Marc Chagall's unique style cannot be classified as one specific genre. During the evolution of his career, from 1897- 1985 he combined elements of Fauvism, Cubism, Mysticism, and Surrealism. Raised in the Jewish ghetto in Vitebsk, Belarus, in a strictly observant, Hasidic Family, Chagall embarked on a secular life, but always exhibited strong emotional ties and nostalgia for the Jewish world that he left when he pursued his ambitions. He expressed those bonds largely through the depiction in his paintings of recurring objects that carry a symbolic meaning. Emblematic of Chagall's work is the appearance of fiddlers, cows, herring and village houses to name a few. Chagall lived through virulent anti-Semitism in Russia before and after the revolution, and through two world wars. Ultimately, he was forced to leave Vichy France when the Nazis came to power. Around that time period, the image of the crucified Jesus Christ began to feature prominently in his work. I will examine in detail Chagall's use of that icon to express Jewish martyrdom, which is epitomized in White Crucifixion, 1938.
The nineteenth century had two artistic traditions that contributed to the crucifix iconography of Chagall. The first was the portrayal of Christ outside of a biblical setting and using him to represent human suffering, such as in times of war. The second tradition was for Jewish artists to emphasize that Jesus was Jewish, a fact recognized by Jews and Christians alike. One example is Mark Antokolsky, whom Chagall admittedly looked up to, who made a sculpture of Christ with Jewish features and clothing such as side curls and a skullcap. Another example is Jacob Ezekiel who, in his work titled Israel, etched “Israel” below the cross upon which Jesus was crucified as a reaction to the anti-Semitic pogroms. Like these predecessors, Chagall hoped that using Christ as a Jewish martyr would highlight the hypocrisy of Christian persecution of the Jews. “For me, Christ has always...
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