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

Deconstructing a Homage to Secularity: A Reflection of Turkey’s Changing Political Identity

After 85 years as a secular museum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the 1,500 year old Hagia Sophia will return to its former use as a Mosque. Hagia Sophia represents Turkey’s varied history; for a thousand years, the dome covered the largest indoor space in the world and remains a focal point of the Istanbul skyline.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a grand cathedral in 537 CE. Remains of one of the two previous cathedrals which were destroyed during riots, such as the 532 Nika Revolt, remain buried under the modern structure. The cathedral symbolised the Emperor’s dominance over those opposing his reign. 

The Hagia Sophia. (Credit: David Spender, via Flickr)

Hagia Sophia represents the prevailing ideology of the day, being used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and most recently a Mosque. In 1453 CE, Ottoman Sultan Mehemet II conquered the Christian city of Constantinople and claimed the cathedral as a personal possession, thereby demanding that Hagia Sophia be converted into a Mosque. The mosaics were plastered over and Islamic features, such as minarets, were added. Hagia Sophia is now a physical manifestation of centuries of interaction between Islam and Christianity, East and West. 

The building’s dedication to secularity despite its fickle past indicated the identity of contemporary Turkey, ushered in by the foundation of the Turkish Republic and the Atatürk administration. The building became a recognition of Turkey’s varied religious history and a prime tourist attraction. In 1934, Hagia Sophia was converted into a secular museum and has since been a symbol of Turkey’s multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and status as a safe haven for Christians in the region. Christian mosaics plastered over in the 1400s were uncovered. Commitment to secularity and multiculturalism has meant that no religious practice has been undertaken inside Hagia Sophia (excluding the staff prayer room) since then.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the building be converted back into an operational Mosque on the 24th July. This is something many see as a culmination of his seventeen years of conservative leadership and an attempt to gain favour from pious Muslim voters, some of whom resent the strict secularity of the country. The decision was affirmed by the court on the basis that Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehment the Conqueror and was presented to the country as a Mosque, the property deeds therefore irreversibly label the building as a Mosque. 

The decision represents the battle for Turkey’s identity. Erdogan seeks to deconstruct the secular profile built by the revolutionary Atatürk administration. He is appealing to his core voter base, the conservative nationalists who are receptive to Erdogan’s policies of Islamic revivalism. The President has previously said ‘If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey’. Last year, he lost the municipal elections in the city.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s decision has stirred tensions between those who favour sectarian politics and those committed to secularism many of whom are concentrated in Istanbul. The AK Party of which Erdogan is a member is the predecessor to the Virtue Party which was shut down by the country’s constitutional court for its anti-secular policies. Erdogan has previously run on the idea of protecting pious citizens in Turkey, some of whom see the enforced secularity introduced to the Republic of Turkey as a repression of the muslim majority.

On a global scale, Erdogan has presented the decision to convert Hagia Sophia as a statement of national sovereignty. The natural allies of Turkey in Europe do not support the transition. The already ill-fated Turkish application to the EU now looks consigned to failure and Turkey’s troubled relationship with their Christian neighbour Greece has been worsened by this decision. The strongmen leaders such as Christians Putin and Trump, who also practice brands of populist politics, also do not view his decision favourably.

Erdogan has used the repurposing of Hagia Sophia to indicate which part of his country’s history his values are compatible with. Much like the right-wing governments of the US, UK and Russia, the President is alluding to a more ‘glorious’ past. The Atatürk reforms are associated with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. Similar to the anachronistic messaging of sections of the Brexit campaign and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, Erdogan is harking back to a time when the region was a more powerful actor on the world stage and presenting himself as the leader of this revival. While the conversion of Hagia Sophia has been an issue on the agenda for a number of years, the decision has come when it is rumoured that elections could be called next year and Erdogan is keen to appeal to the nationalist sentiment becoming ever more present in the global political landscape. 

Reversing the secularisation of Hagia Sophia is a demonstration of Erdogan’s values and his appeal to Islamic revivalism in the Republic of Turkey. The President has rebuked commitment to secularity one of the foremost monuments to secular Turkish history. In a statement of national sovereignty, Erdogan is using the conversion of Hagia Sophia, Atatürk’s homage to secularity, to appeal to pious and nationalist sentiment in the country and assert himself as national leaser in an evermore and nationalistic political landscape. 

Emerald McLaughlin

The Crisis Surrounding Gibraltarian Identity

My struggle with identity has led me to consider the multiple avenues in which these ongoing issues arose. One should not see this piece of writing as factually generalising an entire population of thirty thousand, but rather the one small blip that is my meandering experience. As my internal monologue pushes out these ideas, please sit down and pretend you are my therapist, paid to listen to every word. 

Steps in Gibraltar. (Credit: Ben Ginger, via Shutterstock)

Gibraltarian identity can be considered synonymous with contradiction; rooted in an everyday dichotomy between the right of self-determination and Britishness. As an overseas territory, Gibraltar and the Gibraltarian become the problematic spawn of an Empire buried under the burning sun. This is reflected in our unique code-switching dialect, Llatino – something which Wikipedia describes as a dialect of Spanish, and thus begins the descent into contradiction. Llanito is a complicated linguistic feat. Borrowing from Andalusian Spanish, English and other localities, it is a fine concoction of cultures and beliefs that a young Gibraltarian will be spoon-fed, one that relieves the ability to code-switch, whilst also subtly discriminating against all things Spanish. My struggle is based on this notion. Despite having Spanish family and ancestry, I was taught that any ideas of ‘Spanishness’ should be hidden away: disassociating myself from a major piece of my identity and impacting my ability to speak my grandmother’s tongue.  

Our hostility towards Spain was not always as poignant as it is today. It is the case that during the earlier half of the twentieth century, marriages between Gibraltarian and Spanish people were rampant. My mother is a product of such a marriage. However, Francoist terror and the eventual border closure in 1969 contributed to the development of a fearful hatred towards our Spanish roots, precipitating often conscious omissions of Spanish ancestry. 

“I am not Spanish,” my Seville-born granny would often say, “I am Gibraltarian, I am British.” 

However, it was not just my granny who had this mentality. A study by professor Canessa found that whilst older generations of Gibraltarians stress their Britishness, and middle-age respondents associated themselves with a Gibraltarian-British identity, my generation emphasised an identity that built away from the classic British notions that plagued our ancestors: denouncing being Llanito and rather adopting a Mediterranean identity (Canessa, 2019). One often rooted in Spain but hidden by the associations of the Mediterranean. It has provoked in me a major identity crisis. As a result, I am still afraid of being associated with Spain due to repercussions in my home community, yet I simultaneously try to prove that I am not wholly British. 

This identity crisis has been provoked even more so through the racist Brexit campaign. This heightened tensions around Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK and the colonial buttons that signal outdated sentiments of Empire. As a child of Gibraltar, and one that has grown up forced to idolise the protection of the British state, it is a disgusting revelation that it is the Conservative party which we must rely on to bolster a nationalistic pride which defends our very community. It creates a phrase which my father would often repeat: “Labour is good for the UK, the Conservatives for Gibraltar.” It once more uproots a further identity crisis that is rooted in politics, history, and personal beliefs. It is a dilemma which not many Gibraltarians feel strongly about. A nationalistic pride has created a system whereby Gibraltarians will switch beliefs based on who appeals to us the most, and many do not seem to care about their identity; they will denounce Spain, preach being Llanito, all whilst sipping tea at the beach in a caricature of what they have defined as being British. 

In an era of identity, culture and equality, Gibraltar stands as a unique example of the opportunities and obstacles which come with multicultural identities, and serves as a poignant reminder of the troubling impact of the British empire. 

Saray Imlach


Bibliography

Canessa, A., 2019. Bordering on Britishness. Palgrave Studies in European Sociology.

The War That Never Ends

It has now been 75 years since the Second World War ended, and yet it remains an inescapable presence in today’s politics. Numerous anachronistic comparisons plagued both sides of the debate during the Brexit campaign. Those voting Leave celebrated the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of Britain, while those voting Remain rendered the referendum another ‘Eden moment’. There were bizarre campaigns, such as the Leave poster exclaiming ‘halt ze German advance! Vote Leave’, and the bus blaring the tune of the 1955 war film, The Dam Busters. Even more recently, Covid-19 has elicited endless comparisons to the war: food bank support has been compared to the ‘Blitz spirit’, private labs to ‘Dunkirk little ships’, and even the Queen has drawn parallels between the experiences of isolation and wartime evacuation.

But why do these comparisons exist? It is not uncommon to draw on past events to interpret our present, but nonetheless, narratives of the Second World War appear to pervade the fabric of our politics far more than any other historical comparison. Where does this bizarre and rather loud obsession with the Second World War come from, and what are the dangers? 

Comparisons to the Second World War may arise from a desire to find solace and comfort in knowing that, as a nation, we have overcome other crises, yet other comparisons come with much greater and potentially damaging ramifications. The recurrent comparison to the war has the ability to distort our politics, warp our history, and aggrandise our perception of Britain’s place in the world. As a nation, we have a selective memory, and forget the parts we do not wish to remember. By mythologising our past into a romanticised and simplistic narrative, depicting the essence of the British ‘plucky’ character, we have forgotten the other half of the infamous speeches that our leaders continue to import today.

We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth.

Forgotten from the “blood, sweat and tears” speech is the warning that without victory the British empire would not survive. Forgotten from the “finest hour” speech is the precursor to the infamous phrase: “if the British empire and its commonwealth last for 1000 years, men will say, “This was their finest hour.” Behind what we believe to be narratives of morality and unquestionable dignity, the injustice and inequality of the British empire is hidden. The danger in misremembering is that it continually projects an image which is factually incorrect. What has thus far contributed to a fantasy of British exceptionalism does not render us exceptional from our nation’s wrong-doings. We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth. Moreover, not only has it allowed us to forget our wrong-doings as a nation, it also proposes the myth that Britain stood, and will stand, alone against the odds. As David Edgerton notes, this is a mythologised ideal: “people want to remember the war, and especially the early years of the war, as a time when the nation stood alone without an empire or without allies. Nobody at the time would have believed this.” Many men of the empire stood with the British army against Hitler, and yet they remain unwritten from the popularly accepted version of history.

This has very real consequences for our political decisions today. Following our withdrawal from the EU, we have overstated our independence as a nation historically, and will inevitably realise that we cannot live up to this ideal; one romanticised for far too long. India will not strike up a trade deal for sentimental reasons, nor will Ireland remain Britain’s neutral and junior partner following us out of the EU. Instead, the realisation of Britain’s lack of status and power will smack us in the face and our inability to ‘stand alone’ will challenge the 75 years of misremembered history. 

Stop Brexit March, London, March 2019. (Credit: Sandro Cenni, via Upslash)

Edgerton proclaims, “the problem is not just getting history wrong, but that history is invoked at all”. Although I would not wholly support this sentiment, the use of historical analogies in our contemporary politics, as well as our popular historical narratives, needs to be challenged. This is beginning with conversations around statues, but the issues go much further, and are certainly cause for more conversation.

Emily Glynn

Ireland’s New Government Shows the Limits to History in Politics

It has been a historic week for Ireland. After nearly 100 years, the Civil War divide appears to be coming to an end. Four months after a stunning election result, the newly formed government sees the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, enter formal coalition with each other for the very first time.

The two are remarkably similar ideologically, sitting somewhere between the centre and the centre right. Yet, they have regularly rotated as government and opposition despite their little difference, something that is a political peculiarity.

For generations, Irish politics has been defined by a historical, rather than ideological, divide. On one side were those in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, led by Michael Collins. On the other were those opposed to the Treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. This fracture in Irish politics was later translated into party politics. Fine Gael represented the pro-Treaty side, while Fianna Fáil represented those who were anti-Treaty.

This divide has prevailed long after the Civil War, with voting often following family lines rather than more common factors, such as class. There was some sense in this in the early years of the new Irish Republic. For many, the War of Independence and the Civil War were still raw. These were lived experiences for a number of generations and thus this divide ran deep. My Mum tells me the story of how my Grandad would demand the TV to be switched off if De Valera ever came on the screen. 

My grandparents’ generation, however, are no longer as large a group in the Irish electorate as they once were. To an increasing number, the old historic divide means increasingly little. Moreover, the ideological similarity of the two parties has led to frustration, particularly amongst the young, at a lack of progress on various issues. It is perhaps becoming clear the old system of Irish politics is no longer relevant or fit for purpose.

Image of Irish town with flags and banners. (Credit: Tamara Gurtler, via Upsplash).

The 2020 election and the rise of Sinn Féin revealed a large portion of the electorate eager for proper change and many for the first time willing to vote for Sinn Féin. Much has been made of the party’s history, such as its links with the IRA. However, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald the party has worked to modernise its image. Judging by the result in 2020, they’ve had some success. Though, there is still much to be done on that front to convince others – it was cited as a reason why neither of the other two major parties would contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin.

This raises the broader question of the role of history in politics. For generations, history has played the dominant role in Irish politics. The main two parties are built on a near 100-year divide, while challengers Sinn Féin are inextricably linked to Republican violence more recent in memory. Yet the 2020 election appeared to suggest that the Irish electorate is beginning to move on.

History undoubtedly plays an important role in politics. It shapes and informs where we are now and provides a rich archive from which to learn for future decision-makers and voters. But, it is not automatically relevant. In Ireland, the Civil War and the Troubles are becoming increasingly less salient. Voters appear to be far more worried by contemporary issues, such as Ireland’s housing crisis, and are voting to reflect that, rather than what side of the Civil War their ancestors were on.

James Reid

What Stonewall 1969 can Teach Us About Activism

Photo by Diana Davies depicts the Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square 1969, accessed via The Guardian.

Understanding the historical construction of LGBTQ+ movements is imperative to furthering current activism. A prime example of this is the creation of the ‘Stonewall Myth’, as the Stonewall riots are now revered as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in the US. Given the current situation in the US it seems more important than ever to understand how protests shape the historical narrative. Understanding how activists construct social memory around particular events enables us to further the gains of the current LGBTQ+ movement as many grapple with how to further the rights of, and protect the more marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall riots were started by African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson. A series of riots began on June 27th 1969 after police raided a homosexual bar in New York (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 724), they are now remembered as a catalyst for the gay civil rights movement in the US. However, sociologists Armstrong & Crage note that there were similar instances of activism prior to this such as the 1965 New Year’s Ball raid in San Francisco (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730), which were not committed to the collective social memory. They use these instances to highlight the two conditions that are essential for an event to permeate the collective memory, which are that ‘activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle’ (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730). Unlike previous raids in other parts of the country, Stonewall was able to achieve these criteria. Activists used the raid as the basis for commemorative marches which became the first gay pride and has since solidified the event in US social memory. The significance of Stonewall also highlights the extent to which the movement grew between 1969 and the Black Cat raids a few years earlier (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 736). Events that fit into existing genres are generally seen as more commemorable. Much like how the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the US demonstrate a maturation of the black lives matter movement, Stonewall showed a maturation of the gay civil rights movement, which meant that the Gay Liberation Front was better financially equipped to create mnemonic resonance.

Achieving ‘mnemonic capacity’ with regard to an event is all the more difficult now as the growth of social media makes it harder to corral attention around specific events for extended periods of time. As we have seen with the recent protests in both Hong Kong and the US, social media can be an immensely powerful tool to bring people together, even when communication is limited within society. But in order to make sure these movements are remembered and create lasting change we can take lessons from Stonewall activists in how they used repetitive action to make their message permeate the collective memory and achieve long term progress in civil rights. Zeynep Tufekci argues that modern social movements fail to ‘sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics.’ Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of how our rights may be under threat, as we saw with the Government’s recent proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which could have devastating impacts on the trans community. However, in order to transform this awareness into significant political power we can take inspiration from Stonewall, which showed how repetitive, radical action is necessary to make sure that the wider public take notice of movements for justice.

Alicia Bickerstaff


Bibliography

Armstrong, E.A & Crage, S.N, 2006, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, Vol.71, No. 5 pp. 724-751, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425

Loong, L.L.H, 2012, ‘Deconstructing the silences: Gay Social Memory’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol.59, No.5, pp.675-688, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.673903

Mitchell Reyes, G & Schulz, David. P & Hovland, Zoe, 2018, ‘When Memory and Sexuality Collide: The Homosentimental Style of Gay Liberation’, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1 April 2018, Vol.21, No.1, pp.39-74, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/journal/171

Tufekci, Z, 2014, Online Social Change: Easy To Organize, Hard To Win, online video, Viewed 7th June, https://www.ted.com/…/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_m…