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.

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Read more at London Review of Books

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

By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria