A New Exhibit Brings Together Work from a Formative Period in Marc Chagall’s Career

July 13 2018

In 1911, Marc Chagall left his native Russia for Paris, where he was exposed to various modernist and avant-garde artistic trends and produced some of his first mature works. He returned to Russia in 1914 and remained there through 1919, when changing political winds prompted him to leave. Now on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao, Chagall: The Breakthrough Years 1914-1919 highlights this period. John-Paul Stonard writes in his review:

Moishe Shagal, later known as Marc Chagall, was raised in the last years of the 19th century in Vitebsk, one of the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, the part of the Russian empire to which the Jewish population had been confined since the days of Catherine the Great. He is known as a storyteller in painting and a colorist, but in the early years of his career he was above all a Jewish artist, which means that his greatest achievement, coming from a background in which there was hardly any tradition of the visual arts, was becoming a painter at all. . . .

Returning to small-town Vitebsk [in 1914] must have felt like a huge backward step after working in a studio at the heart of the avant garde. Yet returning to the Pale was also a return to the subject that truly animated him—Jewish life—and somehow the imagined colors and the substance of the paintings reconnect [in a way that they don’t in his Paris work]. The color begins to mean something again. In The Newspaper Vendor (1914) a newspaper seller, plying his wares against an acid orange sky, becomes an emblem of provincial gloom and poverty, the darkened greenish spires of the synagogue giving the impression of a forlorn town on the edge of a chemical works. The news is surely bad.

In the early years of the war, the news certainly was bad for Jews living in the western part of the Pale, who were subject to mass expulsions. Chagall saw his post-1914 paintings of Vitebsk as documents of a world that was disappearing. He captured the “very last days [of] small-town, pre-revolutionary Jewish-Russian existence,” as Jackie Wullschlager puts it in her indispensable biography of Chagall. Four large portraits of destitute old Jews dressed as rabbis are among his best paintings from the period (they have been brought together for the first time in Bilbao). The dark green face and yellow beard of Jew in Green is far from Parisian frivolity, but Chagall still uses to great effect the new vocabulary of painting, a flattened collage-like technique incorporating text, in this case Hebrew lettering. In Over Vitebsk, a figure with sack and stick drifts above the snowy town: the Wandering Jew of Chagall’s dream world.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at London Review of Books

More about: Arts & Culture, Jewish art, Marc Chagall, Russian Jewry, Shtetl, World War I

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Commentary

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times