The Floating Jew: Manifestations of Migration in Chagall’s Art

Although there are many distinct features of a Marc Chagall painting, it is the floating figures that are the artist’s most curious motif. In amongst the rich pastel colours and two-dimensional composition are people suspended in mid-air – an idea that features in some of his major works across his career, from 1915’s Birthday to 1950’s La Mariee. Whilst the concept of the “wandering Jew” is not unique to Chagall, it is the optimism that he embeds within his art that makes his work significant. To understand this we must not only analyse the artist’s life, but also the position of Jews in the early twentieth century. 

Born Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov in what is modern-day Belarus, the artist’s formative years were spent not in art school but in the synagogue. The majority of Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls; insular agricultural villages that were governed by Chassidic law, allowed to live under the Russian rule. Anti-Semitism was rampant, often manifesting in the violent form of pogroms and attacks on Jewish property and people. They reached a height in 1881, after Jews were partly blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II given that they were viewed as foreign, and loyal to Israel rather than Russia. 

Marc Chagall’s ‘The Birthday’, 1915 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The pogroms were one of many factors that forced Jews to move out of Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. Shtetls were often characterised by intense poverty, exacerbated by Jewish farmers’ reluctance to embrace industrialisation in the name of preserving traditional culture, despite the fact that the agricultural way of life that had sustained the communities for thousands of years was becoming inefficient in supporting growing populations. Chagall was one of many Jews who fled westwards. Around 200,000 Jews migrated to London between 1880 and 1919, with thousands more emigrating to America in search of new opportunities and safety. This forced the abandonment of the Jewish traditions and lifestyle that permeated in the shtetls, a process which exacerbated with growing multiculturalism and secularism: Chagall himself emigrated to Paris in 1923, a time when France was still reeling from the Dreyfus affair where a Jewish Captain had been falsely accused of leaking military information to Germany and was imprisoned. Despite Dreyfuss being exonerated in 1906, there still loomed a distrust of Jews, especially as many did not view them as French, and thus disloyal to the French Republic (as was the case in Russia). Many immediately deserted any semblance of Jewish identity both in lifestyle and identity out of fear of being identified as an alien: Jews changed their names to aid their attempt to integrate; Chagalov became Chagall, and fellow Russian-Jewish artist Chaim Sutin became Chaim Soutine. 

Jews not only ran the risk of alienation from western society but also the Jewish culture that they turned their back on, a feeling likely exacerbated by the growing popularity of Zionism. The call to create a Jewish state had entered mainstream thought, and transcended the Jewish intellectual circles with the 1917 Balfour declaration which decreed support from the British government. This would have intensified feelings of displacement for many Jews living in the diaspora knowing that there was a spiritual and literal home for them elsewhere, a place where they could belong. 

So what of Chagall’s art? How do these broad socio-political ideas translate into paints and canvasses? The phenomenology of lacking a true homeland to act as a spiritual ballast explains Chagall’s floating figures. As an itinerant Jew himself, Chagall would have known what it was like to be “a stranger in a foreign land”, as was predicted in the Abrahamic covenant. This theme is well documented in art and literature: the image of the “Wandering Jew” appears in novels by Dickens, poems by Shelly, and illustrations by Doré. Chagall twists the usual despondent pessimism which the “Wandering Jew” is depicted by giving his figures a distinct serendipity. They appear buoyant like helium balloons, following each wind and current without resistance. His figures, sometimes ostensibly Jewish and sometimes not, are not melancholic or cursed, they exist as a testament to survival over thousands of years of being wanderers. None of his figures are shown to be tormented or suffering. Instead, they appear to be at one with their predicament, calmly accepting the surrealism of the situation. This is best implemented in his 1923 Green Violinist, which depicts a violin player precariously balancing on two rooftops as he towers over his shtetl whilst a figure glides over the houses behind him. There is a precariousness to his position: he is lumbering and clumsy but whilst he could fall at any moment, he continues to play his violin absorbed in the moment. Chagall captures the sentiment of Jewish identity in the early twentieth century: one of duality and one of homelessness. Despite the persecution and adversity, his optimism endures through his artwork.

Alexander Cohen

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