At a moment when the world is flush with new books and ever-evolving interpretations of Jesus, one of the last century’s artistic masters is providing art lovers with a striking take on the first-century religious figure.
- Religion News Service
The first US exhibition exploring the 'darker works' of Marc Chagall (1887-1985) shows a Jewish artist obsessed with Jesus.
Chagall: Love, War, and Exile, at The Jewish Museum, in New York, showcases the work of the Russian-French artist during World War II as he tried to make sense of a world gone mad.
Of particular interest are paintings depicting the crucified Jesus — depictions that are often read as metaphors not only for war but the particular expressions of Jewish suffering and persecution in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
These somber, often brooding, paintings were unusual for a Jewish artist who, before and after the war, was celebrated for his bold colours and acclaimed for his humanistic warmth, and sometimes criticized for his perceived sentimentality.
The works on display signal an alarm and warning, as art historian Kenneth E. Silver wrote in an essay featured in the exhibit’s catalogue. Chagall, Silver noted, 'could demonstrate not only to Jews, but also — perhaps primarily — to Gentiles, that what was being done to modern Jews had a direct parallel in the fate of Jesus, cruelly misunderstood and executed for his outsider status.'
He added: 'Perhaps more than anything else, it was the image of Jesus Christ as a Man of Sorrows — a sufferer — that made him the exemplary Jew.'
And yet, the paintings defy easy classification or labels. In some ways, they can appear to straddle different understandings and readings of the figure of Jesus, a Jew who came to be worshipped by Christians as the Messiah and a symbol of oppression to Jews because of the violence inflicted by his followers. In Chagall’s work, Jews may recognise Jesus because he wears the tallit, or prayer shawl, as a loincloth; Christians will recognise his haloed head.
Photo: Marc Chagall, Descent from the Cross, 1941.