and disgraced by the millions who visited the exhibit. Chagall's work was among this art, and again his life was changed by political circumstances, as he and Bella sought refuge in the United States. White Crucifixion (1938) portrays a pogrom scene that may have echoed what Chagall saw in the world at the time of this painting. Bella died in 1944, and after World War II, Chagall returned to France and married Valentine Brodsky.

Jewish Identity

As for Jewish identity, Chagall declared, "If a painter is Jewish and paints life, how can he help having Jewish elements in his work! But if he is a good painter, there will be more than that. The Jewish element will be there, but his art will tend to approach the universal." Nevertheless, Chagall had a special tie to Israel, and in the winter and summer of 2003, the Israel Museum of Jerusalem exhibited Chagall's works from Israeli collections with a special focus Chagall's connection to Israel.

Chagall also maintained a powerful association with Israel through the stained-glass windows he designed for Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center.

At the dedication in 1962, Chagall stood under the windows that depict the 12 tribes of Israel and asked, "How is it that the air and earth of Vitebsk, my birthplace, and of thousands of years of exile, find themselves mingled in the air and earth of Jerusalem? How could I have thought that not only my hands with their colors would direct me in my work, but that the poor hands of my parents and of others and still others with their mute lips and their closed eyes, who gathered and whispered behind me would direct me as if they also wished to take part in my life?"

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman

Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman is Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been active in raising community awareness on issues including gun violence, battered women, and the separation of Church and State, and sits on the Reform Movement's Commission for Social Action. She received Rabbinic Ordination from the Hebrew Union College.