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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

In a Divided City...

... A Divided Marc Chagall
By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]

After touring Israel's chief museums and art repositories, it'd be easy to think that Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is this country's 'national' artist. Dozens of the artist's masterful oils, from early to later pieces, are prominently displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and, here in Jerusalem, at the recently reopened Israel Museum, an encylopedic institution that stands among the world's great museums. (This in a country that's about the size of New Jersey).

Even in small ways, it's not hard to be reminded to Chagall's presence here. Over a drink at the American Colony Hotel recently, I looked up to see a plaque listing many of the prominent personages who have stayed at the hotel. Hardby Peter Ustinov's name was that of Chagall's.

Nowhere is Chagall's presence felt as dominantly -- and soulfully -- as in the Synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, atop Mt. Scopus along Jerusalem's western edge. And nowhere is the counterpoint of the art, culture, and history of this capital, divided by Muslim and Jew, so markedly pointed as in this house of worship, home to the Chagall Windows, what well may be the multi-facited artist's best work in stained glass.

The 12 windows, installed in 1962, dipict the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel, frame the synagogue's four walls, and are illuminated by natural light streaming from above.

Fortunately, the windows are again on display. For more than a year the Haddassah synagogue was closed, just reopening this month. (Underground, bomb-proofed operating theatres were being constructed nearby, requiring that the windows be encased to protect them from shattering).

As art, infused with Chagall's well-known 'dancing' figures and bold colours, the windows are breathtaking.

For Jews, in particular, in this place, in this time, the windows also evoke the thousands-of-years struggle for their recognition in this Holy Land. Art, yes. But also a defining sense of majestic being as the Sons of Jacob.

Tinting windows was not a new medium for Chagall. But the Chagall Windows, celebrating the Jewish peoples of this new homeland, significantly differ from much of the artist's most dominant thematic memes, often the Ashkenazi shetel life of Russia and Eastern Europe.

This social-realist, even secular artist, as opposed to the Biblical artist of the Hadassah synagogue, is one best known in Europe and in North America. (And not unknown, of course, in Israel itself. The Israel Museum mounted a retrospective in the 80s).

Not surprisingly, the European Chagall will also be on offer when the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents next year its own version of the non-Biblical artist in an exhibition of mostly secular works. (Titled 'Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle,' the show will run from March to July in the Perelman Building).

Despite Israeli admiration, both personal and professional, Chagall never really returned the favour. He didn't identify himself as a Zionist, nor did he seek Israeli citizenship (his, as a Jew, for the asking), nor did he contemplate making aliyah, an official, ritualistic form of repatriation by a Jew in diaspora.

Almost since the founding of this Jewish homeland in 1948, Israel has tried to claim Chagall as one of their own. The artist was named an honorary citizen of Jerusalem, and, in 1950's, the late prime minister, Golda Meir, offered the artist a subsidy if he would spend in winters working in the northern Mediterrean port city of Haifa. He declined. Instead, he took a winter home in St.-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France.

In fact, Chagall felt so fiercely about the creative forces eminating from his own adopted homeland of France (he was a naturalised citizen), he declared that only in France could he manifest his artistry. (The windows were created in France, shipped to Jerusalem).

Even in dedicating the windows, Chagall sounded less the Zionist than simply a committed Jew.

'My modest gift to the Jewish people, who have always dreamt of Biblical love, of friendship, and peace among all people; to that people which lived here, thousands of years ago, among other Semitic peoples,' he said. 'My hope is that I hereby extend my hand to seekers of culture, to poets, and to artists among the neighbouring peoples.'

Chagall died at 97 in St.-Paul-de-Vence, and was laid to rest in a local Christian cemetery.