The Personal Torah of Marc Chagall

June 1, 2023

Image: Marie-Luise Skibbe, installation view of CHAGALL, Jewish Museum of Australia, 2023

Andrew Renton
Writer & curator

There is no more explicitly Jewish painter than Marc Chagall. A blunt statement that often leads to an oversimplification of the richness of his work. What we might mean by Jewish, in this context, is not restricted to the subject matter of the paintings – the scenes, the figures, the history. There’s also the personal history, which is reflected in almost everything that he made, and which inevitably is projected upon the work by the viewer. We overdetermine Chagall’s Jewishness, because it’s all but impossible not to.

Chagall’s work is always remembering. A proactive, ongoing, repetitive process. It’s as if reiterating the image helps him piece fragments together that might never have belonged in the same time and place, and in turn they become part of Chagall’s version of events. The source of that remembrance is not straightforward. There is, for example, personal memory – people, places – and then the ingrained recollection of the Torah. All sources without priority or hierarchy for the event of painting. How often, one wonders, did Chagall return to the actual text, but instead worked through the narratives so fully embedded in his memory? Biblical narrative is interwoven with personal history that they somehow become one, or at least coexist in Chagall’s hybrid spaces. If the Torah is the sum of all existence then, parasha by parasha, it becomes Chagall’s own story, while the folktale figures from the old country become part of what we might think of as Chagall’s personal Torah – an often esoteric world of character and narrative, offering infinite possibilities of interpretation. Lived experience and learning become indistinguishable.

For someone who remembers so intently, memory is nevertheless often elusive. Chagall’s touching description of his father in his autobiography, for example, is full of detail. And yet the father, even as he is described at length, resists description: “An image inaccessible”. This is a remarkable confession for someone so engaged in the possibilities of figuration and portraiture. Moreover, when questioned why his Jew had been painted with a green face, his response was, “Perhaps a shadow fell on him from my heart.” The implication here is more than a metaphor of melancholy and absence. It’s almost as if the intensity of perception gets in the way of giving shape to what he remembers.

Memory gives way to motif, where we might find under the surface of the subject more subtle manifestations of a Jewish sensibility at work. Less to do with the look of the thing, but rather a code or methodology of practice. We should not forget that Chagall is a painter deeply engaged in key moments of modernism. He produced a body of work that is as much about testing the limits of several painterly genres or movements as it is about himself and a Jewish legacy. He’s Cubist, Symbolist, Surrealist, Fauvist, but somehow never fully bound to any one movement. They are genres on the way to Chagall’s own highly developed vocabulary of colour, image and form. Chagall’s paintings inhabit their adopted genres to test the medium itself, to find form for a layering of narratives, images and allusions. And having found form, there is no going back. He never offers us a stable index of reference. The achieved image of the painting now stands in lieu of the memories which informed it. And the image succeeds not because of our ability to decode it, but rather by how it becomes an independent event constructing a new space in its wake.

You might want to believe that it all could be traced back to a youth in Vitebsk. And, of course, to some degree, this is true. Moreover, his perpetual return is, perhaps, ours also. We read him nostalgically. We remember with him. One explanation why his work remains so resonant is that he offers a type of collective memory, one which works across generations. We’re stakeholders in these memories, because they are all but our own. We might successfully trace back sources of imagery to biography, like the fiddler alluding to Chagall’s grandfather climbing onto the roof to be alone, or the proliferation of fish as a cipher for Chagall’s father, who worked for the local herring merchant. But for this to explain away those images is to limit them. Instead, we might more usefully see them as part of a working vocabulary of form, gesture and colour, to which Chagall returns again and again. These memories almost immediately translate themselves into raw materials for working and reworking. In this way the painting becomes a site which does indeed negotiate complex histories, while simultaneously bound up with the existential moment of painting.

As much as we might read Chagall’s work through his Jewishness, it is never presented without ambiguity or ambivalence. The poet Bialik once suggested that Chagall was like a chazan who sang for his community, and then pulled a face while their eyes were closed. For Chagall, this is no contradiction. Or rather, the contradiction and its transgression is as much a part of Jewish identity as manifestations of absolute faith.

For example, the Jew knows only too well what it means to paint a crucifix in a painting. A double transgression, where Chagall simultaneously represents the crucified as Jew as well as staking a claim to participating within the given genres of art history. He positions himself uncomfortably within this tradition that is not his own and despite whatever approbation, always somewhat outside of it. The crucifixion is a painterly genre in itself, and to engage with it is to participate within millennia of representation. Here it’s no longer only a Christian image, of course, but one which resonates with simultaneously specific details of Jewish and universal suffering. Perhaps it’s no accident that Chagall’s first (of many) iconic reworkings of the crucifixion, Golgotha (1912) betrays a cubist logic of displacement. Chagall insisted the subject was the “impact of the pogroms”, but the modernist genre enables a simultaneity of perspectives. It’s a scene borne out of tragedy, transcending genre and yet formally analytical at the same time.

By the same token, when Chagall paints Moses, it’s an always already mediated version of Moses drawn from art history. After all, Jews never needed a likeness. Their Moses was evident in the text. Chagall turns to invariably Christian renderings of Moses. Rembrandt’s Moses – with all his ambiguity and formal instability – seems the most direct precursor. But equally, Chagall even reiterates centuries of misreading and misrepresentation. Moses is so often depicted with horns; a journey of mistranslation from the Latin Vulgate version of the original Hebrew. Moses descended Sinai with קרן emanating from his face. Literally, horns, but more appropriately, in this context, beams of light. In Michelangelo’s hands and generations beyond, the horns are rendered literally. There’s no question that Chagall knows his Hebrew and understands how this reading has occurred. Does Chagall’s hybrid form play wilfully with this history of (mis)representations? Or is this a manifestation of how an image comes to coalesce and move through the world?

Chagall is not only a great imagist, but also a storyteller, our storyteller. His tales take twists and turns, as in a dream, rather than following any literal narrative thread. After all, according to the Talmud, ‘All dreams follow the mouth’ (Berakhot 55b). That is, dreams are always open to interpretation and, crucially, subject to retelling. And that act of retelling might be seen as one of appropriation. The story becomes one’s own. Chagall would surely have been familiar with this early moment in the Talmud, and it might offer us a route into understanding one of the most consistent stylistic and conceptual features of his painting. His figures are uprooted, ungrounded, floating, as in a dream. The dreamscape is, for Chagall, a space for the simultaneity of ideas, where past and present are interwoven. In Chagall’s vision – in the painting itself – the simultaneity transcends time and perspective. The painting stands outside of conventional interpretation; it overflows with possibilities of renewal and connectedness.

Andrew Renton is a writer and curator and is Professor of Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has curated many shows internationally, including the first Manifesta European biennial. He was the founding Director of Marlborough Contemporary Gallery in London. He wrote a weekly column for the Evening Standard on art issues, and is the author and editor of many articles, books and monographs on art. He has been a member of the jury for the Turner Prize. He was active in the creation of Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art and is a board member and trustee of several arts organisations such as Drawing Room and The Jewish Quarterly. He is Chair of The Showroom London. He has advised many collections and institutions, including the British Government Art Collection.