Marc Chagall was not religious, the images of rabbis in his work notwithstanding. Some twenty years older than Philip Rahv, he too was born in Russia, Vitebsk in his case. He left Russia for Paris in 1922, the same year Rahv immigrated to the United States.

Chagall explained what religion and the pictorial representation of rabbis meant to him in “An Interview with Marc Chagall” that appeared in the winter 1944 issue of Partisan Review. He was interviewed by James Johnson Sweeney, curator for the Museum of Modern Art at the timee.

Rabbis are among the stock of images that Chagall retained from his youth. They are not symbols or fantastic elements of a story, he asserts. Paintings are “plane surfaces covered with colours arranged in a certain order.” He sees no difference between what he does and what the impressionists or cubists did. In one case it was spots of lights and shadow, in another it was cubic, triangular, and round shapes. He explains, “A cow and a woman to me are the same—in a picture both are merely elements of a composition.” And further, “The fact that I made use of cows, milkmaids, roosters and provincial Russian architecture as my source forms is because they are part of the environment from which I spring and which undoubtedly left the deepest impression on my visual memory.”

Religion, for Chagall, was an integral part of the artistic tradition of Russia. “But this was fundamentally a religious art and I am not, and never have been, religious. Moreover, I felt religion meant little in the world that I knew, even as it seems to mean little today.”

Like Rahv, moreover, Chagall rejected Soviet ideology which precluded the full expression of his artistic aspirations. “The ideal it proposed to its artists was to become illustrators—to transport the ideology of the revolution onto the canvas.”


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