Chagall's Murals Paint Portrait of Judaism

An exhibit of the artist's work from his early life in Russia portrays a fervent commitment to his faith

MARC CHAGALL and Israel have had a strong and deep relationship. Not surprisingly the most famous Jewish painter holds a unique place in the Hebrew state's artistic pantheon.

But, the works executed by Chagall during the years of his strongest involvement with his Jewishness had not been seen in Israel until now.

A new exhibit at the Israel Museum, here through Jan. 15, 1994, helps fill this gap. Entitled ``Chagall: Dreams and Drama,'' the exhibit highlights the painter's work during his early life in Russia, from 1908 to 1922.

Among the many pieces showcased is a series of murals commissioned for Moscow's State Jewish Chamber Theater, which the painter completed in 1920.

In one room of the museum, a giant panel depicts his well-known figures of the time: musicians and acrobats. Opposite them, across the wall, are four of the nine muses directly inspired by Jewish traditions. Literature, for example, is a Torah scribe, and Music is a fiddler.

Chagall was born into a poor Hasidic family in Vitebsk, Byelorussia (now Belarus), the zone assigned to Jews in tsarist Russia.

Between 1908 and 1922, Chagall returned often to his birthplace after experiencing life in Paris, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

In Vitebsk, he painted everything that met his eye: the shop where his father sold herring, views of the town, portraits of old Jewish men whom he would ask to pose wrapped in his father's prayer shawl, and street fiddlers.

Some of these works are also part of the exhibition. After the October Revolution in 1917, Jewish culture briefly flourished and Chagall, by then a rising star, was deeply committed to the Jewish renewal.

The Russian Revolution initially brought dramatic changes for the Jews, giving them full citizens' rights. Chagall's place in the new artistic milieu was acknowledged when he was made commissar for all art activities in the Vitebsk region.

CHAGALL'S ideological commitment to the revolution, however, didn't stretch very far: ``My knowledge of Marxism is confined to knowing that Marx was a Jew and that he had a long white beard,'' he wrote in his autobiography.

His artistic conceptions soon conflicted with the revolutionary zeal of his colleagues. And his folk art and Jewish themes were seen as outdated.

These themes, however, were ideally suited for work at the National Jewish Theater.

For the theater's opening, he was comissioned to design the set and costumes for three one-act plays by Sholem Aleichem. After this project, Chagall moved onto another, painting the walls of the tiny auditorium.

The room, which was soon after named ``Chagall's Box'' because of the intense, artistic environment he created, was used for only a short time because of its limiting space. The theater then moved to a larger space where the wall paintings were displayed.

A fallout with the theater's management kept Chagall from being paid for his remarkable murals, however. Shortly afterwards, he left his homeland and went to Paris.

In 1937, the worsening political climate and the rise of anti-Semitism led the theater to remove Chagall's murals. They were rolled up and placed under the theater's stage, among old sets. Eleven years later, the theater closed down. And because it was feared that the murals would be destroyed, they were taken to the State Tretyakov Gallery and kept in storage.

The gallery's current acting director, Lidia Yovlava, recalls when Chagall came to Russia in 1973 to see these early works. ``He was very touched, he thought they had been destroyed under Stalin or during the war. It was only then that he signed them,'' she says.

But it was not until 1989, amid the spirit of glasnost, that the murals were restored. In the last two years they have been exhibited in New York, Chicago, Finland, and Germany.

THE themes of Jewish folklore and tradition that sustain the exhibition are recurrent in Chagall's later work as ``an expression of his nostalgia for his origins,'' curator Ruth Apter-Gabriel explains.

The artist first visited Jerusalem in 1931. ``He came many times, and he loved to walk the streets of Jerusalem and be recognized'' remembers the city's ex-mayor, Teddy Kolleck, who was also a close friend of Chagall's.

Israel has greatly benefited from Chagall's work. The national parliament, the Knesset, is adorned with tapestries by Chagall; the 12 stained-glass windows of the synagogue in the country's main hospital are also the artist's work.

But Chagall did not have a school of followers in Israel. ``The opposite actually happened,'' Ms. Apter-Gabriel says. ``Israeli artists perceived of him as a Jewish artist, belonging to something they wanted to leave behind. They don't define themselves as Jewish but as Israeli, and this is a fundamental nuance.''

Contemporary Israeli portraitist Pnina Ramati agrees. ``It is not Chagall's Jewishness that has inspired local painters, but they have been influenced by his universal qualities, his technique, his lyricism.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.