Becoming Universal Part 2: How does Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945-1947) engage with the contemporary metanarrative of the Holocaust?

     Known as the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century, Russian-French artist Marc Chagall was raised in the Hasidic Jewish tradition. His religious upbringing remained at the center of his artistic production throughout the years, as art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen argues. Chagall’s artistic life was tumultuous as he produced a great number of artworks throughout his life, passing away in 1985 at the age of 97. Considering the length of this study, the focus will be on a single painting that has resurfaced relatively recently in 2010 when it was swiftly bought by the London gallery Ben Uri. Entitled Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (Fig. 1), this is the artist’s response to the news regarding the systematic murder and persecution of millions of Jews during the Shoah that started to reach New York, where the painter had been exiled since 1941 when he and his wife, Bella left France to escape Nazi persecution.

Becoming Universal Part 2: How does Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945-1947) engage with the contemporary metanarrative of the Holocaust?

Fig.1 Marc Chagall, Apocalypse en lilas: Capriccio, 1945-1947. Gouache, pencil, Indian wash ink and Indian ink on paper, 76 x 61 cm. Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London.

At the same time, it also embodies his response to Bella’s death, to whom he was very close. Whilst the personal dimension of the work is important, it has already been explored by Amishai-Maisels and for the purpose of this study, the focus will be on the socio-political aspect of this painting.

In his essay on cultural sociology, Hunter argues that the metanarrative of the Holocaust is not a static structure, but rather a shifting entity that depends on social, political and cultural circumstances. Alexander extends the definition of the narrative of the Holocaust as encompassing a few different stages. The first stage of this metanarrative started with the liberation of the concentration camps in Nazi-occupied territory by Allied and Soviet troops in April 1945 and with the multitude of newspaper, radio and magazine stories that reported what they found. Alexander argues that at this point, the Holocaust was not as we know it, but rather marked by a highly particularized progressive narrative that allowed for Nazi evil to be codified and weighted inside the contemporary cultural framework. This narrative cast the Germans as the antagonists, whilst the ‘liberator’ soldiers were cast as the protagonists and their entrance in the concentration camps in April 1945 was portrayed as a ‘chronicle of Liberation’. What is lacking from this narrative is the importance of the Jewish mass killings that took place during the Shoah. Instead of being understood as crimes in their entirety, they were codified as part of Nazi atrocities, a gruesome side-effect of war.

Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (Fig. 1) rearranges the agents of this metanarrative by placing the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews at its center, rather than as a side-effect of the war. Furthermore, rather than casting the Allies as the liberator protagonists triumphing over Nazi evil, the focus is on the crucified Christ in the left section of the painting, mediated by the smaller figures depicted in the lower section, whilst any sight of the liberators is excluded, an inversion of their role in the progressive narrative.

A semiotic reading of the manner in which this artwork engages with the agents of the progressive narrative allows for a nuanced understanding of how it challenges the contemporary sanctioned Holocaust metanarrative. Semiotics as an art historical method of study is concerned with the larger context that makes meaning possible through the study of three main areas: the signs themselves, how they are organised into systems as well as the context in which they appear. This is a vast field of study, so this chapter will only consider Peircean semiotics, whose taxonomy of signs enables one to decipher visual signs as well as differentiate between different types of signs that populate the visual field. Pierce’s exhaustive taxonomy of sign types includes three basic forms: the icon, the index and the symbol. This painting presents all three of these forms.

Firstly, the exclusion of the protagonists of the progressive narrative is not total, because their presence is inferred through the helplessness of the victims portrayed in the painting, from the crucified Christ whose open mouth suggests he is wailing in pain (Fig.2), to the smaller figures in the lower section of the painting that are being swallowed by flames, crucified and hanged (Fig.3).

Becoming Universal Part 2: How does Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945-1947) engage with the contemporary metanarrative of the Holocaust?

Fig.2 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 116 x 149 cm, unknown location

Becoming Universal Part 2: How does Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945-1947) engage with the contemporary metanarrative of the Holocaust?

Fig.3 Detail from Marc Chagall, Apocalypse en lilas: Capriccio, 1945-1947. Gouache, pencil, Indian wash ink and Indian ink on paper, 76 x 61 cm. Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London.

The gruesome fate of these figures acts as an indexical reference for what ‘liberating’ countries did not do: save the 6 millions of European Jews that were murdered. This absence is intensified through the inclusion of factual information about the mass murder of the Jews, reinforced here through the association between nakedness and death. Quite unusually for Chagall, he chooses to show Christ in the nude, with his genitals exposed, which are further emphasized through the thick black outline, in a manner that is unique in his work, as it was never repeated. This nudity is echoed by the groups of women standing naked under the ladder in the lower-left section of the painting (Fig.3). These portrayals are not incidental, as they provide a visual link through iconic representation to their real-life counterparts in the form of the Jews killed in the gas chambers, crematoriums or executed at gunpoint in the concentration camps. Considering the timing of this work, it is very likely that Chagall was aware of the countless stories regarding these deaths that were reported in newspapers, newsreels and books at the end of the war. A leitmotif of these killings was the nudity of the victims who were forced to strip naked as they were murdered. This nudity is inferred in the painting through the portrayal of the figures representing victimhood: that of the crucified Christ and the smaller figures scattered in the lower section of the work. Through this reference, Chagall creates another layer of meaning that fits in with Pierce’s symbolical taxonomy, whose deciphering allows the viewer to access a more complex understanding of the work.

Furthermore, the smaller figures similar to the predella on an altarpiece (Fig.3) tell the bigger story of senseless death and persecution of the Jews across Europe, some of them killed in typical Nazi ways, such as hangings as it is the case with two of the figures in the lower right corner, a rare depiction in Chagall’s work. Despite the small size of these scenes, their importance is pivotal as they act as a visual aid, mediating the understanding of the central element of the work, which in this case is the crucifixion. Christ as a figure is universal and thus free-floating, a generalized symbol of martyrdom. In contrast, the figures depicted here (Fig.3) are highly particularized as they have a contemporary correspondent in the fleeing Jews who escaped persecution or perished at the hands of the Nazis. The small crucified figures in the lower right and left sections, the man and the woman being engulfed by flames as well as the figure of the hanged man and refugees in a boat (Fig.3) are all protagonists in this narrative, grounding the ubiquitous figure of Christ as they are historically situated and specific. The link between these elements of the work result in a visual metonymy that transfers the specific tragedy that happened to real people, Jews whose pictures would have been printed in the newspapers circulating in the aftermath of the Holocaust, towards the figure of Christ as the embodiment of innocent killing and persecution during the Holocaust, a substitute capable to convey the injustice that was happening and which was not given its assumed importance in the sanctioned narrative of the Holocaust in the period after World War II, in particular in Western Europe and North America.

Conversely, the painting reflects the centrality of radical evil that characterised the sanctioned metanarrative of the Holocaust. Right after the war, radical evil was cast as the inhumane, inexplicable actions of the German Nazis. The opposition between evil and good is central in the attempt to make sense of the events of the Shoah. However, the evil-good dichotomy is an arbitrary construction, fabricated through social and cultural processes, reducing everything in the middle in the so-called ‘grey’ area to one or the other side of this binary. This dichotomy has been at the base of all human societies, particularly important in Western philosophy. The normative ‘good’ sets the standard for what is and what is not acceptable in society, whilst evil is outcast, as an instrumental threat to the shared good of society.

In Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (Fi.1), evil is portrayed in a straight-forward manner, through the depiction of the human-animal hybrid resembling a Nazi storm trooper depicted from the profile in the foreground (Fig.3). The figure is four-legged with the second foot on the lower section barely discernible. A gap in between the two legs further emphasizes the bestiality of the figure, accentuated by the tail in the lower right section. This figure clearly references Nazi evil, further emphasized by the its size compared to all the other figures: the crucified Christ towering above him is the only one to exceed it. The inverted swastika shown on the armband of the Nazi soldier serves the indexical function of the symbol, as the meaning it infers is only possible because of Nazi Germany’s adoption of this symbol. This symbolism makes this painting stand out from Chagall’s oeuvre, as Chagall only used an inverted swastika in his Yellow Crucifixion which he then removed when the work was exhibited in Paris in 1940 out of fear of retribution. The fact that Chagall chose to keep this openly anti-fascist symbolism points to the conclusion that the work was intended to remain in the artist’s personal collection, possibly as a sketch for a later painting.

The original pencil drawing beneath what we know as Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (Fig. 1) shows that Chagall had intended for the Nazi figure with square jaws to be caught in the process of biting Christ’s feet, further stressing his bestiality. In the final version, the soldier is not biting the feet but seems caught in the movement of removing the ladder from Christ’s feet, taking away his one chance of descending from the cross. However, in the final version, the soldiers’ amputated hands stop him from taking away the ladder. At the same time, the tail winds itself around the figure of a mother holding two children, mirroring the winding of the flames engulfing other figures, which identifies Nazi evil with the horrific acts they committed, possibly a reference to the sheer numbers of people burned in the crematoria of concentration camps.

The way in which the soldier bends down is in complete juxtaposition with the image that Chagall has used before to depict Nazi evil in his sketches of The Way to Calvary of 1941, where a soldier raises his whip in a gesture that mirrors a Nazi raising their arm to beat Jews during transport. The Nazi soldier of Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (Fig. 1) also being shown with his mouth open is unusual (Fig.3), echoing Christ’s open mouth (Fig.4) as if they are both about to scream, which adds to the dramatic tension of the scene.

Becoming Universal Part 2: How does Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945-1947) engage with the contemporary metanarrative of the Holocaust?

Fig.4 Detail from Marc Chagall, Apocalypse en lilas: Capriccio, 1945-1947. Gouache, pencil, Indian wash ink and Indian ink on paper, 76 x 61 cm. Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London.

Evil is thus embodied by this one prominent figure, placed as close to the viewer as possible, and even though it is not the focal point of the work, it attracts the attention of the viewer through the stark contrast between the dark filling which marks the figure and the white and pastel background. Chagall uses this recognizable animalistic icon of evil to tap into a long-standing history of radical evil embodied by Satan. This depiction reflects contemporary views about the good-evil dichotomy, where evil was codified in socio-cultural terms as being incarnated by Nazi Germany.

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