In his book Marc Chagall, writer Jonathan Wilson suggests that the recurring flying figures themselves are a pun on Chagall’s Jewish identity, and come from the literalization of a Yiddish word: “The word luftmensch, which denotes in Yiddish an individual overly involved in intellectual pursuits, literally means ‘man of the air,’” writes Wilson. Chagall, ever the dreamer, wishing he was in a cosmopolitan center when at home, then longing to return after he had broken free—perhaps he himself was the luftmensch he depicted. But like his animals and violinists, this symbol was unmoored from any sort of strict logic. It seems Chagall employed his motifs when and where they felt right.
With the rise of fascism in Europe, Chagall’s motifs—if they didn’t take on a coherent, symbolic logic—at least acquired a new tone of voice. In 1933’s deeply melancholy Solitude, we see a man, covered in a tallit and deep in troubled thought, turning his back on a violin-playing heifer. His town, meanwhile, burns in the background. Or consider White Crucifixion, painted following the Kristallnacht in 1938, the night in which Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels sanctioned a pogrom. The canvas shows European Jews subject to violence, their homes and synagogues burnt, while Christ—his Jewishness emphasized by his wearing a prayer shawl instead of a plain loincloth, and with a crown of thrones conspicuously absent—dies in the center. Chagall overpainted insignia he originally included to mark the dark history being made around him: Nazi armbands and placards around the necks of Jews. In trying to keep it timeless, he has made it too unspecific, even too subtle.
At 53, Chagall alighted in New York, having fled Europe in 1941. He painted more Christ figures, explicitly identifying with Christ’s suffering himself. In 1947, he also rather ponderously compared the suffering of all European Jews with that of Christ. Hannah Arendt would later discuss the enormity of the Holocaust in terms of “the banality of evil,” the idea that such senseless horror could be carried out like an administrative task. The tragedy seemed to have rung from Chagall—that most autonomously imaginative of painters—a colorlessness of thought; a triteness. He would continue to produce lovely work, some of it startlingly original, full of all the brilliant old symbolism and color. But the Vitebsk he knew, now no longer in existence, wouldn’t be as vivid for him.
Still, it’s energizing to look back to some of the painter’s earliest work, when his engagement with Jewish identity helped produce some of the most enduring and ubiquitous images in modern art. Indeed, despite its radicalness, Chagall’s work is perhaps the most immediately accessible of any modernist. My own first vivid schoolroom experience of visual art was of a Chagall, though I can’t recall which work it was. It could have been any of them, really: goats, violins, flying figures. The point was, Chagall’s was already then a very distinctive and familiar visual language. Why is this? Maybe because it is because in these paintings he was constantly returning to the images—the goats, the violins, the homes—of his own childhood.