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David Lyle Jeffrey


Beauty in an Ugly Time

Rouault and Chagall.

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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."

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