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Francisco de Goya

Fuego / Fuego (Fire Fire), c.1824–28, Black chalk, lithographic pencil, on white-grey laid paper, 188 x 151 mm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, RF 38975, Recto, Michèle Bellot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Rembrandt van Rijn

Slaughtered Ox, 1655, Oil on panel, 95.5 x 68.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, M.I. 169, Gérard Blot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Marc Chagall

Solitude, 1933, Oil on canvas, 102 x 169 cm, Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Gift of the artist, 1953, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Avraham Hai / Tel Aviv Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

The Fire of the Word

Comparative Commentary by

The book of Jeremiah begins: ‘The words of Jeremiah’. But his words are dependent on another Word, the Word of YHWH (Jeremiah 1:4), which makes history (1:10).

This Word, though, brings trouble to its speakers. The impact of the Word on Jeremiah is recorded in the so called ‘confessions’ (Jeremiah 11:18–12:6; 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–18.), the most intense of which is Jeremiah 20, the subject of this exhibition.

Marc Chagall understood the theology of the Word. Chagall remembered from his Vitebsk childhood how ‘[e]very Saturday Uncle Neuch would put on a tallit, any tallit, and read the Bible aloud’ (1989: 25). Chagall was not a practising Jew, but the Bible, which included the Jew Jesus, remained a primary source of inspiration throughout his life. Of all the great artists of the twentieth century, it might be that only Chagall—brought up amongst Hasidim, hearing Torah every Sabbath from his grandfather and uncle—could have created a Musée Biblique like that in Nice. Throughout his work his rabbis hold, flee with, expound, the Torah.

Uncle Neuch was a cattle dealer—cows were part of Chagall’s childhood. ‘The symbol gives rise to thought’ (Ricoeur 1967: 11). Chagall’s symbolic universe is not precise allegory but a dense, polysemic, world. Here, sacrifice is certainly in the background.

‘Uncle Neuch played the violin, like a cobbler’. The fiddler also accompanies all Chagall’s work, joy and tragedy, yearning, the permanent imprint of his Russian youth.

In Paris Chagall spent much time in the Louvre.

Rembrandt entranced me. Only Rembrandt could have known what the old grandfather, butcher, tradesman and cantor thought while his son played the violin beside the window, beside the dirty window panes covered with raindrops and finger marks. (Chagall 1989: 107)

This explains why we have to turn from Chagall to Rembrandt. Amongst the goyim, Rembrandt is the most Jewish of painters.

There are two pictures of a slaughtered ox ascribed to Rembrandt, one in the Louvre and one in Glasgow (although the authenticity of the Glasgow picture is questioned). The Glasgow painting (possibly by a pupil) has a sleeping child in front of the ox, and a maid stooping down to a basket—perhaps a cradle—in the background. This emphasises the memento mori theme. Human beings are ‘like the beasts that perish’ (Psalm 49:12). There are contemporary paintings of a slaughtered ox which make this more explicit (for instance, by Martin van Cleeve) but by and large in seventeenth-century Dutch painting the message is more subtle.

There is an intensity about the Rembrandt painting which has echoed down the years: both Chagall and Francis Bacon took it up (Chagall Flayed Ox 1947, Paris; Bacon Crucifixion 1965, Munich). Rembrandt’s painting is literally visceral. It certainly captures the rawness, the exposed heart, of Jeremiah’s confessions. In a world where many wanted to turn the Word made flesh back to simple word, ‘in flourish and arrogant crook’ (Muir 1960: 228), Rembrandt all his life looked at enfleshed human beings, and above all himself, with honesty, but also with compassion. The Slaughtered Ox, I suggest, is not only about animals, nor is it only a vivid still life, but above all it is a commentary on the pain of life, and therefore of death, a pain Rembrandt felt at the time (Visser ‘t Hooft 1960: 19), and Jeremiah also knew.

Rembrandt was important to Francisco de Goya too (Hughes 2003: 23), but there is no allusion to him in Fuego / Fuego. Fire as a metaphor for the encounter with God recurs again and again through Scripture, from Moses at the burning bush to the author of Hebrews. Goya’s deepest religious expression may not be found so much in his more conventional Crucifixion as in the Third of May, his protest against political injustice.

Jeremiah too insisted that to know God was to do justice (Jeremiah 22:16). Goya may not have had the profound religious sensibility of either Chagall or Rembrandt (cf. Hughes 2003: 99–100). Nevertheless this image evokes, better than any other I know, the experience of Jeremiah: a fire pent up in his bones. Fleeing fire only to encounter fire:

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire. (Eliot 1963: 221)

Jeremiah knew this and so did Rembrandt. Who knows whether Goya did? But this late, hurried image, catches the terrifying nature of fire, and the desperation of flight.

 

References

Chagall, Marc. 1989. My Life (Oxford: OUP)

Eliot, T.S. 1963. Collected Poems (London:Faber & Faber)

Friedman, Mira M. 1984. Marc Chagall’s Portrayal of the Prophet Jeremiah (Deutscher Kunstverlag), pp. 374–391

Heschel, Abraham J. 1962. The Prophets: An Introduction, 2 vols (New York: Harper)

Hughes, Robert. 2003. Goya (London: Harvill Press)

Kochan, Lionel. 1997. Beyond the Graven Image (London: Palgrave Macmillan)

Muir, Edwin. 1960. Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber)

Rad, Gerhard von, and D. M. G Stalker. 1967. Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd)

Ricoeur, Paul. 1967. The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper & Row)

Visser ’t Hooft, Willem Adolph. 1960. Rembrandt and the Gospel (New York: Meridian Books)