David Lyle Jeffrey
Beauty in an Ugly Time
Sometimes we think of modernism in art as a period of great liberation from the constraints of the past, of the triumphant emergence to dominance of secularism and the demise of religion. This cliché overlooks, of course, the unprecedented violence of the 20th century, the horrible deaths of score of millions of people just because of their religious identity—Jews in the Holocaust and Christian martyrs all over the globe. Response to real evil is exceedingly various; many an artist has been driven to outrage or despair, others to self-indulgence and escapism. The recent exhibition at Baylor University of Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre series and Marc Chagall's Bible series (both made possible through a gracious loan of collections by the Mark Foster Family Foundation) offered an opportunity to reflect on an aspect of modernity so obtrusive that no artist concerned for truth can entirely overlook it: the monstrous fact of human suffering on such a scale.
Rouault's etchings, which have been called the most powerful single work of Christian art in the 20th century, and Chagall's etchings of the covenant narratives, often regarded as the high watermark of 20th-century etching overall, were made in war-ravaged France. Rouault did his work from 1914-27; Chagall's work was begun in 1931-39 and only completed between 1952 and 1956. Anchoring the work of both artists, literally and figuratively, are reflections on the meaning of the Crucifixion of the Suffering Servant for modern man.
Rouault's images are far too strong to absorb entirely in a single viewing, etched powerfully in dark ink, bordered in black like a funeral notice. Together they capture an overwhelming truth unflinchingly: as Rouault puts it in one of his images, "Man is a wolf to man" (number 37 in the series). Rouault's Miserere forces us to consider what it is that we have become. "Are we not all convicts?" (6) he asks—and are we not all self-deceived? "Who does not paint on a face?" (8). Who is free from having become, whether in denial or evasion, what Walker Percy has called "a phony self"? "We like to believe we are kings" (9) when in fact we are knaves. The truth is that in our false self-liberation we have made ourselves almost absolutely lonely, "Solitaire en cette vie …" (11). For Rouault, this is the deeper reality about modern man—psychologically, sociologically, and theologically. To show these things is to tell a necessary truth.
Accordingly, in this series by Rouault we see the greatest Catholic painter of the early 20th century effectively acting as a confessor, a priest-artist, analyzing sin and its consequences, showing us how "the wages of sin is death." Fortunately, this is not all. He also shows us how into the radical alienation of modern humanity Christ still comes, identifying with our disconsolate sorrow and brokenness, standing in our stead, one with us even in our deserved condemnation (18, 21). For Rouault, the only enduring consolation of our broken world is the wounded Christ, who, in the words he borrows from the Suffering Servant poem (Isa. 53), was "wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities." It is no accident that the "Veronica" image from the Franciscan-inspired Stations of the Cross is the envelope structure for his great series, or that the last image of the penitential pilgrimage on which he guides the viewer is captioned by another line from Isaiah 53: "By his stripes we are healed." This, for Rouault, is the "true image," the Terrible Beauty in which alone we find redemption.
Marc Chagall is sometimes viewed as an artistic lusus naturae, a brilliant modernist whose work refuses every convenient category: Jewish, yet whose tender crucifixions are an outrage to Jews; a man in whose art the deepest spirit of Hasidism breathes, yet who, after he left his Belarus village, was at best lax in observance; a sometime cubist and quasi-surrealist who rejected both cubism and surrealism; a friend and admirer of Picasso who rejected outright Picasso's attitude to women and to marriage. There is no denying that his Bible etchings are both textually informed and alert to their own narratives of sorrow as well as the promises of the covenant. Yet his Bible innovates in ways that, like his paintings celebrating marriage and orthodox Jewish life, reveal a deeply personal commitment beyond horror to beauty.
In the terror of the 1930s, as European Jews were struggling to maintain religious identity, when assimilation could seem the only viable option for survival, there were other attempts made by Jewish intellectuals to return the Bible to modern consciousness. One thinks of the brilliant essays of Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig, for example, as they planned their new translation of the Bible—a translation which was cut off by terrible events. After the hideous revelations of the Holocaust in 1945, for more than a generation many a Jew recoiled from the Bible and the God of the Bible. But Chagall's Bible is contra, in some ways a visual analogue for the projected translation of Buber and Rosensweig. As with Rouault's Miserere, this work had been commissioned by the art publisher Ambrose Vollard, a man of impeccable taste and tyrannical practices. When Vollard died in 1939, Chagall was already so depressed by events in Europe that he seemed only too glad to abandon the work (only 66 of the eventual 105 plates had by then been finished). When he then lost his beloved first wife Bella in 1943, his darkness deepened. Only after the war, his return to France, and, especially, his joyous second marriage to Valentine Brodsky ("Vava") in 1952 was Chagall to take up his work again in earnest. Her encouragement was clearly decisive. Not only did he become extraordinarily prolific, but he returned to the color and hope that had so marked his early work.
That the joyful life must be nourished by participation of the individual in a story larger than his own is everywhere a theme in Chagall. The individual who makes a choice for life, and for others, finds joy in others and thus in life. It was as though Chagall had considered most seriously the choice set forth in Deuteronomy (30:19), and, for his own part, in the face of so much death, chosen life. It is as if "L'chaim" became his motto, his painting a joyously affirmative Mishneh Torah of images.
Chagall's Bible is also midrash. Instead of ending his series, as one would expect, with Ezra and Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls, he ends it with a striking image from Ezekiel (105), in which the prophet is commanded to "eat the scroll" (Ezek. 3:1-4). Chagall's rendition is as literal as could be—much more so, say, than Albrecht Dürer's plate for the parallel passage in Revelation (10:8-11). The human quality of it, as of all of the plates in the second half of the series especially, is beautifully tender, yet rests on the narrative just as it is given. But it was clearly of the greatest importance to Chagall that he end his series in this way—not chronologically, so to speak, but on a point of hermeneutic and spiritual principle consistent with what he shows as the essential prophetic injunction. The image invokes Hebrew wordplay familiar from Joshua 1:8, where Moses, first of the prophets, charged Joshua that "the book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate on it day and night"; the image of ingesting the word, "ruminating" on it rather than merely reading it over, is reflected in the connection of "mouth" and "meditate." The verb here invoked is hagah; it recurs in Psalm 1:2, and it implies "chewing the cud" like the clean beasts, effectively living by constant rumination on God's word. Chagall has a beautiful but otherwise curious day/night painting in which a rabbi in his prayer shawl cradles a Torah scroll, clearly praying. Beside him a white cow, smiling, chews its cud. Between them lies a violin, the typical Hasidic symbol for all the arts. By art, too, Chagall seems to say, one can meditate on the Word. Behind them and over the peacefully sleeping city hovers an angel, suggesting that in the fullness of such reflection the shalom of the city may be restored. This painting is called "Solitude," but in striking contrast to Rouault's images of "solitary" figures, represents a solitude in which one who meditates is never alone.
Chagall's prophetic art is thus a splendid complement to the confessional work of Rouault. Rouault invites us to give up our masks, to accept the identification that Christ's suffering affords as the "true image" of God's love for us. Chagall's work encourages us to choose life, and to nourish ourselves deeply, whether by day or by night, in the Word of the One who bade us to live in the joy of his giving. Each series is striking; when seen together we know how joy is an answer to sorrow, and beauty is made all the more urgent a choice when so much ugliness abounds.
In other arts there are analogues. Phil Ochs, a compatriot of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, turned away from his usual topical and anti-war songs to make an eccentric and mysterious album, Pleasures of the Harbor (1967). He had been away for a year in the UK, taking stock of his life. On the back of the album sleeve is a poem by Ochs describing a profound tension he feels, including his apprehension about returning: "To face the unspoken unguarded thoughts of habitual hearts / A vanguard of electricians a village full of tarts / Who say you must protest, you must protest / It is your diamond duty."
To which he answers: "Ah, but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty."
Pleasures of the Harbor may be one of the most beautiful albums of all the Vietnam era—hauntingly so; its final cut, "Crucifixion," is strikingly reminiscent of both Chagall and Rouault.
Ochs' "true protest" seems to me to be the protest that a great artist best can make, for whom the choice for life and joy is the very essence of artistic affirmation. What Rouault and Chagall, each in his own way, tell us, is that such a choice is grounded in an order of hope far more theological than political, and that when expressed in art, beautifully wrought by a master, it opens us up to the deepest comfort and most nourishing spiritual meditation.
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and, since 1996, Guest Professor of Peking University. His volume on Luke in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible was published earlier this year.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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