1. Marc Chagall’s symbolic use of Christian iconography.
The previous two chapters have explored the ways in which these paintings challenge and reflect the contemporary sanctioned metanarrative of the Holocaust. Through this I have shown that art is by no means self-sufficient: almost all of the arguments previously mentioned are in some way or another tied to social, historical and political forces. This is particularly relevant in this study, as virtually all of the works discussed were created in response to or as a consequence of a major historical event, and to the historical and cultural practices that mediate its incorporation into collective memory. The importance of social processes and conflict in the production of art is stressed by both Marxist and non- Marxist art historians alike. However, this chapter will consider the reversal of this idea: the role played by art in shaping societal norms and narratives.
Marxist art history has considered art to hold a passive role in society, limited to being a product of socio-economic forces. However, Feminist and Non-Marxist social art historians have objected to this outlook, stressing instead that the relationship between cultural output and society is collaborative, rather than one-sided. Feminist art historians Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin have stressed the idea that art is not mimetic, as it does not simply copy the surrounding world but rather helps produce it through the reproduction of its stereotypes and normative structures. Whilst this line of reasoning was used by these two art historians to explain the relationship between art and the patriarchal society, it can be
extended to the subject of this study as it makes a valid point about the interactivity between art and society. It is this understanding of art as something that is not separate from socio- cultural production, but rather an active agent that will be used throughout this chapter to understand the way in which both Zoran Mušič and Marc Chagall engage with the metanarrative of the Holocaust.
Before delving deeper into this matter, it is important to clarify that whilst the artists’ intentions, as well as the effect that the artworks discussed had upon their respective contemporary audiences are important, these two dimensions will not be central in the development of this study. The idea that the artist is the sole creator and controller of the meaning of his or her artwork has been disputed by art historians such as Rosalind Krauss. This erroneous belief is fairly common in monographs written on Mušič and Chagall, as their works are almost universally understood as related to the artist’s biography, his personal life and circumstances thus providing the impetus for their artistic production. This is something that this study aims to overcome by taking into account a range of other factors, such as social and historical ones, as well as considering the works through the lens of socio- philosophical theory. In order to avoid elaborating too much on the reception of the works which entails the risk of dipping into the field of reception studies, the way in which the contemporary viewer was influenced by the works discussed will only be discussed in passing.
Both Chagall’s Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio, and Zoran Mušič’s series of paintings Nous ne sommes pas les derniers contribute to the universalization of the Holocaust by enabling a psychological identification with the mass killings perpetrated during the Holocaust for the viewer. This psychological identification is crucial in terms of Holocaust memorialization, as it turns this event that was historically situated and thus belonged in the past into a contemporary experience of suffering, where the symbolic extension facilitates the viewer’s emotional identification with the martyrdom of the victims.
This is done through Chagall’s decision to stress the figure of Jesus as the symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, which shows that, to an extent, he had an intended audience in mind whose empathy he wanted to elicit. Jewish refugees and survivors were perceived as outcasts even by the Allied powers who were in control of the means of symbolic production, and this was reflected in the way in which they were represented abroad. During the Second World War and in the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, the names of Jewish concentration camp survivors and victims were rarely included, and they were often shown as a mass, portrayed in the way the Allied soldiers found them when they liberated the concentration camp: depleted and unwashed. This depersonalization of the Jewish survivors contrasted with the treatment that Gentile survivors received, as they were seen more sympathy and as individuals rather than depersonalized. This behaviour was reflected in the post-war metanarrative of the Holocaust, which cast the Jewish victims and survivors as marginal, part of the general crowd of forced labourers or war-time victims.
It is thus not surprising that Chagall uses the symbolic language of his target audience by employing Christian iconography to make the identification of the viewer with the victims stronger. This is illustrated by the under-drawing of a rooster head (Fig. 1) that has been discovered under the body of Christ in his Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio.
Fig. 1 Schematic under-drawing of Marc Chagall, Apocalypse en lilas: Capriccio, 1945- 1947. From Z. Amishai-Maisels, Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio: Unveiling a Lost Masterpiece by Marc Chagall (London, Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, 2010), p. 6.
Christ’s crucifixion is understood by Christians as the supreme sacrifice, an atonement for all of humankind’s sins in the eyes of God. This interpretation is reinforced here by the role that the rooster plays in Jewish tradition, and which is repeated in Chagall’s 1939 painting entitled Fire (Fig.2) which shows the static version of his mother and child iconography, a popular image amongst artists that worked with World War II and Holocaust subject matter.
Fig. 2 Marc Chagall, Fire, 1939. From Z. Amishai-Maisels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1993), Illustration no. 68, black and white reproduction.
The rooster head would have been easily understood by the Jewish viewer but it was not them who needed to become aware the mass murder that was happening in Nazi-occupied territory in Europe, as it was assumed that, like Chagall, they already knew, or even had to escape it themselves.
By choosing the symbolic language of the West – that of Christianism, Chagall makes it clear who his intended viewer is: the Christian public, those who turned a blind eye to the events that happened in Germany and Nazi-Occupied territory in the period leading up to the start of WWII. By making the visual elements of his work virtually universally understandable by both Jewish and Christians alike, Chagall foreshadows the universalization of the Holocaust, even if this is done as a means to summon the twentieth century viewer’s empathy for the suffering of the Jews by stressing Christ’s martyrdom as a bridge metaphor. Whilst Chagall’s Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio remains mostly challenging to what the sanctioned metanarrative of the Holocaust was in 1947 when this work was completed, the central element of the figure of Christ as both Jewish and Christian shows that this work is by no means purely mimetic, but rather productive as it contributes to the shift towards universalization in the metanarrative of the Holocaust through its appeal to a universal audience and cathartic character.
It must be mentioned that the effect it had on the viewer is not the sole measure of how it affected the perceived socio-cultural construction of the Holocaust, especially knowing that the version of the painting to be publicly exhibited was never produced, and that this private sketch remained in Chagall’s personal collection for decades, only being publicly exhibited for the first time in 2010. The sole existence of the work and its production at this point in history attests to its productive quality, and the potential for symbolical identification of the viewer with Christ as a universal icon of innocent suffering is enough proof to stress its interactive character.
2. Catharsis as a device for universalisation in Nous ne sommes pas les derniers (1970- 1990).
Similarly, the Nous ne sommes pas les derniers series offers the possibility of psychological identification for the viewer, but it does so foremost in ways that are distinctive from Chagall. Instead of focusing on appealing to a certain audience, Mušič stresses every person’s duty to ensure that humanity does not lapse again and suffering on this scale is never repeated. This is done through the title which translates into English as ‘we are not the last ones’, where the ‘we’ could be understood as referring to humankind, symbolizing the realization of what happened at Dachau during Mušič’s internment was not the historically apocalyptic event that it had appeared to be. The ‘we’ stands both for the victims and for the viewer, allowing the viewer to become part of the narrative that codifies the events of the Holocaust as generalized symbols of human suffering. Furthermore, the negation in the title stresses the endlessness of suffering: the bodies portrayed before the eyes of the viewer are not the last ones to fall victims to such death, as what was once contained, radical evil, had become liquid, moral sacred-evil.
The title bridges the gap between the Other and the Self, the dichotomy that arises from the experience of the concentration camp that creates a rupture in the collective self- image of society. This is especially relevant considering that Mušič was a survivor who was in very poor physical condition when Dachau was liberated in April 1945. One must stress incapability of the post-war society to have an appropriate cultural response to the survivor because his or her experience has rendered them as ‘Other’. The ‘we’ in the title is understood as a symbolic sign for the viewer and those who experienced persecution and mass murder. It serves a pathetic function that gives the viewer unmitigated access to an identification with those directly affected by the Holocaust. It creates a psychological and symbolical link that mediates the transmission of the metanarrative of the Holocaust as the symbol of something that has affected all of us, not just the Jewish and Gentile victims of the Nazis. Thus, these events are not placed in the past, but rather the present through the cathartic character of the title and the subject matter. Catharsis is a suitable term for this process, as the ‘we’ in the title does not give the viewer the option to separate themselves from what they are witnessing. This term was introduced by Aristotle in his philosophical writings, defined as a purification of emotions such as fear or pity through theatre, describing the effect of tragedy as a dramatic art form on the audience. The traumatic feelings that are purged through catharsis return over and over again, serving a mimetic function for the endless cycle of the tragic narrative that frames sacred-evil suffering.
At the same time, there is a certain level of arbitrariness in the title, as it remains open to a degree of interpretation. This invites a Saussurean semiotic analysis, centred around the idea that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is predominantly arbitrary. The ‘we’ could also be understood as a sign for the artist’s identification with the side of the victim, whilst the gaze of the viewer is identified with that of the perpetrator. Instead of being an invitation to participate in the tragic ritualization of death, this ‘we’ could be exclusionary, a warning as to what we, as humanity, have allowed to happen once during the Holocaust, and over again since. In both cases, the title provides a symbolic identification of the viewer, whose vicarious emotional involvement is elicited. This acts as a metonymical device, linking the bodies depicted to all the victims that will be murdered because of our incapability as a society to stop this kind of catastrophic event from ever repeating.
The news regarding the American prosecution of the Vietnam war, the Allied fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the world that systematic mass murder did not end when the Holocaust did.
What issues arise from the universalization of the Holocaust?
1. Zoran Mušič: the universalization and idolization of survivor testimony
Zoran Mušič has been accepted by the established art world as a pivotal figure in terms of visual representations of the Holocaust, which is illustrated by the numerous fine art institutions that hold his works in their collection, such as Centre Pompidou, the Tate Galleries and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, to name a few. Mušič has reached an international status in the art world, both during his lifetime and after he passed away, with exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland and China amongst others. Selected works from the surviving sketches that he executed at Dachau, and from his Nous ne sommes pas les derniers series have been the focus of numerous exhibition all over Europe. His works are at the forefront of the fine art sphere, and equally on the art market, with an oil painting from 1972 (Fig.3) from the Nous ne sommes pas les derniers series selling for more than double its estimate at Sotheby’s in December 2019.
Fig. 3 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 116 x 149 cm, unknown location.
The prevalence of his works and their extensive public exposure has lent them somewhat of a unique status, especially considering that art created by Holocaust survivors has rarely reached the iconic status that Mušič’s paintings and sketches have.
The readiness with which the paintings inspired by his Dachau drawings have been accepted and embraced by the Western art world confirms Hunter’s argument regarding the assimilation of the genre of Holocaust testimony into our cultural memory as a means of commemoration. Building on the previous chapter which explored the series’ potential as supporting the viewer’s identification with the victims and the cathartic quality of the series, Mušič’s paintings serve an iconic purpose.
American Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer has stressed Western culture’s tendency to mediate the testimony of Holocaust survivors through the lens of traditional Christian narratives, in order to counterbalance the threat that it poses to the pre- established socio-cultural structures. The sacralization of Holocaust testimony fits in with this mediation, especially because it provides a way of dealing with the uncomfortable acknowledgement of their Otherness as the result of their experience. Moreover, Hunter even equates the genre of testimony in literature to Pierre Nora’s ‘lieux de mémoire’, as a site of memory where memorialization can take place because this place represents a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of a community.
The iconic dimension of the testimony implies a certain collectivity, where the artworks become representative of the collective experience of the Holocaust victim. Even if Hunter’s argument is built around literary testimonial accounts, this also applicable to visual testimonies, even if not as many visual testimonies have reached the iconic status that literary ones have.
Therefore, considering the iconic place that Mušič’s works occupy in the broader context of visual testimonies of the Holocaust, one can conclude that not only does this series reflect and help produce the universalizing dimension of the metanarrative of the Holocaust, but it also creates a readily-available archetypal image of Holocaust testimony. This becomes the voice of the millions of victims that did not make it out alive to be able to tell their own story, thus creating a universal narrative of survival. This is problematic not because of what it includes, but because of what it excludes: the experience of survivors and victims that are different from Mušič, that of women, gipsies or the LGBT community who have traditionally been excluded from dominant narrative of the Holocaust but who were also persecuted and killed by the Nazis. This is one of the effects of the universalizing character of the sanctioned metanarrative of the Holocaust that Alexander’s theory does not acknowledge enough.
A good alternative reading to Alexander’s metanarrative theory is Christine Berberich’s take on what the effects of this over-arching structure are, who stresses that the ways in which Holocaust commemoration has evolved led to an over-simplified, unreflective form of engagement with our past and collective memory. Her view on this issue appears to be more balanced, as opposed to Alexander’s overly optimistic conclusion that universalization in the context of the metanarrative of the Holocaust is generally a positive development. This is all the more relevant considering that the sacralization and universalization of the testimony of survivors has also led to the idolization of the survivors as the holders of the ‘vestiges of history.
As the sole holders of the truth about the Holocaust, they are not subject to the same rules that everyone else is when it comes to Holocaust representation. This is something that stands out when one hears some of the statements that Mušič has made about his time in Dachau:
‘I became fascinated by these heaps of bodies… with their legs and arms sticking out because they had a kind of beauty, a tragic beauty. Some of them weren’t quite dead, their limbs still moved, and their eyes followed you around begging for help.’
This reference to the ‘beauty’ of the dying bodies is repeatedly made by Mušič in several statements, which gives a new dimension to his countless portrayals of these bodies in his Nous ne sommes pas les derniers series. This engenders an eroticisation of the bodies depicted, which makes the emphasis that Mušič puts on the genital area of the two bodies in the left section of Fig. 4 more obvious in the light of this statement.
Fig. 4 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 113,5 x 146 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Even if this is not intentional it still remains problematic, and an issue that has been at the heart of the debate around Holocaust representation. Overall, the universalizing effect of the metanarrative of the Holocaust has problematic aspects, such as the uniformization of the voices of the survivors, as well as allowing for the eroticisation of the victim’s body.
2. Marc Chagall’s crucified Christ as a Jewish Holocaust martyr
Even though Chagall did not experience Nazi persecution on the same level as other Jews, he suffered immense loss as the Jewish population of his native town of Vitebsk was wiped out in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. The figure of the crucified Christ is used in so many of Chagall’s works that it becomes a recurrent motif, to the point where Amishai-Maisels deems it an obsession. His crucified Christ figure is a symbol rather than an iconic representation, in the Peircean sense of the term, as it stands for the innocent killing of Eastern European Jews. His interpretation remains problematic, considering that Jesus’s crucifixion is the religious symbol that Christians as persecutors have used throughout history as a pretext for the persecution of Jewish people. Furthermore, Christ as a historical figure was also claimed by the Nazis, as proto-Nazi writer Houston Chamberlain has argued in his 1899 writings that Jesus was a misplaced Aaryan.
Chagall’s reclamation of Christ for Judaism fits in with the broader established tradition of the portrayal of Christ as Jewish, and with its appropriation by artists that engaged with the subject matter of the Holocaust. Amishai-Maisels has stressed the long history of Christ’s portrayal as a Jew, identifying its broader emergence in scholarship during the Enlightenment, when both Christian and Jewish scholars stressed his Jewish identity which drew criticism from Jews and Christians alike. The most direct influence on Chagall with regards to this interpretation is the Russian sculptor Mark Antokolsky, whose Ecce Homo of 1873 (Fig. 5) scandalised the Christian world because it depicted Jesus with traditional Jewish sidelocks and a skullcap.
Fig. 5 Mark Antokolsky, Ecce Homo, 1873. Bronze, 45 cm high, unknown location.
Besides the visual similarities that these depictions of the crucified Christ as Jesus have in common, there is a symbolical dimension that politicises it: the fact that it stands for persecution of the Jews, in particular that of East- European Jews, and the blind eye that the Christian world turned to it. In Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio this reclamation is done through of Jesus’ conspicuous Jewish identity, as Christ is depicted wearing phylacteries on his head and left arm, which through iconical reference invoke the leather boxes worn on the head and arm in Judaism. In addition, the Christian normative placement of the loincloth that covers Christ’s genital area is omitted, whilst the traditional Jewish prayer shawl that Chagall had previously used in his crucifixions is now draping down Christ’s body, framing it.
Chagall’s Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio had little public exposure in the 60 years following its completion, the sole known exhibition taking place in France in the 1950s. Its acquisition in 2010 by a small London gallery created media furore and was the subject of numerous newspaper articles, especially because it sold for a minimal price considering its importance as Chagall’s direct response to the Holocaust and to the death of his wife. The gallery that owns it put together an exhibition in 2010 that took on the controversial subject of the crucifixion as the subject matter of artists of all religions.
Most of the works in the collection of the gallery are by Jewish artists, even though the gallery expanded its mission in 2001 to include relevant works from immigrant artists that settled in the United Kingdom. This exhibition drew a lot of backlash from the Jewish public, and even from one of the patrons of the gallery, Benjamin Perl. Perl expressed his disapproval of the decision to put on an exhibition centred around Christ’s crucifixion in a gallery that had been dedicated to promoting the work of Jewish artists for decades. The fact that this association of the crucifixion with Jewishness remains controversial even in the twenty-first century attests that Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio is not subject to the same pitfalls that other works depicting the Holocaust in realist terms are, such as a loss of emotional charge and of the shock factor. The challenge posed to the viewer by the nude Christ shown on the cross which creates a universalizing bridge metaphor between the Jewish and Christian audience ensures that the work remains relevant and whilst all-too-familiar images of piles of corpses such as Mušič’s are rendered somewhat predictable and less visually powerful.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in