Life & Culture

The sorrow of Jeremiah

Chagall’s masterpiece is especially resonant when we mourn on Tishah b’Av, says Eli Abt


There’s an offbeat connection between the sunny Cote d’Azur and the gloom of next Sunday’s Fast of Ninth Av. In Nice’s Musée National Marc Chagall you’ll find the artist’s powerful 1968 painting of Jeremiah, prophet of Babylon’s conquest of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, remembered on that annual day of mourning with all our other national tragedies.

Jérémie is a work typical both of Chagall’s lifetime pre-occupation with the bible and his visionary dreamlike art. Bathed in the artist’s mystical yellow, the prophet is shown overcome by the unwanted task of warning his sceptical king and people of the impending catastrophe, oblivious to the comfort offered by the phantom spirit before him. That portrayal is the culmination of some half-dozen others imagined by Chagall over a 40-year period. In 1930, when the 47-year-old was already an international name, he had been commissioned by the important patron Ambroise Vollard, (familiar to us from portraits by Cezanne and Renoir), to produce a suite of bible etchings.

In response he travelled with his wife Bella to Eretz Yisrael in 1931, in his own words to “refresh my imagination and me — I might find a new direction.” He was exhilarated by his people’s renewal in their ancient land. “Jewish earth glimmers around you like gold”, he wrote to his friend Haim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s national poet, while staying with Tel Aviv’s mayor Meir Dizengoff, (in the very house, it so happens, where David Ben-Gurion was to declare an independent State of Israel 17 years later).

Inspired, Chagall immersed himself in his commission upon his return. “Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the bible,” he wrote, “It has always seemed to me the greatest source of poetry of all time”.

When losses in the Depression forced Vollard to withdraw his support in 1934, Chagall carried on regardless and without payment, undaunted by Europe’s rising tide of antisemitism.
His work formed a prime exhibit of “degenerate” art in Munich’s notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937, when Hitler called for all modernists, Jews especially, to be “dealt with” by means of “sterilisation for the insane”.

(That didn’t, as we know, stop the Nazis from looting from their Jewish owners every “degenerate” Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian or Kandinsky they could ultimately lay their hands on.)
By the outbreak of war in 1939 Chagall had completed the first 66 plates. Smuggled by the Americans out of occupied Europe to New York in 1941, he returned in 1948, settled near Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1950, and resumed work on the remaining 39 etchings in 1952.

Having attracted the patronage of Tériade, owner of the legendary quarterly journal Verve, he completed La Bible, the suite of 105 exquisite bible etchings of 1958, enhanced here and there by his added touches of watercolour. The collection includes two Jeremiah depictions. In the first, the dispirited Prophet, his head down, hands bound, barefoot and on his knees in the pit into which he has been cast on king Hezekiah’s orders (Jeremiah 38:1:6), is seemingly unaware of the light from above, perhaps divine, or the consolation attempted by the angelic spirit behind him.

The second, portraying Jerusalem’s capture, has the prophet throwing up his hands in despair as Hezekiah leaves the burning city at the head of columns of distressed men and women, with the dead lying by the wayside and a giant phantom hovering angrily over the calamitous scene.
However, his publication of other Biblical work preceded that of the etchings. Chagall had first met Matisse’s lithographer Fernand Mourlot upon his return to France in 1948, when he became intrigued by the medium’s possibilities of print in the colours he loved.
The artist embarked with enthusiasm on a further suite of 30 lithographs of the Bible’s founding fathers, kings and prophets.

Published by Verve in 1956, they created a stir in the Jewish world, imbuing many with fresh pride in their people’s legacy after the trauma of the Holocaust’s grievous losses.
Several of these images are now as familiar as Chagall’s clowns, acrobats and fiddlers on the roof, like that of the tortured Jeremiah clasping a Torah scroll tightly to his chest. With him stand the ill-fated people of Judah behind a prone animal in vivid blue, perhaps a suggestion of their sacrifices replacing those of the First Temple now destroyed by the armies of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar II.

Clearly gripped by the concept of the bent and desolate prophet protectively hugging a Sefer Torah, the artist repeated him in his last suite, Dessins pour la Bible, a set of 24 striking lithographs published in 1960. Yet his most expressive Jeremiah remains that in Nice, one of 17 scenes from the Bible which he pledged to leave to France, his home for most of his life, if a gallery were built to house them. His wish was fulfilled with the opening on his 86th birthday in 1973 of the museum in his name, a rare accolade for an artist in his lifetime.
Let’s nevertheless remind ourselves that Chagall tells only half the story. Jeremiah’s verses are replete with the promise of national deliverance and return familiar to us from all our prophets. Moreover, though the exiles wept by the waters of Babylon, they heeded his celebrated practical advice, (Jeremiah 29: 5-7), followed by all diaspora Jews ever since:“Build houses and dwell in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives for your sons and husbands for your daughters, that they may bear children. Multiply there, do not diminish in numbers. And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for its welfare. It is your welfare too.”
A shaft of light in the darkness of the Fast of Av.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive