Last Chance to Visit Chagall’s World: Manuela Hoelterhoff

As Vitebsk disappeared during World War II, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) floated his town’s rabbis, fiddlers, beggars, cows and brides to safety in the world of art.

I loved these fantastic pictures as a child and tired of them as an adult. Why?

“Chagall: Love, War, and Exile” at the Jewish Museum in New York suggests a greater range and depth than I remembered.

Go see it before it closes on Feb. 2. On view are 31 paintings, 22 works on paper along with letters and poems that highlight Chagall’s love for his wife Bella, his despairing response to barbarous times and his surprisingly frequent use of the Crucifixion to express the persecution and suffering of the Jewish people.

Most of the pictures are from the 1930s and 1940s, when he was far from Vitebsk, whose crooked streets and falling-down wooden houses inflamed his imagination more than Paris, Picasso and the avant-garde ever did.

A cubistic Calvary sticks out in the show as an unfortunate exercise in modernism.

Gravity Defied

Yet who else could balance a winged fish at the top of a clock levitating over the Dvina with such strange dignity? Perhaps he was thinking of his father, who worked like a slave in a herring factory, his hands turning into deformed icy lumps as he scooped fish.

The work’s title, “Time is a River Without Banks,” embraces many of these compelling pictures in which the world is filtered through memory and imagination and gravity is defied. His fondness for animals makes them participants in the drama of life and death.

“Solitude” is one of the masterpieces in the show: a dark sky presses down on the pensive Jew who holds a Torah as smoke obscures his village and a bright white ox provides quiet company. He painted it in 1933, the year Hitler’s thugs came to power. As the violence escalates to mass murder, Chagall’s paintings take on a hysterical edge. Mothers flee torched villages, clutching infants. Christ suffers in nightmarish landscapes painted with angry brushstrokes.

After the Nazis occupied France, Chagall and Bella fled to the U.S., ending up in a small town in the Hudson Valley. A photo shows Europe’s art elite -- Mondrian, Leger, Ernst -- sitting comfortably at the Manhattan gallery of Pierre Matisse, the painter’s son. They were the lucky ones, as Chagall wrote in a poem describing those left behind:

“I see them: trudging alone in rags, barefoot on mute roads. The brothers of Israels, Pissarro and Modigliani, our brothers -- pulled with ropes by the sons of Durer, Cranach, and Holbein -- to death in the crematoria.”

In the summer of 1944, the Chagalls made plans to sail back to a liberated France when Bella suddenly died and entered his dream world.

A Wedding Toast

In the gloriously colored “The Wedding Candles,” he painted them as a young bride and groom, toasted by a handsome ram. That picture alone is worth waiting on the line which, last weekend, stretched around the block.

Here’s a suggestion: Get on the separate queue for members, even if you’re not one, and buy a membership once inside.

“Chagall” closes on Feb. 2. The Jewish Museum, usually closed on Wednesday, will be open from 11 a.m. until 5:45 p.m. for the last two Wednesdays of the exhibition.

The handsome, well-illustrated catalog costs $45 and includes an illuminating essay by the show’s curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman. Jackie Wullschlager’s epic and engrossing biography is also available in the museum store.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

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