The Wall Street Journal notes the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shalom DovBer Schneerson, was depressed and visited Sigmund Freud seeking help, as did Marc Chagall, who first visited the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe seeking solace. He asked the rebbe a question – Should he stay in Vitebsk or go to Petrograd? The rebbe gave Chagall a noncommittal answer and Chagall left without ever discussing his depression. The rebbe had failed to see that Chagall had been drafted and ordered to Petrograd to join his army unit. So much for the clairvoyance of Lubavitcher rebbes.
[The author of this WSJ piece views this as "punishment" given to Chagall for "wasting" the rebbe's time. After all, Chagall knew he must go to Petrograd. Of course, a "tzaddik" with the powers attributed to Lubavitcher rebbes should have "seen" this and counseled Chagall about army service or fleeing the draft, but the 5th Lubavitcher rebbe did neither.
For more on the "clairvoyance" of hasidic rebbes see Solomon Maimon's autobiography, where exposes the bunko tricks used by the Maggid of Mezeritch to wow naive hasidim.]
[Hat Tip for the WSJ story: Dr. Gershon Mendel.]
April 27, 2007
HOUSES OF WORSHIP
By JONATHAN WILSON
Last month I gave a talk on Marc Chagall in Seattle. A large part of what I had to say was devoted to the artist's ambivalence about his Jewishness and his obsession with the image of Jesus. Afterward, a few members of the audience approached me. The topic of Chagall usually elicits a strong Jewish response -- reproductions of his works are ubiquitous in Jewish homes, images that seem to evoke shtetl life. But these people were members of an unusual local Christian congregation who referred to Jesus as Yeshua and who blew the shofar whenever a new family joined their church. They gave me an illustration that merged Jewish and Christian iconography. An explanation on the back presented some surprising symbology. The Torah scrolls were said to represent Jesus.
Chagall (1887-1985), with his own mixing and merging, clearly held a special interest for the group, as indeed they might have had for him. After all, the emblematic Jewish painter of the 20th century had insisted that the museum built to house his paintings in Nice, France, be called The National Museum of the Marc Chagall Biblical Message: not exactly an art gallery or a house of worship but a place committed to a universalist and utopian religious philosophy and aesthetic, and one designed to transcend the borders of any particular religion.
Marc Chagall's 'Descent From the Cross' (1968-76)
In the autumn of 1915, Marc Chagall took a short trip from his hometown of Vitebsk in Belorussia to Zaolshe, the summer seat of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shalom Dov-Ber-Schneerson. Chagall, then a 28-year-old painter with a burgeoning reputation, reports in his memoir "My Life" that he had been haunted "for a long time" by "the pale face" of Jesus and he wanted some guidance. Although he had grown up in a Hasidic milieu, Chagall had abandoned religious observance at the age of 13, and by the time that he met Schneerson he was thoroughly secularized, with a résumé that included four years in Paris on the front lines of the revolutionary art wars.
Chagall's choice of instructor, an Orthodox rabbi, might seem surprising. After all, Chagall himself was irreligious, although he clearly felt linked umbilically to the Hebrew Bible and Yiddish culture. But these were elastic times in the worlds of art, science and religion: Twelve years earlier, in a crisis of depression and anxiety, Schneerson himself had consulted with Freud.
According to Chagall's account of their meeting, it wasn't a profound conversation. He didn't even reveal the matter that was troubling him -- his feeling of being haunted by the "pale face" of Jesus. Instead, he asked the rabbi a question to which he already knew the answer: Should he stay in Vitebsk or move to Petrograd? Chagall had already been drafted into the army and ordered to Petrograd. As payback for wasting the rabbi's time, he got a noncommittal answer.
It is more than likely, given Jesus' Levantine place of origin, that he did not have a "pale" face and that the image Chagall had in mind was drawn from the Russian Orthodox icons that he had seen as a child in and around his native Vitebsk. But what exactly was haunting him?
Throughout his life, even when he briefly held a position as Soviet commissar for art in Vitebsk after the Revolution, Chagall was drawn to what we might call a "pre-Christian" Jesus, a Jewish Jesus who would not have understood himself as in any way existing beyond the boundaries of the normative Judaism of his time. In his letters and interviews, Chagall lamented the schism that detached Jesus from the Jewish family, and he was deeply attached to "Christ as a poet and a prophetic figure." He painted crucifixion scenes throughout his long life. A uniform interpretation of these works, however, remains unattainable.
After Kristallnacht -- Nov. 9, 1938 -- the night on which Jewish businesses throughout Germany were looted, synagogues burned and Jews attacked, Chagall (who was living in France) produced his own "Guernica" with a painting titled "White Crucifixion" (1938). It shows the martyred Jesus wearing a prayer shawl around his waist, representing Jewish suffering under Nazi persecution. As news of the destruction of the Jews reached the U.S., where Chagall had fled in 1941, he executed a dozen more crucifixion scenes.
And yet Chagall's oeuvre features multiple Jesus figures. There is Jesus portrayed as a version of Chagall himself, with "MARC CH" where we might expect to find "INRI," the Latin initials that so often appear above Jesus' head on crucifixion scenes (referring to Pilate's mocking reference to Jesus as "king of the Jews"). The most striking example is "Descent From the Cross" (1941). There is Jesus without any visible Jewish accouterments, as we might expect to find him in conservative Christian representations. Finally, there is Jesus on the cross serving formal imperatives: A cross, Chagall once claimed, is from a compositional point of view an irresistible way to divide up a canvas.
Chagall's relationship to the figure of Jesus Christ is ultimately mysterious and unclassifiable. It is the Jesus of a Jewish child who grew up in an environment of Russian Orthodox churches; of a Jewish painter both attuned to and rebelling against a 2,000-year tradition of Christian iconography in art; of a Jew in love with the stories of the Hebrew Bible and yet well versed in the parables of the New Testament, drawn to the poetry of that book and excited by its gaunt philosophy; of a Jew who wanted to argue Christ with the Lubavitcher Rebbe but who soon after, as a Soviet revolutionary, decried religion; of a pagan who illustrated the Hebrew Bible; of a Jew in mourning, via images of Jesus, for Nazi murder and the destruction of the world he had grown up in. All this takes us a long way from "Fiddler on the Roof."
Mr. Wilson is the author of "Marc Chagall" (Schocken/Nextbook).