"Chagall: Love, War, and Exile" explores a significant but neglected period in the famed artist's career, from the rise of fascism in the 1930s through 1948.
Chagall, who was Jewish, spent those years in exile. First, he fled from Vitebsk, Russia soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, and settled in Paris in 1923. He fled World War Two Nazism in Paris in 1941, escaping by an invitation from New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Nazis had destroyed monographs about Chagall's work during the book burnings of 1933 in Berlin. The Nazis also confiscated his works from various museums and displayed many of them in their "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich in 1937.
"Chagall: Love, War, and Exile" "illuminates an artist deeply responsive to the suffering inflicted by war and to his own personal losses and concerns," The Jewish Museum says. "Most unexpected is the recurring appearance of the figure of the crucified Jesus as a metaphor for war and persecution."
Political realities of those times have a rare appearance in Chagall's unique phantasmagorical style, best-known for incorporating richly colored dreamlike Russian folk art motifs, childhood memories, the Russian Christian icon tradition, Cubism, and Surrealism.
"With the onset of the war and this second exile in New York, themes of violence and disruption characterize Chagall's work," the Jewish Museum notes. "Unlike his years in Paris, Chagall was never completely comfortable in New York City. The artist's ... alienation was compounded by a devastating personal tragedy, the sudden death of his wife, Bella, in Sept. 1944.
However, Chagall soon established a new relationship with Virginia Haggard McNeil, and moved with her to the Hudson Valley.
Gradually, in the mid-1940s, his work "begins to reflect a more familiar Chagall expressed in joy-filled paintings replete with intense color and levitating figures ... expressing the power of love," the museum adds.
"Chagall: Love, War, and Exile" has 30 paintings and 24 works on paper, as well as selected letters and poems by Chagall (1887-1985), one of the foremost modernists of the 20th century.
The show brings together significant works from major institutions and collections throughout the U.S., Europe, Israel, and South America. It is organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, the museum's senior curator, who wrote the exhibit catalogue, co-published by the museum and Yale University Press.
As Chagall once wrote, "If a painter is a Jew and paints life, how is he to keep Jewish elements out of his work! But if he is a good painter, his painting will contain a great deal more. The Jewish content will be there, of course, but his art will aim at universal relevance."
For more info: "Chagall: Love, War, and Exile", http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/chagall-love-war-exile, The Jewish Museum, http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, N.Y., N.Y. 212-423-3200. Sept. 15 through Feb. 2, 2014.