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  • The Role of Language in Modern Art: On Texts and Subtexts in Chagall’s Paintings
  • Benjamin Harshav* (bio)

In this essay, I shall explore the functions of natural language as a “secondary medium” in visual art, as it appears in the polyphonic work of Marc Chagall. Language is here part of the private “fictional world” that Chagall constructed in his paintings in counterpoint to the languages of the avant-garde. It conveys some of the images and perceptions of a local culture and carries the “thick knowledge” of a periphery that Chagall brought to the centers of modernist art. I shall focus primarily on the role of Yiddish language and literature, which have the deepest roots in his conscious world. 1

1. The Semiotics of Chagall’s Modernism

Innovations in modern art and science claimed general validity and were accepted in the general canon, yet the context of their discovery was narrowly local and depended on a specific combination of national, linguistic, social, and personal forces and circumstances. The opposition between “Western European” and other cultures, as emphasized in recent criticism, may divert our attention from the fact that European culture itself has been time and again formed by an awareness of the differences among national cultures and their reciprocal oppositions, interactions, and influences.

The most prominent outsiders nestled within the European world were the Jews in their traditional, religious society. In the heart of Europe—in recent centuries, primarily [End Page 51] Eastern and Central Europe—they maintained a religion that stood in opposition to the dominant Christianity and a culture based on the teaching and interpretation of an ever growing library of texts. Though influenced by the folklore and beliefs of their neighbors, and often multilingual (using Slavic, German, and other languages), they maintained tightly knit communities with their own social and educational network and an internal multilingualism in three languages of their own: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. In Eastern Europe, and especially in the “Pale of Settlement” of the Russian Empire, where until 1917 over five million Jews were kept in a huge geographical ghetto (comprising most of Poland, Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Lithuania), the Jewish masses were concentrated in small towns (called shtetls). Two-thirds of the population of a typical shtetl was Jewish (67% in Chagall’s family town of Lyozno), and shtetl life was dominated physically by a towering Church and politically by a Russian administration. It was a more or less self-contained island amid a sea of Christian villages. In the larger towns, Jews constituted half the population (52.4% in Chagall’s Vitebsk), and in several big cities, about one third. It was a polka-dotted map, a powerless Jewish empire within an empire, unified by a voluntary cultural network—from the spread of authoritative books and Hasidic sects to modern ideological parties, educational systems, literature, and newspapers.

It was in this context that the Modern Jewish Revolution erupted at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century: a veritable explosion of modernity within one or two generations, entailing both a massive transformation of millions of Jews, and their influx into the centers of European and American culture. 2 Jews eagerly joined the “general” modern culture in manners both extrinsic and intrinsic; while many took up the languages and entered the cultural institutions of the extant European nations, others created a European-type secular culture of their own in Hebrew and Yiddish, accepting European genres and modes of discourse and infusing them with elements transformed from the Jewish tradition. Unlike writers, however, who had to choose either an intrinsic or an extrinsic language (either I. B. Singer or Franz Kafka), painters could simultaneously participate in both.

Chagall (1887–1985) was a typical child of this Modern Jewish Revolution. He was the first of many siblings, born to religious, Yiddish-speaking parents of limited education in Vitebsk, the capital of a province or gubernia (in today’s Byelorussia), in the Russian Pale of Settlement. He moved rapidly from Vitebsk to St. Petersburg, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and again France, the U.S.A., and France; he lived through three Russian revolutions, two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the rebirth of Israel...

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