by Cynthia Close
This year, Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, begins on December 18th and ends on December 26th. The artist most closely identified with Jewish folk culture is the long-lived Russian born Modernist Marc Chagall (1887-1985). His religion-inspired artworks visualize the soul of Jewish identity. Noted art critic Robert Hughes called Chagall “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” He was a contemporary of Picasso, who is on record praising Chagall as a brilliant colorist.
Chagall realized his desire to be an artist at an early age, but it was difficult for a Jewish child to study outside of the designated religious affiliated schools in the Russian/Jewish ghettos, knowns as shtetls, where he lived. He eventually studied art during the time he lived and worked in Paris and while he deployed some of the geometric spatial and stylistic markers of cubism, he frequently referenced images and memories of Jewish life from his childhood in Vitebsk, the Belarusian village of his birth. He was raised in a family of observant Hasidic Jews, steeped in religious practice. His allegories of biblical tales often take on a celebratory tone, mixing fantasy with historical fact. Chagall managed to survive Russian anti-Jewish pogroms and two World Wars, living for a time in the United States and ultimately dying in France. He was prolific in many mediums; painting, illustration, ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and massive stained-glass projects for public buildings and museums in several countries including the cathedrals of Reims and windows on the theme of peace for the United Nations in New York City. His 1912 painting The Fiddler, features a large, green-faced fiddler in winter garb, dancing on snow-covered village roof-tops with small figures representing a family as his audience. The fiddler is surrounded by churches and synagogues. A small angel-like figure with a halo appears near the top of the frame. The painting is said to be the inspiration for the long-running hit musical Fiddler on the Roof.