Solitude by Marc Chagall

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

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Why Did I Come forth from the Womb?

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Timothy Gorringe

Marc Chagall, an artist of Belarusian Jewish origin, painted this picture two years after his first visit to Israel. A rabbi sits draped in a prayer shawl, clutching the Torah scroll, his head in his hand. It is the pose Rembrandt van Rijn gave to Jeremiah in his painting Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Chagall may have known it.

Vitebsk, Chagall’s birthplace, is in the background, under a smoke-filled sky which reaches down and envelops the town, as it would envelop so many places in the next dozen years. The work may also evoke the pogroms which marked Russian Jewish existence in the first half of the twentieth century, and the turmoil of Stalinist Russia, which affected Chagall's family and friends.

Chagall called the picture ‘solitude’, but the impression is one of melancholy, almost of despair (cf. Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I). The rabbi has his arm round the scroll, as though encircling the body of a loved one. A scroll of Jeremiah’s words would be shredded and burned by King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36)—it needs protection. The Torah scroll has a unique significance for Judaism: when the Temple was destroyed, and many were in exile, the Torah scroll, read in the synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath, became the heart of Israelite practice and kept later Jewish identity alive. The scroll records God’s Word, which humans live by and prophets internalize and announce (Deuteronomy 8:3; Jeremiah 15:16).

Two of Chagall’s favoured symbols accompany the rabbi in this picture.

The first is a violin—so characteristic of klezmer music (a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe), so expressive of passion and yearning, so capable of giving voice to the inexpressible. Its importance in this tradition may help explain why so many great violinists have been Jews. Is this musicality also a testimony to the way that the Word pushes to the edge of what can be said; the Word giving place not to silence (Wittgenstein 1963: 151), but to music?

The second symbol which re-appears in so many of Chagall’s works is a white heifer. Is this the heifer of Hosea 4:16—Israel run wild—as Jeremiah saw it? Or one of the cows that belonged to Chagall’s Uncle Neuch back in Vitebsk? Or one of the heifers whose terrified cries disturbed Chagall in his Paris studio, next door to the abattoir?

 

References

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

Cassou, Jean. 1965. Chagall (London: Thames and Hudson)

Panofsky, Erwin. 1923. Dürers ‘Melencolia I’: eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Leipzig: Teubner)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (London: RKP)