Fiddlers and Afflictions

This is a transcription of a talk Ydi did at KRUX on 20 Aug 2020. Two weeks prior Jonathan Griffiths had done a talk on the artist Diane Victor, comparing her cathartic images to Goya’s ‘Disaster of War’ series (1810-1820).

At first glance Chagall’s art seems like the antithesis of Diane Victor’s; the latter’s artworks are monochrome, Chagall’s saturated and bold. Victor’s work seems abject and disturbing, Chagall’s lighthearted, whimsical and carefree. Looking closer, however, they are not that different. Only Chagall, however, manages to articulate both the best and the worst in human experience

Two weeks ago Jonathan talked to us about the South African artist Diane Victor, who is a “known for the uncompromising and penetrating insight that her work provides on human frailty, folly and evil”. Tonight I want to look at an artist from a different country and historic moment, Marc Chagall, or Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov, born in Belarus in 1887 in the area then marked as the ‘pale of settlement’. Belarus had a largely Jewish, or more particularly, Hasidic community. Hasidism originated as a spiritual revival movement during the 18th century in the Eastern parts of Europe. My knowledge in this regard is pretty superficial, not being a Jewish scholar or a proper historian. I realise I’m glossing over most of the political nuances of communism in Eastern Europe, just as Westerners often view Africa as one large place with a single political narrative. But I do hope I can offer some insight into Chagall’s artistic achievements and also point out his relevance for us, today in South Africa.

So why Marc Chagall? Unlike Jonathan, who admires Diane Victor draughtsmanship and artistic sensibilities, I found it quite hard to grow fond of Chagall’s work. When asked to do a talk on Chagall at a local book club, I was forced to do some reading on the artist and the history of Jewish art. Visual art within Judaism, as you know, raises some interesting points for discussion because of the second commandment and its implications on creating images. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I’m not exploring the debate around the second commandment in this particular talk, but I can point you to some material if you’re interested. It suffices to say that in Judaism, as in the history of Christianity, there have been varied interpretations of the commandment, giving artists different levels of freedom. Jewish art isn’t as strictly ‘aniconic’ as Islam, although the consensus that it is forbidden to represent God the Father.

I’ve come to appreciate Chagall’s work much more than before, and I hope you will too.

At first glance, the two artists couldn’t be more different; Victor works in monochromes, Chagall in bold, saturated colours. Victor’s artworks are abject and disturbing, Chagall’s lighthearted. Her figures are anatomically correct while Chagall’s look naive (often classified as ‘primitivist’). 

The surprising thing is that there are many similarities between their work. Bear with me as I explore some of these similarities before making some observations.

The primary and most obvious similarity is that they both work figuratively, that is, they use pictures and objects from the real world, albeit arranged in ways that are imaginative and unrealistic. This is worth pointing out in Chagall’s art because he was deemed part of the Paris Avante-garde who, in their most extreme, rejected pictorial art in exchange for total abstraction and later the ready-made. One historian writes: “This is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other”. The French writer and critic André Breton expressed it this way: “with him alone the metaphor made its triumphant return to modern painting”.

The second obvious similarity is that both Victor and Chagall’s work is quite monumental in size, intended not as pictures on a screen on in a book, but to be encountered as a body in a space. I’ve only seen Diane Victor’s work in real life (not Chagall), but their size truly gives them a presence. Working on this scale asks for a very different studio practice, which I recently discovered trying to paint a meager 1m by 1m painting. I have to ‘wrap myself around the canvas’, turning it around frequently or laying it flat on the floor to be able to reach every corner. It is often awkward and usually messy. The process of life-size painting can be likened to two persons conversing, or more often than not, wrestling. Like in Chagall’s image of Jacob wrestling the Angel, I can imagine the artist telling the canvas – I won’t let you go until you bless me. The importance of scale was evident in Chagall’s art as he continued challenging himself towards larger and larger artworks. Throughout his extensive career, he experimented with murals, stage designs and backdrops for ballet. At the age of 77, Chagall was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera house, which took him a year to complete.

Sidenote: Chagall did indeed work in monochrome too, in fact his line illustrations are some of my favourites. His illustration of Jacob wrestling the angel comes from a series he did between 1931 and 1956 to illustrate the entire Bible – this was done primarily in etching, a type of monochrome printmaking.

Scale and figuration are two apparent similarities between the two artists, but what about their content matter? Once again, they are not that different. Both Chagall and Victor are known to use a set of personal symbols, often inaccessible or ambiguous to the viewer. Like Stella quipped the other day, Diane Victor finds it hard and even unpleasant to explain her work to others, especially if the audience expects a straightforward or linear interpretation. In the same way, Chagall “considered his own personal language of symbols to be meaningful to himself.” In his writing he is said to be contradictory and erratic, making it hard to decipher. He obsessed about specific images and symbols, like the rooster, the fiddler and the circus. Historians and critics speculate endlessly about these symbols. Some suggest the fiddler represents the importance of music in the Jewish community. A rooster might be significant for its sacrificial meaning connected to Yom Kippur.

But these interpretations touch on only half the significance of Chagall’s work. Marc Chagall, like Victor, I believe, is less concerned with signposting the viewer towards understanding and more with making visible the invisible, the inner world, the unfiltered, the subconscious and sentimental things one can hardly call logical or systematic. In other words, the viewer is an incidental bystander to the artist’s intimate process of self-reflection and catharsis.

One of the equivocal symbol offering varied interpretations in both their work is Christianity. Chagall was commissioned for several stained glass works, and his Jewish background didn’t deter him from working for Christian patrons. Victor is probably more ironic in her use of such religious material, juxtaposing them with social or political issues to interrogate the religious institution. Instead of stained glass, Victor uses smoke to draw on the glass.

Christianity becomes an especially evasive symbol in Chagall’s crucifix works. One reason why I think both artists are concerned with the subconscious, is that they sometimes conflate the global, external (political) with the internal, personal. In his crucifix works, Chagall weaves himself into the historic narrative of Christ, while also expressing the Nazi persecution of Jews and the destruction of his Russian village. (See one work where he inscribes his initials instead of the traditional ‘INRI’). On a ‘rational level’ the Jewishness of Christ expresses how the ‘Christian faith’ of the so-called Western World (including Germany) is incompatible with the ‘killing of Jews’ or with ‘silence’ on the Jewish issue. But the works also reveals how his troubled mind, or sense of agony internally becomes conflated with the martyrdom of Christ. (See another of his works where he depicts the artist in front of his artwork as if a crucifixion).

Humour is a surprising element to Diane Victor’s work and is also frequent in Chagall. Whereas Victor’s humour is quite dark (sarcasm, irony), I would call Chagall’s more whimsical and playful. As a case in point; after the revolution, the Russian Avant-garde developed a style of art called Suprematism, in which they aimed to move as far as possible from natural forms, or representation, thereby accessing “the supremacy of pure feeling or ‘spirituality’”. When Chagall founded the Vitebsk Arts College and invited the Suprematists painters El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich to be part of the staff, they gradually ousted him from the institution, branding his work as ‘bourgeoisie individualism’. In these works, I think Chagall is poking fun at the suprematists, adding his signature rooster and goats as commentary.

Their individualised symbolism and sense of humour provide two more similarities between Victor and Chagall. But in their response to their tumultuous political climates the artists start to diverge.

Both artists’ work expresses agony about injustice and human suffering, yet Victor rarely, if ever, expresses the brief hope that good will ultimately prevail. Chagall manages to articulate both the best and the worst of human experience, even finding joy amid his despair. This embrace of both suffering and joy is one of the things I most admire in Chagall’s work, but also something I struggle with personally. Thus, seeking ‘mentors in hope’ I tried to reflect on some of the ways Chagall ‘pushes back’ despair.

Chagall lived in Russia and was 30 years old when the October revolution happened (Belarus was still under the rule of the czars when he was born). At the outbreak of the Second world war, Chagall and his wife were rescued by an “operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe by providing them with forged visas to the US”. It was while living in the States that he heard the news of the holocaust and the destruction of his home town, Vitebsk. Belarus has been in the headlines as you might know, following its democratic election a while ago. Not many people know that Belarus was the hardest-hit country proportionately during World War Two. In Vitebsk, only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War. Chagall was also included in the infamous 1937 “degenerate exhibition” curated by the Nazi’s under Joseph Goebbels. The German authorities made a mockery of Chagall’s art, describing it as [an] assault on Western civilisation”. 

In 1951, Chagall wrote a poem entitled “For the Slaughtered Artists: 1950”:

I see the fire, the smoke and the gas; rising to the blue cloud, turning it black. I see the torn-out hair, the pulled-out teeth. They overwhelm me with my rabid palette. I stand in the desert before heaps of boots, clothing, ash and dung, and mumble my Kaddish. And as I stand—from my paintings, the painted David descends to me, harp in hand. He wants to help me weep and recite chapters of Psalms.

Three responses to suffering:

Lament is one of three ways I see Chagall dealing with suffering. In this poem and his etching of King David, Chagall’s grief is channeled towards God. That is, it seems to be relational and historical, not existential.  Lament can also be done in community; the artist joins his voice to king David and those through the ages who have wept before God. (I recently attended a talk on lament in South Africa by June Dickie which was very helpful). 

The second way I observe Chagall ‘pushing back’ despair is by finding good and purposeful work and working hard at it. The artist spent 25 years making illustrations for the Bible. It was a monumental and inspiring endeavour, and as one historian explains, risky, since had just succeeded in becoming known as a painter and a modernist, and now ventured towards ancient history and religion. Chagall is told to have worked “obsessively” on the Bible, spending months in Israel and later going to Amsterdam to study paintings of Rembrandt and El Greco. Working well and working hard, in my own experience, can be one of the balsams for suffering.

The third element of hope I observe in Chagall’s life and work is his readiness to celebrate; however ‘pedestrian’ the occasion. In the works ‘Visit to grandparents’ and ‘Bathing of a Baby’, I see traces of intimacy and domesticity few male artists exhibit in their work. And very few postmodern artists. One may say that these early works exhibit the naivete of youth, but the artist continued to create works of family and marriage throughout the wars, in exile and after returning to France. David Lyle Jeffrey writes that “No artist of modernity so happily represents marriage on his canvases (as in his life)—marriage as a good and symbolic of a higher good”. Chagall’s paintings of lovers, wedded couples and portraits of his wife, Bella Rosenfeld, are some of his most well known and often referenced in popular media. Floating above the village, Chagall’s lovers seem to express how ‘love’ transcends not only everyday life but also deep suffering and affliction.

To conclude.

While reading about Chagall and Russian history, I revisited a small book I was given by a Romanian family while at L’Abri, The Foolishness of God. It accounts the memories of the Hungarian minister Ferenc Visky (1918 – 2005) while in communist prison with Richard Wurmbrand (a Christian minister who renounced communism and was imprisoned and tortured for his faith). Despite the harrowing experiences of both the writer and Wurmbrand, one reviewer writes that “Joy beams from every page, a hard-won thanksgiving for a God who justifies and sanctifies through mysterious ways”. The stories of Visky and Wurmbrand is both compelling and challenging to me. In one place, Visky asks “How can we overcome fear. Right here, on the other side of the cell bars, are those who continually threaten us. Our lives are in their hands. The antidote to fear is love. There is no other way. We are free to love our enemies. We cannot fear those whom we love.” In another place, he writes “it is foolishness, of course […] The madness of the world, including that of the Soviet system, can only be dispelled by the foolishness of God.

I continue to be amazed and astounded at this degree of faith. I often brood angrily over the violence in South Africa; the senseless rape statistics, the suffering those around me and the hate I see germinating even in the gentlest of people. Often joy does not seem appropriate. But I ask myself whether the first step towards joy in suffering is simply in not becoming bitter. Bitterness is, as Visky puts it, simply exchanging one form of suffering for another. By meeting mentors such as Chagall I can learn to lament and to find reasons for celebrating amid a context of affliction.

I conclude with Chagall’s famous painting White Crucifix. A ray of light from above seems to illuminate the presence and peace of God, despite the agonising reality surrounding him. (Daniel Louw and other artists also re-imagined the crucifixion within the context of the South African struggle for justice). For Chagall, Christ is not the messiah as Christians see him, yet there is a peacefulness emanating from him. Suffering and victory are fused together in Christ in the moment of deepest suffering. One of my favourite quotes at the moment is by the South African theologian John de Gruchy: “With Dostoyevsky, but contra Nietsche, the crucifixion is not the destruction of all that is beautiful and noble, but its redemption through identification with all that is ugly and ignoble (2001:1224). In Chagall’s work one might add, identification with humanity at its best and its worst.