Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938
oil on canvas

Chagall painted “White Crucifixion” to draw attention to a recent series of political events perpetrated by the ruling National Socialist party in Germany. Both as a Jew and as an abstract artist, Chagall was a target of Hitler’s art censorship policies. His dealer in Germany, Herwarth Walden, was forced to close his Berlin gallery (Der Sturm), cease publication of its influential newsletter, and flee to the Soviet Union in 1932. In 1937, the Nazis undertook a systematic inventory of modern art in German museums, removing some 16,000 works unacceptable to their taste to use in propaganda campaigns, to destroy, or to sell outside the country. Four works by Chagall were among those included in the ‘Jewish’ room of the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition staged in Munich at the end of 1937, which mocked deviations from Nazi Party art standards. Meanwhile, anti-Jewish policies in Germany escalated to an unthinkable level. Following the September 1935 laws to curtail the civil rights of Jews, the Nazis in 1938 took a Jewish census and registered all Jewish businesses as preliminaries to plans for ethnic genocide. In June and August of that year the synagogues in Munich and Nuremberg were destroyed, and on November 9, the so-called Crystal Night, these anti-semitic atrocities reached a climax.

In reaction, Chagall conceived a painting of the martyrdom of the Jew Jesus as a universal symbol for religious persecution. Instead of a crown of thorns, the Jesus on Chagall’s picture wears a head-cloth and a prayer shawl around his loins. The round halo around his head is repeated by the round glow around the Menorah at his feet. Mourning his persecution, figures of the Hebrew patriarchs and the matriarch Rachel appear in the smoke-filled nightime sky. All around the cross, Chagall has depicted a bleak snowscape with horrific scenes of modern Germany. In the background to the right, a soldier opens the doors of a flaming Torah ark removed from a pillaged synagogue, the contents of which litter the foreground. Both the flag above the synagogue and the soldier’s armband originally were decorated with inverted swastikas. One of the fleeing figures in the foreground at the left wears a sign which originally bore the inscription “Ich bin Jude” (‘I am a Jew’). In the background above is a ship full of refugees trying ineffectively to flee a burning village, destroyed before the arrival of a liberating People’s Army from the Soviet Union carrying red flags; this last detail was wishful thinking, motivated by the antagonism of Stalin’s government toward Hitler’s before 1939.

Included in an exbition of Chagall’s works in Paris in early 1940, the “White Crucifixion” was designed to raise awareness of the events in Hitler’s Germany and their implications for mankind in general. Evidently the artist decided to paint over the most explicit historical details after the invasion of France in May 1940 or after the German army’s occupation of Paris, begun in June 1940. Chagall himself fled the first occupied zone for Marseilles, and with the help to (sic) the Museum of Modern Art in New York, escaped to his country for the duration of the war. This historic painting is discussed in detail in an article by Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in the Art Institute’s journal “Museum Studies” (vol. 17, no. 2). (via The Amica Library)

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  7. gotochelm reblogged this from sovietjewry and added:
    So beautiful and horrible and interesting.
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    Read and weep.
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