News that the famous Louvre Museum in Paris allegedly exhibited antisemitism is shocking, but perhaps not surprising, given France’s long history of animosity towards Jews. Simon Kent reported:
The Louvre in Paris has been reported to French police after a group booking by Israeli art students was refused.
Tel Aviv University art professor Sefy Hendler, said he had emailed the historic museum to make a group booking for 12 of his students visiting Paris last month. After a brief exchange his request was turned down and he was told that no tickets were available.
Mr Hendler contacted the Sainte-Chapelle, the 13th-century church that contains what is said to be Christ’s crown of thorns and received the same rejection.
Surprised by the “bizarre” replies, he immediately sent fictitious queries to the two institutions. These were on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Art History College and the Florence Art Institute. These bookings from non-Jewish groups were processed without difficulty.
“I was upset and profoundly shocked,”
Mr Hendler said.
Paris prosecutors have opened a criminal inquiry to determine whether the Israeli students were victims of discrimination — an offence which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of €75,000.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Mr Hendler’s own personal opinion of the rejection was that it stemmed from “bad will” toward Israel.
“I think it’s a typical [case] of people in positions of power [discriminating] behind their anonymity as public officers. I hope I’m wrong. If not it’s terrible for France.”
France has a longstanding tradition of “universal access to culture” that Mr Hendler said he cherishes, which is a “principle that the French have defended for centuries.”
It’s a sad reality that, however great a contribution Jews have made to the culture of a country, it doesn’t provide immunity from antisemitism. What is particularly ironic is that Chagall – a Jewish artist who made Paris his home – was feted and his works hang in many galleries there, including the Louvre. So admired was he, that at the age of 90 Chagall became the first living artist to be exhibited at the Louvre.
Chagall came from a traditional Jewish family in Russia, and even though he flouted the convention of the day by becoming an artist, he remained proud of his heritage. He spent much of his life in France, his adopted country:
Moishe Segal was born in 1887 in Vitebsk in a simple Jewish family. His father Zakhar was a loader employed by a herring merchant, his mother Feige-Ite ran a little shop, his grand-father worked as a teacher and a cantor in a synagogue. Being a child Moishe went to a primary Jewish religious school, then to gymnasium despite the fact that in tsarist Russia Jewish children were banned to study at secular schools. 19-years old Moishe entered the private School of drawing and painting of Yehuda Pen under the influence of his mother though his father was strongly against it.
Moishe was the eldest of nine children and all domestics as well as neighbors, merchants and simple men served him as models. Wooden houses, onion-like church cupolas, small grocery of his mother, Jewish Commandments, traditions and feasts, all this simple and difficult but so “solid” life rooted itself into the boy’s heart for ever and images of native Vitebsk have been always repeated in his works.
In 1910 the young painter was given a scholarship enabling him to go to Paris for studies. After arrival in Paris Moishe Segal adopted a pseudonym and became henceforth Marc Chagall in the French manner. During his first year in Paris Marc Chagall rented a studio in Montparnasse. He attended various classes in free academies of arts, painted at nights and spent whole days visiting exhibitions, salons and galleries and absorbing art skills of great masters: Delacroix, Courbet, Cezanne, Gaugin, van Gogh and many others. He had a perfect feeling of colors and mastered very soon fauvism methods.
In 1911 Chagall moved to the “La Rouche” building that became a kind of squat art center and shelter for lots of poor foreign painters. Here Chagall made acquaintance of a great number of Paris bohemians – poets and painters; he mastered methods of new trends and tendencies – cubism, futurism and orphism – having as always reshaped them in his own way; here he scored his first serious successes: “The Violinist”, “To My Betrothed”, “Golgotha”, “Paris Through the Window”. In spite of his absolute and complete immersion in Paris artistic milieu, Marc Chagall didn’t forget native Vitebsk. Such works as “The Pinch of Snuff”, “The Cattle Dealer”, “I and the Village” are filled with love and nostalgia.
In 1931 Marc Chagall and his family visited Palestine. The painter discovered the land of his ancestors and perceived the center of his faith. According to Marc Chagall, several months spent in the Holy Land made on him the greatest impression than anything before. After returning to Paris, he set to a new project – illustration of the Bible.
At the end of 1930s Germany was listening to Hitler’s speeches and hearing steps of Nazi boots. New anti-Semitic laws had been adopted, Munich hosted an exhibition “Degenerate art”, showing among others Chagall’s paintings. Once again Europe sank into the darkness of war. Thanks to the help of the Emergency Committee to Save European Jewry and consul of the USA in Marseille Marc Chagall and his family escaped to the USA and brought with them his paintings.
In August 1944 the Chagall’s learnt with joy that Paris was liberated from Nazis. The end of the war was approaching and they were impatient to return in France. But in a couple of days, on the 2nd of September Bella died of sepsis in a local hospital. “Everything is covered with darkness”. The painter was completely stunned by his sudden grief and restarted working only nine months later in order to create two paintings in memory of his beloved: “The Wedding Lights” and “Around Her”.
… Due to his success in the USA that made him a well-to-do person Chagall managed to move definitively to France that had already become so native and dear for him. Unfortunately, his friend and permanent client Vollard had died at the beginning of the Second World War… Bible scenes always accompanied creative life of the painter; Marc Chagall resorted to this topic at the end of his life… he made lots of paintings, drawings, engravings, glass and ceramic paintings, tapestries for the Bible in French. All these works formed “Message Biblique” to the world. Specially for this “Message” Marc Chagall opened a kind of museum in Nice in 1973. This “temple” was recognized as official national museum by French government.
At the beginning of 1960s he made mosaics and tapestries for parliament building in Jerusalem ordered by the government of Israel. After this success Chagall…received numerous orders to decorate Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches as well as synagogues all over Europe, America and Israel.
In 1964 Marc Chagall painted the ceiling for the Paris Opera under the order of French president Charles de Gaulle, in 1966 he made two panels for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1972 he decorated the building of the National Bank in Chicago with the mosaic “Four Seasons”. In 1966 Chagall moved to a house-studio specially built for him in the province of Nice – Saint-Paul-de-Vence. …In 1977 Chagall was awarded the highest French decoration – the Cross of the Legion of Honour and his personal exhibition was organized in Louvre in 1977-1978, timed to the 90th anniversary of the painter. Contrary to all rules Louvre hosted exhibition of still living artist!
Until his very last day Marc Chagall worked at paintings, mosaics, stained glass windows, sculptures, ceramics and theater sets. On the 28th of March 1985 97-year old painter died in the elevator after a whole day spent in his studio. He died “flying”, as he had been once foretold by a Gipsy and as he often represented himself at his pictures.
Perhaps most well known to Jewish readers are the magnificent Chagall Windows at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem:
“This is my modest gift to the Jewish people who have always dreamt of biblical love, friendship and of peace among all peoples. This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years ago among the other Semitic people.” Marc Chagall, February 6, 1962
The light that emanates from the twelve stained glass windows bathes the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in a special glow. The sun filters through the brilliant colors of the stained glass capturing their radiance. Even in the misty haze of a cloudy day, Chagall’s genius transforms time and space.
Standing within the simple square that forms the pedestal for the windows, gazing up at the vivid imagery, the Jewish symbols, the floating figures of animals, fish and flowers, even the most casual viewer is overwhelmed by their power and presence.
Every pane is a microcosm of Chagall’s world, real and imaginary; of his love for his people, his deep sense of identification with Jewish history, his early life in the Russian shtetl.
“All the time I was working, I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder; and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews — of yesterday and a thousand years ago,”
The Bible was his primary inspiration, particularly Jacob’s blessings on his twelve sons and Moses’ blessings on the twelve tribes. Each window is dominated by a specific color and contains a quotation from the individual blessings.
The synagogue was dedicated in the presence of the artist on February 6, 1962 as part of Hadassah’s Golden Anniversary Celebration.
Chagall’s legacy is promoted widely in French tourism sites:
Marc Chagall created a genre virtually his own with his lively, large-scale renderings of Russian village life, as filtered through the prism of Yiddish folklore, and his illustrations of folk tales and Bible stories.
Chagall’s Jewish heritage and his reliance on the culture of the shtetl (East European Jewish village) for his inspiration and subject matter provide a link between two otherwise separate careers. He was trained in Saint Petersburg and at an early age came under the lasting influence of Leon Bakst and the Russian ballet.
Chagall’s highly imaginative and very personal style took shape after he moved (1910) to Paris, where he became associated with the celebrated school of Paris. His dreamlike images had some of the characteristics later associated with surrealism… Chagall returned to Russia in 1914, and at first welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917. He became commissar of fine arts (1918) in his native Vitebsk and director (1919-20) of the local art academy. Disagreements with the suprematist Kasimir Malevich, however, resulted in Chagall’s departure for Moscow, where he designed sets for the Karmerny State Jewish Theater.
His return to Paris in 1923 inaugurated a second career, not only as a painter with a rich, poetic sense of fantasy and color, but also as a graphic artist of distinction. The Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower (1939; artist’s collection, Saint-Paul, France) is representative of this second period, as are his illustrations for La Fontaine’s Fables and for the Bible. At the suggestion of New York‘s Museum of Modern Art, Chagall spent World War II in the United States, where he again designed for the ballet, including Stravinsky’s Firebird (1945).
Chagall’s later work, infused with strong religious overtones, includes stained-glass windows (1960-61) for the Hadassah-Hebrew University hospital synagogue in Jerusalem and mosaics and tapestries (1966) for the Israeli Knesset. The popular success of his designs for the dome of the Paris Opera in 1964 led to a commission (1966) for two enormous murals in the foyer of New York‘s Metropolitan Opera House. A Chagall museum is located in Nice, France.
In view of France’s longstanding tradition of “universal access to culture”, it is extremely disappointing – not to mention disrespectful to Chagall’s memory – to find the guardians of that culture denying access to Israeli students, especially given the artists’ deep sense of identification with Jewish history. What better way to end than by quoting Chagall’s words at the inauguration of his magnificent windows in the Synagogue of Hadassah Hospital in 1962: