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Examining artist Marc Chagall’s troubled relationship to Germany

Nazis confiscated and sold off many of this works
/ Source: The Associated Press

Artist Marc Chagall’s early admirers were German collectors.

But after the Nazis declared him a “degenerate” artist, and confiscated and sold off many of his works, he vowed never to set foot in Germany again.

A show that opened Monday at Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum and scheduled to travel to Berlin in May, examines the conflicting and fragile relationship the artist had with Germany.

“Admired and Ostracized — Chagall and Germany” looks at how German artists and collectors influenced and promoted Chagall’s early works, as well as how his use of Christian and Jewish symbolism in Holocaust-themed paintings found sympathy among Germans after World War II.

“We are not a retrospective but are showing a thematic relationship between Chagall and Germany that was influenced by its fragility,” Annette Weber, the show’s curator, said. Weber spent nearly three years pulling together the exhibit.

Highlighted in the show is a collection of paintings originally displayed in 1914 as part of Chagall’s first German exhibit in Der Sturm, a Berlin gallery. Although many of the paintings had already been on view in Paris, it was German collectors who bought them and promoted Chagall, hailing him as one of expressionism’s founders.

Fifteen of the works exhibited at the Jewish Museum have not been seen here since they were confiscated by the Nazis from private and public collections in the 1930s and sold abroad for profit; the history of each piece is traced on a placard alongside the artwork.

Weber said most were originally owned by museums and that curators had researched the pieces to ensure that none was open to claims by previous owners.

For example, the “Praying Jew,” initially displayed in Der Sturm, was acquired in 1933 by the Museum of the Jewish Community of Berlin, where it hung until the Nazis took it in 1938. The Nazis kept it in a basement through the war. In 1952, it was turned over to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Universal suffering of the HolocaustAfter the war, Chagall refused to visit Germany or to have his works displayed here. He relented in 1955 when a retrospective opened in Hanover.

Weber notes that although Chagall is considered either a Russian or a French artist, his etchings were profoundly influenced by the nine months he spent in Berlin in 1922-23, where he studied with artists of Berlin’s Jewish renaissance, including Jakob Steinhardt, Ludwig Meidner and Arn Nadel.

“The technique, the art of printing — all that he learned in Germany,” museum director Georg Heuberger said. “Without this, his etchings for ’The Fables of La Fontaine,’ or even the Bible, would not have been possible.”

Included in the exhibit is a collection of etchings called “My Life,” completed around Chagall’s Berlin stay. The works capture scenes from his life in the village of Vitebsk, in then-czarist Russia. Among them is a self-portrait that includes a rare depiction of his wife and child.

Another grouping includes several better-known later works that were prompted by the Holocaust. They feature combined Christian and Jewish symbolism set against backdrops of burning houses, fleeing peasants and slaughtered animals.

It was this unique view, according to Heuberger, that renewed German interest in Chagall’s art after World War II.

“The Germans had a particular relationship to Chagall’s reaction to the Holocaust. Why? It was that he depicted the issue not only as a German-Jewish one, but as a symbol of universal human suffering,” Heuberger said.

The show runs in Frankfurt until April 18 before moving to the Max-Liebermann-Haus in Berlin, May 1-Aug. 1.