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The Genius and the Gentiles: Chagall’s American Odyssey

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March 21, 2014
by Gary Ferdman chagall-the-white-crucifixion-1938It may have been surprising to many to learn that Pope Francis’s two favorite artists are Caravaggio and Marc Chagall, and that the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion-member Catholic church, with its long and inglorious history of anti-Semitism, considers Chagall’s "White Crucifixion" (at right, copyright 2014 Artist Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris), his favorite painting. In it, Chagall shows refugees fleeing a shtetl in flames and portrays Christ on the cross as a suffering, persecuted Jew wearing a tallis in place of a loincloth. Most of us who know and love the work of Marc Chagall associate him with bursts of colorful bouquets, flying lovers, and mystical fiddlers on Russian rooftops. But to her credit, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator of CHAGALL: Love, War and Exile, on exhibit through February 2nd at the Jewish Museum in New York City, chose to bring to the public a much deeper, often darker side of Chagall. The exhibit illustrates how he transferred his psyche to canvas in response to personal loss, the Holocaust and a new-found, passionate romance. The Museum’s web site introduces us to the political Chagall: “The most prevalent image Chagall used during World War II was of Jesus and the Crucifixion. For Chagall, the Crucifixion was a symbol for all the victims of persecution, a metaphor for the horrors of war, and an appeal to conscience that equated the martyrdom of Jesus with the suffering of the Jewish people and the Holocaust.” To drive that point home, Goodman has amassed a mélange of many of his most famous, important, and emotionally charged Christ images for the exhibit. The major focus is on Chagall’s exile period in New York State from 1941 to 1948, which was bracketed by the rise of Nazism in Europe and the rise of McCarthyism in the United States. It is ironic — and quite wonderful — that so many non-Jews were instrumental in saving the life, both literally and artistically, of this quintessential Jewish artist (born Moishe Segal) during that period of personal and political upheaval. Chagall’s American odyssey began in the south of France in 1941, where he and his wife and soul mate Bella were rescued from the Nazis by Varian Fry and American Vice Consul Hiram Bingham. A true American hero, Fry had volunteered to go to Europe to rescue political activists and Jewish artists and intellectuals and saved over two thousand and their families. Bingham’s diplomatic career was derailed by his decision to help Fry rescue Jews. In 1994, Fry was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. It is perplexing that it took months for Fry to convince Chagall to leave Europe. Chagall had been branded a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis, and several of his paintings were in the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibit seen by over 3 million people in Germany and Austria. After Kristallnacht, he made very public his warning of the pending disaster for European Jewry by choosing to show "White Crucifixion" at an important exhibit in Paris. In 1941, when Fry secured Chagall’s release after two nights in a prison in Marseilles by threatening to tell the New York Times that the authorities had incarcerated such a famous artist, Chagall finally agreed to leave. One of his questions to Fry, “Are there any cows in America?” was a reflection of his love of the rural countryside that reminded him of his Russian home town of Vitebsk. This helps explain his later fondness for his simple home in rural High Falls, New York where he lived from 1946 to 1948. Fry was able to go to France thanks in part to the financial support of the Rockefeller family. The Rockefellers were also heavily involved in the Museum of Modern Art, and Museum Director Alfred Barr’s invitation to Chagall to exhibit at MOMA facilitated his entry into the United States. The ongoing Rockefeller/Chagall relationship would culminate in the 1960s when David Rockefeller visited Chagall in Venice and the quintessential Protestant capitalist and the quintessential Eastern European Jewish leftist joined together to plan a masterpiece, an enormous stained glass window for the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, site of the Rockefeller estate in North Tarrytown, New York. They agreed on a theme: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The family was so impressed that they commissioned Chagall to create eight more windows. It was only after Chagall’s death that David Rockefeller learned about his family’s crucial role in rescuing Chagall, and realized how appropriate the Good Samaritan parable was. Among the many gentiles who helped Chagall were gallery owner Pierre Matisse and Alsatian-born German aristocrat Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenweisen, aka Hilla Rebay. Rebay, with her brilliant organizational skills and daring taste in modern art, helped Solomon Guggenheim create the Guggenheim Museum and its predecessor, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. She was instrumental in hiring Guggenheim architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She was familiar with Chagall’s work from his years in Berlin where he was represented by the prestigious Der Sturm Gallery. Chagall was the only non non-objective artist she encouraged Solomon Guggenheim to collect. At a crucial moment, she convinced Guggenheim to write a letter to the U.S. government guaranteeing Chagall and his entire family financial support, thereby providing the U.S. immigration authorities with the assurance they required that the Chagalls would not be a financial burden. Rebay eased Chagall’s adjustment to America by providing Marc and Bella with a temporary home in her country estate in Westport, CT. In a 1947 letter to Chagall in High Falls, Rebay reminds Chagall that “without me, you and your family would not have been saved from the Nazi mobs.” Pierre Matisse, a pivotal figure in the New York art scene, represented Chagall, along with a dozen other famous artists in exile, including Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Ferdinand Leger, Pierre Mondrian, and Jacques Lipschitz. Understanding Chagall’s insecurities about money, Matisse gave Chagall a monthly retainer, enabling him to bare his soul and psyche on canvas. A burst of creativity sprang from this remarkable partnership of master painter and master marketer. 20120730-005316Chagall’s fame was enhanced on the West Coast by the Rev. James McLane, an Episcopal minister and mainstay of the museum and classical music scenes in Los Angeles. McLane bought several important Chagalls from Matisse, including the iconic "Blue Violinist" (at left, copyright 2014 Artist Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris) and had such a deep spiritual connection to the artist’s work — he described Chagall as “a great religious painter” — that he organized and curated several major Chagall exhibits in Southern California. Chagall also had a spiritual and artistic connection with Father Marie Alain Couturier, who transformed Catholic religious art in the mid-20th century. Couturier helped the De Menil family amass one of the world’s great private art collections. With his affinity for beautiful countrysides and snowy winters, Chagall often vacationed and painted in the Adirondacks. It was there, at the Evergreen Hotel in Cranberry Lake, that catastrophe struck. Bella came down with an infection, and on September 2, 1944, Chagall’s soulmate and muse died in a hospital in nearby Tupper Lake. Chagall, despondent and depressed, did not paint for nine months. Then another gentile entered his life — Virginia Haggard. Chagall-and-Wife-Bella--300x288-1Virginia, daughter of a prominent British diplomat, sister of Stephen Haggard, an important British actor, and grand-niece of Sir Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon's Mines, was trapped in a disastrous marriage to an alcoholic. Desperate for work, she gladly accepted the offer from Chagall’s daughter Ida to “mend his socks.” She began doing housework for the family, and she and daughter Jean modeled for Ida. Inevitably, the grieving artist and the attractive, highly educated bohemian almost three decades younger fell passionately in love. A seven-year relationship began, and in part to hide Virginia’s pregnancy from friends who had been close to Bella, they purchased a modest home in High Falls, New York. It was there that their son David was born and Chagall’s morose paintings in memory of Bella morphed into explosions of color and sensuality inspired by Virginia and exemplified by his pioneering lithographs of The Arabian Nights. The reenergized Chagall painted from dawn to dusk. I have identified over ninety paintings from that brief but incredibly productive two-and-a-half year period! As Chagall’s granddaughter Meret Meyer explained, “He was then sharing his life with Virginia, who doubtless gave him a new taste for life. Little David was born. A new life began; after all, he was an artist. And it was crucial for him to be able to create.” Like-what-youre-readingIn spite of his love for High Falls and his fame and fortune in America, there are several reasons why Chagall, along with Virginia, David and Jean, set sail for France in August, 1948, while many other European Jews — including Jacques Lipschitz, Kurt Seligmann, Albert Einstein, and Hannah Arendt — stayed. It’s possible that Chagall planned to return. He wrote to Pierre Matisse from France that “I still think of High Falls where I was so wildly free.” He did not sell his house in High Falls until 1953 — after he had been turned down for visas at least twice, and Virginia had left him for, as he put it, “an older man,” Charles Leirens. (Leirens who had photographed Chagall and his family in High Falls in 1948, was actually a year younger than Chagall.) Chagall scholar Yale professor Benjamin Harshav reminds us that Chagall never learned English and feared that if he stayed in the U.S. he would be stereotyped as an immigrant and considered strictly a Jewish artist, a label he tried to avoid. Then there was his enterprising daughter Ida, who, taking advantage of the rejuvenating art scene in Europe, was already planning major exhibitions in Paris, London and Amsterdam. Harshav also contends that Chagall may have feared persecution in America because, though never a Communist, he was sympathetic to and involved with leftist organizations in part because of their anti-Nazi activism. It would come as no surprise to those of us familiar with COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret operation to monitor, disrupt and discredit the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, that, according to Harshav, almost from the beginning of Chagall’s seven-year sojourn in the United States the FBI had kept an eye on him. Marc and Virginia’s High Falls neighbors had seen people they thought were FBI agents search their home. The file the FBI amassed, filled with inaccuracies and innuendos, was a harbinger of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy’s destructive anti-Communist witchhunts. Chagall’s file mentions his involvement with the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists (honorary chair, Albert Einstein) — cited as a “Communist front organization for racial agitation” by the California Committee on UnAmerican Activities — for which Chagall contributed art to an exhibit sponsored on The Negro in the Arts. Chagall also signed the World Peace Appeal, which was investigated by the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession deprived the people of the United States of Marc Chagall for an entire decade. In 1957 John Nef, chairman of Social Thought at the University of Chicago, invited Chagall to lecture at a conference in Washington, DC. Fortunately, Nef’s good friend, Chicago philanthropist William Wood Prince, had connections at the highest levels of the Eisenhower Administration. Chagall needed a well-placed guardian angel, and he got one. Max Rabb, one of Eisenhower’s closest confidants and one of the highest-ranking Jews in his administration, overruled the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the FBI to secure Chagall’s visa in January of 1958. According to Rabb’s widow, Ruth, helping Chagall was one of the proudest moments in his very distinguished career. With his access to America now secured, Chagall went on to make his mark here in ways that reflected his heart and mind, including the two giant canvases in the Metropolitan Opera House (he loved Mozart and would often paint to his music), the religious imagery in the nine remarkable windows at the Rockefeller church, and the very moving stained glass window in the United Nations building honoring Dag Hammarskjold and other UN employees who had lost their lives in the cause nearest and dearest to Chagall — the pursuit of peace. We don’t know what might have happened to their relationship if Marc and Virginia had been allowed to return to their beloved High Falls home. In France, Virginia, having her own interests and talents, tired of being typecast as the Great Man’s Wife and serving as his caretaker. Also, Chagall had left the Matisse Gallery, and was represented in Europe by Aime Maeght, whom Virginia considered more interested in selling art than encouraging creativity. She thought that Marc had lost his authenticity. She moved to Belgium with Leirens and took up photography. After the death of Lierens, she became the lifelong companion of Belgian film-maker Henri Storck, a pioneer in the Belgian documentary film industry. Virginia died in Brussels in 2006 at the age of 91. One important aspect of the Jewish Museum exhibit is its spotlight on Virginia as one of the three great loves in Chagall’s life. The Chagall in High Falls Committee also helped bring to light Virginia Haggard’s relationship with and influence on Chagall after decades of obscurity. Virginia was not even mentioned in major Chagall biographies until Sidney Alexander’s in 1978. It would now be hard to imagine a Chagall exhibit that did not acknowledge her role as Chagall’s inspiration during one of his most interesting, challenging and productive periods. Shortly after Virginia left Chagall, Ida, perhaps fearing that she would again be compelled to take charge of Chagall’s personal life, introduced her father to Valentina “Vava” Brodsky, described by no less an authority than David Rockefeller as Chagall’s very astute business manager. She was married to Chagall until his death in 1985. In addition to erecting barriers between David and Ida and their father, there is reason to believe that Vava helped assure that Virginia was invisible to Chagall print and film biographers. Chagall and Virginia’s son David McNeil is a successful musician/songwriter living in France. He has penned several popular French songs. He returned to High Falls only once since 1948, but was unable to find the house where he spent the first two-and-a-half years of his life. Virginia’s daughter Jean McNeil is an artist living in England. Ida had twin daughters. Meret coordinates the Chagall estate, the Comite Chagall, in Paris. Bella Meyer, a florist, owns FleurBella on East 11th Street in Manhattan, where her grandfather’s legacy lives on through her uniquely beautiful floral creations. Gary Ferdman, a not for profit executive, is co-founder of the Chagall in High Falls Committee.