Saturday, January 2, 2010
Small Museum Captures a Rare Chagall
The London Jewish Museum of Art is a scrappy young institution, created in 2001 and camped in rented space in St. John’s Wood, off the beaten track of London’s art world.
But over the last nine years the museum has been diligently trying to forge a reputation for itself, adding more than 100 works to an already substantial collection that grew out of that of the Ben Uri Gallery, a Jewish artists’ society founded in London in 1915.
So when David Glasser, one of the museum’s chairmen, was perusing a Paris auction catalog a few months ago, he found it hard to believe what he saw: a previously unknown 1945 gouache by Marc Chagall. It was one of a small group of images Chagall made in direct response to the Holocaust, after he and his wife had fled France in 1941, after the German occupation and after he had begun to learn the details of the Nazi atrocities.
The gouache on heavy paper, which Chagall signed and titled himself lightly with a pencil in Russian — “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” — employs one of his familiar motifs, an image of a crucified Jesus, which he used as a metaphor for persecuted Jewry. But this crucifixion, painted in New York, where Chagall settled for several years, is one of the most brutal and disturbing ever created by an artist primarily known for his brightly colored folkloric visions.
“Apocalypse” shows a naked Christ screaming at a Nazi storm trooper below the cross, who has a backwards swastika on his arm, a Hitler-like mustache and a serpentine tail. Another small figure can be seen crucified and a second being hanged, and a man appears to be poised to stab a child. A damaged, upside-down clock falls from the sky. The darkness and directness of the work may have been a response not only to the war but also to the death of Chagall’s wife, Bella, a year earlier from a viral infection that might have been treated if not for wartime medicine shortages.
Chagall, who lived to be 97, always kept the work for himself, and two years after he died, in 1985, his son, David McNeil, sold it to a private collector in the South of France, near where Chagall died. There it remained, out of circulation and missing from the vast literature that grew up around Chagall’s long career.
Mr. Glasser, a retired executive and art collector, decided that the London Jewish Museum of Art, which had recently acquired significant works by painters including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, needed to do everything in its power to buy the painting, whose estimate was modest, 25,000 to 35,000 euros (about $36,000 to $50,000), in part, he thought, because the work was selling in Paris and not in London or New York, but primarily because it was so obscure and so ominous.
“Who’d want to have this on the wall in their house?” Mr. Glasser said recently. “But as a piece of history, it is hugely important. And for us, we considered it a magnificent opportunity.”
Within hours he wrote an application to the Art Fund, the 106-year-old philanthropy that helps British institutions acquire works and that had provided assistance in the purchase of several of the museum’s recent additions to its collection. The museum — whose advisers include the sculptor Anthony Caro, the architect Daniel Libeskind, the Paris dealer Lionel Pissarro (a great-grandson of the painter) and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate — had privately estimated that the work could sell for as much as 300,000 euros (about $430,000).
The fund received the request on a Monday, and by Thursday had dispatched one of its trustees, Wendy Baron, an informal adviser to the London Jewish Museum of Art, to Paris to see the gouache in the showroom at the Tajan auction house.
“It was very powerful, a knockout,” Ms. Baron, an expert on modern British art, said on Thursday in a telephone interview. “In fact, I was very worried in the sale room to see other people looking closely at it.”
The fund agreed to provide up to 100,000 euros (about $143,000) to help the museum win the work if competition materialized. But in the end, at a poorly attended sale in late October, Mr. Glasser was able to buy it for 30,000 euros (about $43,000) with money provided by one of the museum’s benefactors. After remaining silent about it for several weeks amid worries that France might decide to use its pre-emption laws to void the sale and keep the work for a French institution, the painting, 20 by 14 inches, was shipped to London.
And beginning on Thursday, it will go on public display for the first time, at the Osborne Samuel gallery in Mayfair, before moving into the museum’s permanent collection at the end of the month. In going on view, it will become another of the notable publicly exhibited examples of Chagall’s wartime imagery, like the “Yellow Crucifixion” from 1943, at the Georges Pompidou Center, and the “White Crucifixion” from 1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Although in many of his works Chagall had reacted to events in Germany, he usually did not depict them but used symbols — such as the crucifixion, a Jew holding a Torah, a mother protecting her child or a falling angel — to suggest what was happening there,” writes Ziva Amishai-Maisels, a Chagall scholar and professor emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in a catalog to accompany the exhibition of the painting. “Although he still used some of these symbols in ‘Apocalypse,’ he combined them with the reality of the Holocaust in a manner that was very rare in his work. This and the way he depicted the conflict between the Nazi and the naked Christ make this a unique work.”
Ms. Baron, of the Art Fund, agreed. “I think it is really a tremendous coup,” she said, “to get it for this collection and for the country.”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 2:51 AM