Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality In Georges Rouault
THE WHEEL OF fashion, which turned Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault into has-beens a few decades ago, is turning again. These two misunderstood moderns are being taken seriously. The rise of identity politics in the intellectual world has certainly played a part. If once upon a time Chagall was seen as too Jewish and Rouault as too Catholic, by now the very allegiances that were said to compromise their modernist credentials have a renewed fascination. What is so remarkable about the work that has been done on Chagall and Rouault recently is that it goes well beyond identity politics, revealing the ardent particularism that these great artists brought to modern art’s dreams of universalism. The Rouault retrospective that was mounted at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College this fall was a revelation, reclaiming the artist’s impastoed surfaces and bejeweled color and inky outlines in all their vigor and steadiness of purpose. And the past few years have been a golden age for Chagall studies, led by Benjamin Harshav’s extraordinary investigations of the artist’s art and life and world, which, perhaps for the first time, reveal Chagall’s topsy-turvy universe in all its serrated, kaleidoscopic complexity. A new biography, by Jackie Wullschlager, is at best prosaic, but the show at the Jewish Museum, “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater,” is riveting, and New Yorkers have had the added attraction, at MOBIA, or the Museum of Biblical Art, of a small exhibition focusing on his encounters with the Old Testament.
The last time Rouault and Chagall were widely admired in the United States was in the years after World War II. They both received a considerable amount of attention at the Museum of Modern Art, where Rouault had exhibitions in 1945 and 1953 and Chagall a retrospective in 1946 and a show of the Jerusalem Windows in 1961, before their installation at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Both artists were still basking in the afterglow of their early avant-garde years. They were aging bohemian legends. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the all-purpose San Francisco hipster, managed to find a place for Chagall in “A Coney Island of the Mind”: “Don’t let that horse/eat that violin/cried Chagall’s mother/But he/kept right on/painting.”
There was also in those postwar years a resurgence of interest in religious experience among intellectuals, and this could not have left the curators at MoMA untouched, and perhaps drew them to Chagall and Rouault. In 1950, Partisan Review published a rich symposium on “Religion and the Intellectuals,” with responses from a wide range of writers and thinkers. The question raised in thePartisan Review symposium that most immediately related to the work of Chagall and Rouault was whether it was possible to separate religious consciousness from religious beliefs, a development that the editors saw in the writing of Heidegger and Malraux. There was probably a sense that the art of Rouault and Chagall could offer healing lessons in a war-shattered and desolate world—that here was the solace and illumination of religious feeling, released from the structures and the strictures of organized religion.
Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, had been involved in seeing to it that Chagall found safety in the United States during World War II. And the 1946 retrospective may have seemed a way finally to do justice to the artist, although during the preparations for the show, which was organized jointly by the Chicago Art Institute and MoMA, there were worries, at least from Chicago, about overstating the Jewishness of the artist’s work. Benjamin Harshav—in his inexhaustibly fascinating Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative—includes a letter from Daniel Catton Rich, the Director of Fine Arts at the Chicago Art Institute, to Monroe Wheeler, at MoMA, in which he worries “about stressing the ‘Russian-Jewish culture and mysticism.’ All of us feel that there is a danger of arousing a certain anti-Semitic feeling towards Chagall’s art.” For this reason Rich was opposed to asking Meyer Schapiro to contribute to the catalogue. In the end, the show was organized by James Johnson Sweeney, for whom a knowledge of Jewish religious life involved some on-the-job training: he commented in a letter to Rich that “apparently the tallith and phylacteries are not peculiar to a rabbi.”
James Thrall Soby, in his text for the Modern’s Rouault catalogue in 1945, worried that the devotional qualities of Rouault’s work, the Expressionist intensity of his Christs and clowns, could be denied its place in “the contemporary tradition,” and too easily embraced for a “sudden psychological accord with the times.” And Sweeney, in his Chagall catalogue, argued that in the work the artist did in New York in the early 1940s “there was a repetition of old conceptions, a lack of conviction.” But whatever the challenges that these artists posed for the curators at the Modern, the catalogues remain remarkable for their balance and discrimination. Sweeney, his limited knowledge of Judaism notwithstanding, had already shown a susceptibility to the mysterious resurgence of religious feeling amid the secularism of the avant-garde in 1934, in his book Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting, where he remarked that the sense of repose in Seurat’s little painting of a woman putting on her makeup “gives it almost the dignity of a religious expression.”
Chagall and Rouault, more than any other painters, raise the question of the modern artist’s willingness, or ability, to absorb religious experience, or at least some personal experience that is deeply colored by religion. It is a question to which there is no single or simple answer. In Marianne Moore’s contribution to the Partisan Review symposium, she speculated that “one could almost say that each striking literary work is some phase of the desire to resist or affirm ‘religion.’” Perhaps the same can be said for works of art. Moore’s observation is intentionally elliptical, beginning with the speculative “one could almost say” and closing by putting religion in quotation marks. With those quotation marks she is suggesting how vague and broad a word religion is. What do we mean by religion—a form of social observance? a private faith? a philosophy? a set of rules or laws? Religion is all these things to different people in different degrees at different times.
In wondering what religion meant to Chagall or to Rouault, we would do well to remember that artists have rarely had a simple relationship with religion, even in modern times. One of the most interesting art-historical essays I have read in recent years is Thomas Crow’s “Chardin at the Edge of Belief,” in a volume on eighteenth-century French painting published by the National Gallery. Crow makes a striking case for the persistence of religious feeling in early modern painting, arguing that the severities of Jansenist faith may inform the ascetic beauty and the powerful emotional undertow in some of Chardin’s still lifes and even in his famous figure study, Young Student Drawing, where Crow discerns echoes and afterimages of the Crucifixion. A century and more after Chardin, the Postimpressionists had still not entirely shed religious feeling, certainly not if we consider the persistence of Christian subject matter in works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and even Cezanne. As for Matisse, who saw the Postimpressionists as father figures: while describing himself as an agnostic, he spent some of his last years designing a Dominican chapel, a room for which he created stained glass windows, ceramic murals, a bronze crucifix, a carved door, and a set of vestments.
If the post-Enlightenment artist has pursued an unconventional relationship with religion, the even more complicating truth is that the more you look at the history of art, the more you can see that there is not, certainly among the great artists, anything like a standard religious view. Leonardo, who created sublime religious works, was by most accounts not an especially pious man. And Michelangelo, who was in his middle and later years a man of deep and fierce piety, can hardly be said to have produced anything like an official religious art, as he saturated even the tragic vision of the Last Judgment in a Hellenistic fascination with physicality that sits strangely with Catholic dogma. Even the artists of the Renaissance had their ways of resisting or affirming religion, to go back to Marianne Moore’s equation.
WHILE THE ROUAULT retrospective at the McMullen Museum of Art had an over-elaborate title—”Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault: 1871-1958”—the exhibition itself was beautifully focused, with a concentrated force that convinced me, once and for all, that the avant-garde Rouault and the religious Rouault are one and the same man. Stephen Schloesser, who organized the exhibition and is a professor of history at Boston College, knows an enormous amount about twentieth-century Catholic culture in France; his recent book, Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933, was highly praised in these pages by Joseph Frank. The retrospective at the McMullen was the perfect size. There were two dozen major oil paintings, a generous selection of prints, some works on paper, some illustrated books, and a stained glass window. In Rouault’s mature work the Expressionist conflagrations of his early painting give way to banked fires, to the ashen depths of the prints and the ember-bright color of portraits such as The Last Romantic, Verlaine with the Virgin, and Sarah.
Schloesser has no use for the notion that Rouault wanted to re-shape modern artistic sensibilities to fit Catholic dogma. Rouault, in his view, does not flee modernity so much as he finds in Christianity a way to grapple with the crisis in representation that preoccupied so many early modern artists—the anxiety about appearances that Merleau-Ponty called “Cezanne’s doubt.” For some artists, abstraction was the solution—the discovery of an alternative reality, the true or pure reality of which Mondrian and Kandinsky spoke. For Rouault, Catholicism, and more generally certain threads in Christianity and in the New Testament, suggested a different avenue out of the crisis of representation that had been inaugurated by Cezanne and dominated the Fauvism and Cubism of Rouault’s younger years. Christ, as Schloesser sees it, became for Rouault the guide to a reality beyond reality, the flesh and blood man who was anything but mere flesh and blood. Christ, Schloesser explains, is “the archetype of the one incorrectly (and unjustly) judged by outward semblance and not inward reality; the sudden recognition of whom both subverts and inverts common conventions and perceptions: ‘Lord, it is you; I recognize you.’” And this doubling of meaning, the sense of a semblance that must be dissolved into a deeper reality, the simultaneity of the actual and the abstract, does indeed help to explain the uncanny power of Rouault’s greatest clowns and poets and prostitutes.
ROUAULT WAS BORN on May 27, 1871, in the very midst of the Commune and the bombardment of Paris by French forces. Years later he would say that he had “retained (from the cellar in which I was born) in my eyes and in my mind the fleeting matter which good fire fixes and incrusts.” The family was working class, and, as Schloesser puts it, “republican, laicist, and socialist.” Rouault’s father “was opposed to the strictness of Catholic schools and first enrolled his son in a Protestant school”—and later in a secular school. As an adolescent, the boy was apprenticed to a stained-glass maker. A grandfather collected prints in a very modest way, and through him Rouault came to know Daumier’s works, those unsparing critiques of the French status quo; they would prove a lasting influence.
So far as Schloesser is concerned, it is Rouault’s gritty urban childhood that shaped his artistic attitudes, setting the stage for his later representations of the self-righteous rich and the hardened poor. Schloesser’s Rouault is every bit as much a student of the modernism of Manet as of the Catholicism of Leon Bloy or Jacques Maritain, with both of whom he had important ties. (Maritain and his wife, a convert from Judaism, were also good friends of Chagall’s.) And however deeply Rouault may have immersed himself in the neo-medievalism of the fin-de-siecle, it was modernity that held him, first and last. Mary Louise Roberts suggests in the catalogue that Rouault was far too absorbed in the immediacy of the urban panorama to fit into any particular Catholic structure of thought. Writing of Rouault’s paintings of prostitutes, Roberts observes that “this is not the ‘sadness of fallen Nature,’ as Maritain would have it, but the tears at the heart of spectacular Paris.”
In the McMullen show, Rouault’s concerns remain extraordinarily consistent over a very long life. (He was eighty-six when he died in 1958.) Certain characters and compositional configurations—the clown, the whore, the head seen in a profile view that is severe, almost Egyptian—are present from nearly the beginning all the way to the end. What happens in the course of Rouault’s career is that the sense of form deepens, so that faces and figures that were at first stamped with memories of Daumier and Manet are eventually enriched by a gravitas that derives from the study of Rembrandt and Gothic sculpture and stained glass. Those pre-modern sources were of course available to Rouault from the very start: his great teacher had been Gustave Moreau, the painter of bejeweled Symbolist dreams, some of considerable quality, who provided a bridge between academic and avant-garde in turn-of-the-century Paris. But it would take Rouault decades to turn his quotidian characters into talismans, so that what began as figures snatched from life became heroic types, as familiar and inevitable as those in the Bible.
Going through the McMullen show, I began to realize that relatively few of the figures in the later paintings derive from New Testament sources. If this comes as a surprise, it is because Rouault knows how to give his clowns and poets and singers a New Testament weight. Even his greatest print cycle, Miserere, which includes extraordinary tragic images of Christ, is not so much a statement of religious orthodoxy as of personal faith. Many of the figures in Miserere have no particular theological significance. They are included because they resonate idiosyncratically with the artist, who believes that the suffering or the confusion of this particular man or woman has some relation to the life of Christ. There are plates in Miserere, such as a rendering of a desolate suburban thoroughfare entitled The Solitary Street, that convey a strong lyric chill. The Solitary Street brings Giacometti and Kafka to mind.
Rouault’s art, in paint and in the prints to which he devoted so much of his energy, came through in this exhibition with a freshness and a liveliness I have never felt before, although I have always been sympathetic to Rouault. The plangent darks of his prints are a miracle. Working mostly in aquatint, a process of etching a copper plate to establish a range of gray tones, he discovered a sumptuously somber mood. Rouault took full advantage of the technical brilliance of the great twentieth-century French printers, working, as did Pic asso, with wizards such as Roger Lacouriere.Cirque de l’Etoile filante, a cycle of color aquatints from multiple plates that Rouault did with Lacouriere in the 1930s, is one of the peaks of the printmaker’s art, with color effects that are simultaneously plangent and acidic. By closely relating paintings and prints, Schloesser demonstrates the give and take between the two media, the way the impasto of the oil paint became, for Rouault, an analogy to the working of the metal plate. With Rouault, the elaborately encrusted oil paint surface is treated as a necessary artifice, one that yields glimpses of a reality that lies beyond.
It is no accident that among Rouault’s selection of key moments in the life of Christ, the story of Veronica’s veil figures so prominently. Rouault was fascinated by this fine piece of linen cloth which, after being used to wipe the face of the suffering Christ, turned out to be imprinted with his features. In Rouault’s work this is a central motif, a primal Catholic story in which the suffering Christ becomes a two-dimensional image: a magical painting. For Rouault, indeed, Catholicism is essentially a series of powerful images. The oval face on Veronica’s veil becomes the template for many of his faces. The stern, simple geometry of the image of Christ on the Cross is echoed in the insistent verticals and horizontals of many of his canvases. Is Rouault telling us that every form in nature bends toward the Savior’s form? This is a Catholicism that has less to do with religious convictions than with formal values, which for an artist are, of course, foundational values.
AMONG THE MEN who shaped the French avant-garde’s complex relationship with religious art was the legendary dealer Ambroise Vollard. He provided support not only for Rouault’s Miserere, but also for Chagall’s first sustained exploration of Old Testament themes. This connection strikes me as highly significant. At one time or another Vollard owned much of the most important work by Cezanne, Degas, and Renoir; his portrait was painted by Cezanne, Renoir, Bonnard, and Picasso; and he gave Picasso some of his earliest exposure in Paris. He was very active as a publisher of illustrated books; and if religious subject matter attracted him in part for its commercial promise, I suspect that Vollard also recognized that such themes could incite the modern artistic imagination. The Bible was not Chagall’s first collaboration with Vollard. Among their earlier projects was an edition of the fables of La Fontaine, which had provoked negative comment from some observers who felt that a Russian-Jewish artist was not the right man to illustrate a French classic. When that project was completed, Vollard suggested that Chagall illustrate the Bible.
By the time Chagall began his Old Testament etchings in 1931, he was entering middle age. He was born in 1887 in the Russian Pale of Settlement, in Vitebsk, a city far larger and more prosperous than the little shtetls that he would include in his paintings when he wanted to suggest the place where his life had begun. His father was a workingman, little more than a beast of burden; his mother ran a store. The key that unlocked Chagall’s future was actually right there in Vitebsk, where his mother took the boy who showed some talent for drawing to see Yury Pen, a painter who ran a school in Vitebsk and was well known for his naturalistic representations of Jewish life. By the time he died in 1985, Chagall had lived many different lives in many different places: a bohemian in Paris before World War I; an active participant in the artists’ controversies of early Revolutionary Russia; a highly successful member of the School of Paris in the halcyon years between the wars; an exile from Hitler’s Europe in America in the 1940s; and finally an international celebrity on the Cote d’Azur. Through it all he preserved some deep iron certainty, a tough pride that one feels not only in the Jewish bohemian, hardly more than a boy, who stares out from the earliest photographs, but also in the pragmatic old Jew who appears in the candid shots of the 1960s and l970s.
There is probably no twentieth-century artist about whom there is more truth in the old cliche about becoming a victim of one’s own success. But even as he convinced the world that he was a man from whose brush and pen a lifetime of experience effortlessly flowed, Chagall was in truth a subtle modern thinker, a mythologist whose works can be as intricately plotted as a passage inFinnegans Wake. The trouble with Jackie Wullschlager’s new biography of Chagall, published by Knopf, is that she is attempting to rescue the artist from a conventional reputation without ever really being able to see beyond that reputation. This is a dutiful, tiresome piece of work. The best studies of Chagall in recent years—and most of them have been done by Benjamin Harshav, a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale—have some of the adventurousness of the early research on Joyce. Harshav’s analyses of key paintings make his Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World (Rizzoli) an essential book. And the best biography of Chagall currently available is not a biography at all, but Harshav’s Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative (Stanford), which has some of the layered richness of a Talmudic text and some of the multifaceted, crazy-quilt quality of a collage by Kurt Schwitters.
Harshav believes that the key to Chagall’s art is his intimate relationship with Yiddish, the language he grew up speaking and with which he was arguably most at ease throughout his life. His ties to Yiddish literature remained strong long after the world embraced him as a hero of the School of Paris. In Yiddish, or so Harshav explains, “you can speak several languages in the same sentence, and you can make forays into the mainland of the component languages of Yiddish: Russian, Hebrew, German, or Polish.” The integrity of Yiddish grows out of the variety of the influences that it absorbs. Harshav believes that the same can be said of Chagall’s painting, which, like the Yiddish language itself, makes “a complex, kaleidoscopic, and contrapuntal whole. We may describe this attitude as demonstrative eclecticism or, more positively, as a polyphony of forces of various origin working in one painting.” Harshav shows how at various times Chagall thought of himself as a Russian artist, a French artist, a Jewish artist; it is the dissonances between these positions, constantly reconciled through a high level of imaginative play, that give his work its dynamism.
In this complex mix, Judaism as a religion, as distinct from Jewish culture, has its own now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t part to play. If Judaism is the foundation from which Jewish culture grows, it is often in Chagall’s work a half-buried foundation, with images of the synagogue, the Torah, and the Sabbath table given no more importance than the peddler or the lover or the flying cow. Chagall, whose grasp of Hebrew and knowledge of Jewish texts was at best weak, never put the life of the synagogue or the study hall at the center of his Jewish world. Vitebsk, when Chagall was growing up there, was a city where Jewish faith itself had many strands, and lived on intimate terms with liberalizing and secularizing creeds that were also somehow grounded in a Jewish yearning for learning and ethical truth.
It is hard to grasp the powerful crosscurrents, both sacred and secular, that intermingled in the world where Chagall grew up and lived as a young man. Even the interest that Chagall took in Christian iconography has its origins in Yiddish thought, as Harshav explains. Thinking of the images of the crucified Christ that are an element in Chagall’s work, Harshav observes that “the historical or legendary Jesus was part of the modern gallery of Jewish literature,” and points to Uri-Tsvi Grinberg, “the Expressionist poet who wrote prophetic poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew” and “used the figure of Jesus prominently in his work.” He even created “a Yiddish ‘concrete’ poem in the form of a cross.”
Chagall would never have been able to embrace this richly layered world if he had not had a gift for pictorial storytelling. Whether in the knife-sharp, elaborately angled arabesques of his earlier drawings and prints, or in the softer, more dreamily meandering lines of his later works, he is a master of black-and-white media. And he finds ways to extend these graphic structures into the brilliantly symphonic paintings, which Harshav calls Chagall’s “polyphonic fictional canvasses.” Harshav thinks of Chagall as the first postmodernist, but in this he goes too far. Chagall’s affinity for storytelling and woven-together pictorial and symbolic elements are part of the modern heartland whatever the orthodox theories of modernism may say to the contrary. Picasso, particularly in his graphic art, is a narrative artist every bit as powerful as Rembrandt, and an account of modern art that sidesteps Picasso’s narrative genius is not an account of modern art worth considering. Modern art encompasses both Mondrian’s Platonism and Rouault’s Catholicism. And among the Russians it has room for both Chagall’s polyphony and Malevich’s purism, divergent ideals that in the early years of the Russian revolution did battle in, of all places, Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk, where Chagall was Commissar of Arts between 1918 and 1920, before being more or less run out of town by Malevich, who along with El Lissitzsky was teaching at the Vitebsk People’s Art School and seemed to the students to offer the more attractive alternative. (The full story of that contretemps is told in a very fine book by Aleksandra Shatskikh, Vitebesk: The Life of Art, published by Yale University Press.)
The last great Russian act in Chagall’s life took place immediately after he left Vitebsk in 1920, when he became involved with the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, designing sets, costumes, and a series of murals that wrapped around the walls of the auditorium. These works, which form the core of “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater” at the Jewish Museum, are making their third appearance in New York since they were first shown at the Guggenheim in SoHo in 1992, not long after being recovered and restored. These large-scale works, painted in a matter of weeks, are at once monumental and informal, especially the roughly twenty-five-foot-long Introduction to the Jewish Theater. This is an unfurling carnival of a painting, including portraits of everybody who was involved in the Yiddish theater plus a smattering of figures recalling Chagall’s youth.
Chagall’s pageant, with its whirling gaiety, suggests a Jewish commedia dell’arte, with powdery colors that recapitulate Tiepolo’s cloud-wrapped fantasy worlds, but in the wake of Cubism. In the Yiddish Theater murals, Chagall embraces the Russian Jewish intellectual’s vision of Jewish life. Raw experience is stylized, and given a comic spin. The life of the shtetl and the synagogue is distanced—turned into an aesthetic object. In one panel, an acrobat, hanging upside down, wears tefillin; in another panel a scribe, hard at work on a Torah scroll, turns out on closer inspection to be writing not sacred Hebrew but profane Yiddish. “The old Jewish world,” Harshav observes, is stood “on its head, topsy-turvy, as in Sholem Aleichem’s fiction.”
UNLIKE THE GUGGENHEIM show, which focused on Chagall’s work, the murals at the Jewish Museum are the centerpiece of an exhibition that is more generally concerned with the Yiddish Theater. The story continues long after Chagall had returned to the West, through the years when the Jewish Theater carried on under an increasingly hostile Soviet rule, until it was finally obliterated after World War II, with the savage murder of the great actor Solomon Mikhoels in 1947. The currents that flow together in this show are bewilderingly complex: this is an art that balances populist yearnings and rigorous modernist ideals, high art interpretations and popular Jewish experience. Chagall is said to have influenced not only the stagecraft of the theater but also its acting style. One of the most extraordinary moments in the show is provided by a brief clip of Mikhoels on stage, going through the comedic motions of a man as he attempts to drink a cup of hot tea: blowing on it, sipping from it, splattering the tea on his clothes, wiping off his clothes, and then taking a shot of vodka (I think). Mikhoel’s acting here is at once utterly true and entirely hyperbolic, an Expressionism not irreconcilable with some sort of realism, and in this sense not unlike Chagall’s art. This show, one of the best at the Jewish Museum in years, does a very good job of bringing theater, that most ephemeral of arts, back to life. Aside from Chagall, the strongest artist in the exhibition is the estimable Natan Altman, who was still bringing a graphic punch to costume designs and posters for the Yiddish Theater in the 1920s and survived the terror, dying in Leningrad in 1970.
One of the paradoxes of Chagall’s relationship with Judaism is that it was long after leaving Russia, when he was solidly established as a master of the School of Paris, that he turned to the Bible in a serious and consistent way. In the etchings done for Vollard in the 1930s and later, and in the cycle of monumental paintings that are gathered together in the Musee National Message Biblique in Nice (created under the aegis of Andre Malraux when he was Minister of Culture), Chagall confronts the problem that European artists had grappled with for centuries, namely how to give the Bible stories an intimacy, an urgency, a visual power. When working on the Old Testament narratives, Chagall, because of his inadequate Hebrew, used a Yiddish translation, so that the stories may have become for him in some sense tales not of the Old Testament but of the old country. In the Biblical etchings there is a once-upon-a-time children’s book quality, a storyteller’s informality about the way situations unfold and characters emerge. There is something exceedinglygemutlich about these images. What is so remarkable about Chagall is that without ever entirely abandoning the secular Yiddish artist’s eagerness to put religion in its place, he is willing to embrace the Torah as a primary text to be scrupulously explicated.
In these works you can feel Chagall imagining himself into the stories, thinking of them as a primal family (or community) romance, in much the way Rembrandt probably did. What Chagall’s background gave him, beyond anything else, was a neighborly familiarity with the characters and the situations—an ability to think of Moses and Abraham and Sarah as members of his own extended family—ancient names heard in school and in the synagogue and at the Passover table, which were also the names of people he knew as a child. If the etchings have some of the intimacy of Rembrandt’s little scenes, the large-scale Biblical paintings, done in the 1950s and 1960s, attempt to match the monumentality of the Renaissance frescoes. Chagall is no Michelangelo, but he does not look entirely ridiculous when he encourages us to make the comparison. The trouble for Chagall was that he had over the years created his own stock of iconographic and structural cliches—the shtetl memories, the Parisian amours, the swirling arabesques, the overstuffed skies—and when he reached for an abiding simplicity in order to evoke the Sacrifice of Isaac or the Exodus, there were too many easy solutions that he needed to clear away. The results, while often equivocal, are by no means inconsiderable. At the end of his life Malraux was exercised about these works, and when it came to the visual arts Malraux was seldom mistaken. Like the religious works that Delacroix had done a century earlier, Chagall’s Old Testament scenes re-imagine faith in the wake of Romanticism.
Nowadays the Musee National Message Biblique is regarded by most sophisticated travelers as a tourist trap, not worth the trouble. As for the Jerusalem Windows in Hadassah Hospital, they are often dismissed as kitsch. The irony is that what Chagall managed to realize in his public works for Israel, both the stained glass windows devoted to the Twelve Tribes in Hadassah Hospital and the tapestries and mosaics in the Knesset, is virtually unprecedented in twentieth-century art. Picasso, with Guernica, is the only other artist who even came close to creating a monumental work that shapes our understanding of a major historical event. And the reason that the Jerusalem Windows can be mistaken for a cliche is precisely because they have succeeded so astonishingly well in giving an inevitable visual form to Zionism’s central hopes. These stained glass windows are among the most grievously underrated achievements of the past century, and certainly the only instance of a visual artist making an enduring contribution to a nation’s identity. Harshav, who is in no doubt as to their value, emphasizes the break with Chagall’s narrative inclinations that the essentially static iconography of the Twelve Tribes necessitated, and points out the challenges that the artist faced in dealing with a subject that was “rarely represented in the Christian tradition of Biblical iconography”—and thus required an entirely fresh iconographic solution.
Chagall created twelve allegorical panels, a splendid visual fanfare. He reframed many of his abiding images—the flying animals, the sun-and-moon splattered skies—in designs guided by a symmetry as agitated and dynamic as any Baroque altarpiece. Harshav has some interesting and rather complicated ideas about the way the differently colored windows are arranged in the chapel, seeing color rhythms that echo patterns in Biblical poetry. He is also right to relate Chagall’s orgiastic blues and reds and yellows and greens to an early modern interest in the symbolic and transcendent powers of color. The Jerusalem Windows are a vision of the many becoming one, of the gathering of the Tribes. Who would have imagined that Chagall, having spent so much of his life expatiating on the joys of the Diaspora, would have seen that Old Testament experience could flow, almost seamlessly, into the secular consciousness of the young Israeli nation?
THE ENGAGEMENT WITH religious themes in Rouault and Chagall, sometimes dismissed as a holdover from nineteenth-century sentimentality, might more accurately be described as a rejection of the modern sentimentality that thinks we can so easily jettison everything that came before us. Although there can be no general rule about what draws artists to religious iconography, the significance of religious imagery in advanced art from the 1930s to the 1960s is not easy to overlook. In the 1930s, Picasso, a Spaniard infinitely more pagan than Catholic in outlook, did many studies of the Crucifixion; and in the late 1940s, Matisse was absorbed in the design of the Chapel at Vence, which includes the Stations of the Cross. In the United States, Barnett Newman titled paintings Abraham and Chartres, produced a series of paintings called the Stations of the Cross, and worked on a design for a synagogue. All around the world, there were major religious projects by the greatest architects—Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and many others. Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican much involved with a revival of religious art in France, planned the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grace, at Assy, with contributions by Leger, Bonnard, Lipchitz, Chagall, and Matisse. And Father Couturier’s ideas in turn had a deep influence on Dominique de Menil and the creation of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. It is rarely pointed out today that the major book in English about Father Couturier and the Church at Assy was published in 1961 by William Rubin, who had worked on the project as a doctoral student under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia, well before he became known as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and an advocate of formalism and abstraction.
This history has been largely buried, or is rarely considered as a whole. Some aspects of mid-century religious art—such as the interest in involving major artists in a religious revival that might parallel the intellectual’s response to Communism—tell us little about the inherent value of the work, or what significance it can have for us today. There is also no point in denying that a lot of religious work did indeed verge on kitsch, although Clement Greenberg was surely unfair when he wrote of Rouault’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1945 that the artist was an “up-to-date exponent of pornographic, sadomasochistic, avant-garde Catholicism.” What seems essential, I think, is that the relationship between art and religion remains an unsettling topic.
Of course students of modern art have never entirely lost interest in Rouault and Chagall, certainly not in their early work. Even those who see avant-gardism as a revolutionary process that must reject earlier beliefs and modes of expression acknowledge the power of some of Rouault’s first studies of prostitutes and clowns, done between 1905 and 1908, with their hell-bent, anarchic painterly freedom. And few would deny that Chagall, in the gleefully absurdist lyricism of I and the Village in 1912, was responding to the revelations of Cubism with a rare imaginative energy. The problem that many people have with Rouault and Chagall comes later, when they are seen as doubting their own imaginations, as looking for support, or what some would see as a crutch, in iconographic or theological or cultural systems that are anything but avant-garde.
Many would still argue that by the 1930s Rouault and Chagall were more or less on automatic pilot, succumbing to forces that they could not control, to realms of feeling that were fundamentally alien to the avant-garde. I wonder if the Rouault show that was mounted at the McMullen Museum could have happened anywhere but at a Jesuit college, although the Rouault revival, if there is such a thing, may be said to have begun in a commercial New York gallery, when Mitchell-Innes & Nash had a show in 2007. The catalogue of that show contained testimonials by a number of contemporary artists. And it is not especially surprising that the Jewish Museum, which for many good reasons wants to be seen as broad-minded and cosmopolitan, would just now be doing an exhibition about the Russian and Yiddish Chagall, rather than the Old Testament Chagall. The understandable desire to see modern art as non-sectarian may still leave some mainstream institutions reluctant to embrace religious art.
Considering that Rouault and Chagall and so many other avant-garde artists were born in the nineteenth century, when religion dominated European life to a degree we can hardly imagine today, it is not surprising that some of them were tempted to take another look at the old religious art. Yet more than nostalgia was at work. So much of the great art in the Western tradition, so much of the art that the moderns responded to wholeheartedly, was religious art—and this posed a problem for an increasingly secular age. The moderns wanted the old religious intensities without the old religious forms, or so most of them believed. Kandinsky, in 1912 in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, insisted on this shift in the most radical way, arguing that religion, far from being a spiritual realm, was merely a form of materialism, not much different from politics or economics. Religion, in Kandinsky’s thinking, was a matter of externals, while the new art, the new spirituality, was a matter of perfect inwardness, a search for the essence of a man.
Matisse, who Kandinsky believed had taken some of the essential steps toward the new spirituality, observed in one of his later interviews that “all art worthy of the name is religious.” This was in answer to the question, “Do you think ... that there is such a thing as religious art?” Matisse, who never spoke glibly, was acknowledging that while art and religion now lived independent lives, they were nevertheless somehow related—that they were parallel directions in which the imagination might move. With Chagall and Rouault—and Matisse in the Vence Chapel and Bonnard in the altarpiece of Saint Francis of Sales in the Church of Assy—the relationship between art and religion becomes dynamic, dialectical. Even when they fail to make this relationship altogether convincing, they carry us to the crux of one of the enigmas of human history, namely how old feelings become new feelings. Are religious spirituality and secular spirituality so very different? That is the question that Rouault asked with such searching eloquence in Miserere, and that Chagall answered with shouts of joy in the Jerusalem Windows.
Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.
This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.