Vitebsk and Marc Chagall
This will be my last blog for some time, as I want to concentrate on other work which needs to be completed. Lately, I’ve been looking at the work of some of the great artists. I mentioned Odilon Redon in the last blog. Now I’m looking at the life and work of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Surely one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. His art and the story of his life are both amazing. He was born in Vitebsk in Belarus and his parents were devout Hasidic Jews. He never forgot his roots in Vitebsk and images of the town form the backdrop for many of his paintings.

Barbed wire
(photo: Scott Murray)

Vitebsk and the Holocaust
Vitebsk was captured by the Germans on the 11th July 1941. The Nazis cold-bloodedly and indiscriminately murdered many of the Jews before and after the Ghetto was created. The massacre of the Jews in the Ghetto commenced on the 8th Oct. on the pretext that there were epidemics. At the end of the war there were no Jews left in Vitebsk.

The White Crucifixion (1938)
His painting The White Crucifixion has to be seen against the background of the Holocaust. Chagall was in Paris but he would have been all too aware of what was happening in Germany. 1938 was, after all, the year of the Kristallnacht when Jewish homes and businesses and synagogues were looted and destroyed. The start of the Holocaust.

Top of fence strainer in Vatersay
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Chagall’s was a highly individual art, not beholden to any of the avant-garde movements such as Impressionism and Cubism. He uses colours and images to convey his inner state. He wants to express the state of his soul. There is a lot of white in the painting. White represents sorrow, as does the tau-shaped cross. The central image of Christ on the cross is ambiguous with Christian and Jewish elements. Around his loins is a tallith, a Jewish prayer shawl, yet above his head is the inscription Jesus of Nazereth, King of the Jews. But perhaps the greatest ambiguity, irony, is that the persecution shown in the painting was happening in supposedly Christian Europe.

The images in the painting
The images surrounding the cross are highly evocative of the Jews’ situation at the time. They are images of a persecuted people. Top left we see the Red Army hounding the Jews in Russia. Top right the Nazi storm-troopers set fire to a synagogue. Bottom right a Torah is in flames and a Jew in flight steps over it. This Jew has a bag on his back and represents the Wandering Jew or the figure of Elijah. There is a boat crowded with people representing Jews trying to escape to Palestine. Above the cross are the figures of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Miriam who rescued the infant Moses from the river. Memorably, below the cross is an image of the Menorah representing, among other things, the undying flame of God’s presence as seen by Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Is the painting saying that despite all the carnage, God cannot be destroyed?

Rope tied to the wreck of the Boy David, Vatersay
(Photo: Scott Murray)

The destruction of the sacred
In any case, the painting is a powerful representation of the persecution of the the Jews and the destruction of the sacred. And what is the sacred? Surely the soul of every human being created in the image of God. The gross evil of Nazism – and of Communism – was the repudiation of that sacredness. It was treating people as objects at the service of an ideology. Wherever a person is given a uniform and given a corporate identity he is no longer a free person. He is at the service of a corporation, a state or an ideology.

The end of all war?
Will the day ever dawn when the sacredness of the other person comes first? It doesn’t matter about corporation, state or ideology. When every soldier in the world will say: “I am not going to destroy the sacred. The person in my sights is a sacred person and I am responsible for my actions before God. I will not pull the trigger.” When every soldier realizes his own sacredness and the sacredness of the other, there will be no more war. The alternative is what we see displayed in The White Crucifixion.

Ice drops on a window
(Photo: Scott Murray)

How appropriate is that?
Just as I finished writing this blog I received photos from Scott Murray, who has been supplying me with great photos. He didn’t know the subject of the blog, but to me they seem uncannily appropriate. Not only that but he said two things came to his mind as he took the photo (today) of the barbed wire. They were these lines from a Bob Dylan lyric:

“She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

The second thing that came to his mind was … wait for it … EASTER. When I look at the content of the blog, how amazing is that! Perhaps there is hope after all.

Web on barbed wire
(Photo: Scott Murray)