Marc Chagall's Cemetery Gates is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario.


Marc Chagall's Cemetery Gates is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

October 31, 2011

Almost nobody would guess that the Russian Revolution of 1917 would have produced great religious art. However, Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Jan. 15 is chock full of icons, angels, reverie and mysticism.

The central artist in the exhibition, Marc Chagall was one of the great religious artists of the modernist era. His most significant works include stained glass windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, numerous paintings of the crucifixion of Christ, illustrations for an edition of the Old Testament and paintings of Hasidic life in the Jewish quarter of Vitebsk, in Soviet Belarus.

However, curator Angela Lampe insists the show has no religious art and that Chagall was not a religious artist.

"There is no religious message in the art," Lampe told The Catholic Register.

To the Musee National d'Art Moderne curator who put the show together from the collection of Paris' Centre George Pompidou, Kandinsky's collection of icons is important for purely aesthetic, formal reasons.

The simplified portrait style and heavy black lines helped modern Russian painters before the revolution re-imagine painting, said Lampe.

Even if Chagall dedicated years to illustrating the Bible, it wasn't a religious project, she said.

"He was working with religious motifs, but he did not have a religious message, in my opinion," she said.

Despite Lampe's claims, the show includes Chagall's Cemetery Gates – a painting built around Ezekiel 37.12, "I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people."

Chagall went to Israel in 1931 to prepare for the Bible project.

"I found unexpectedly the Bible and a part of my very being," he wrote a few years later.

Art Gallery of Ontario curator Elizabeth Smith, who worked with Lampe on hanging Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde in Toronto, thinks there are plenty of reasons to see Chagall as a religious artist.

"Chagall was very deeply impacted in his early life by his Hasidic upbringing," said Smith.

On the walls of the exhibit, the curators point out that "Hasid" means loving kindness - a religious value that clearly stayed with Chagall, even if he left the orthodox practice of his faith.

Chagall's White Crucifixion, painted in 1938 as Nazi power increased, was the first in a series portraying Christ as a Jewish martyr.


Chagall's White Crucifixion, painted in 1938 as Nazi power increased, was the first in a series portraying Christ as a Jewish martyr.

As an art historian, Smith sees nothing out of bounds about looking at religious influences in modern art. "More and more there is scholarship being done on modern art and spirituality."


But too often both the Church and the art establishment have resisted any link between modern art and the religious, said Father Peter Larisey, professor of religion and art at Regis College.

"The judgment was that modern art is radically secular," said the Jesuit who is working on a book about modern art and religion. "The Church thought that too, and so continued its alienation from art longer than it needed."

Chagall's dream-like, vividly coloured paintings always stood out from his contemporaries.

"Until now, we have emphasized his singularity," said Lampe. "Chagall was not an artist living in complete isolation from his peers."

As founder of the art college in his hometown of Vitebsk, Chagall in fact was part of the earliest efforts of revolutionary Russia to put art in the service of the people. Eventually, however, modern art was viewed with suspicion by state authorities, who saw it as bourgeois aesthetic elitism.


Chagall was eventually forced out of his own college and went to Paris where he found a lively community of Russian émigré artists.

But in the Second World War he was stuck in Vichy France as the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain began shipping Jews to Nazi death camps. The Nazis derided Chagall's art as childish and an assault on Western civilization.

The artist eventually escaped to America, and lived in upstate New York.

In 1948 he returned to France, where he lived and worked until his death in 1985 at the age of 97 - the last great modernist master. Picasso had acknowledged Chagall as a master of colour.

"When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour is," said Picasso.

Touring the art gallery, it's not hard to see what Picasso saw. But Chagall's spiritual life is just as obvious.

"He's not a person who found religion embarrassing," said Larisey. "That makes him a little different."