Whilst reading an article on the late painter Marc Chagall, born Moyshe (Moses) Shagal, in the Summer 2013 issue of Art Quarterly, I happened upon an explanation of Hasidic Judaism which I hope will interest you as much as it did me.

The following comes from an article — ‘An Angel in His Head’ — by poet, novelist and art critic Sue Hubbard on pages 58-61 of the magazine. Art Quarterly is sent to members of the Art Fund, which helps to keep British art and masterpieces which have been here for centuries in our country.

This is from page 60:

Hasidic Judaism — which means ‘piety’ — promotes spirituality through the popularisation of Jewish mysticism. Founded in Eastern Europe in the 18th century by Rabbi Israel Ball Shem Tov as a reaction against overly legalistic Judaism, Hasidic teachings cherished the sincerity and concealed holiness of the unlettered common folk. Many of these Jews tended to live in scattered villages far removed from intellectual centres. This populist emotional revival encouraged the belief that the ‘Immanent Divine’ resided in everything — something that gives a clue to Chagall’s internal world. This was emphasised by prayer and deeds of kindness that sat alongside the rabbinical tradition of study.

Many years ago, I read three Martin Buber books, full of teachings from the Eastern European Hasidic rabbis of that period. They were a pleasure. Tales of the Hasidim was my favourite Buber volume, and a copy of it is in my book collection. I highly recommend it. Not only are there many practical proverbs and folkloric anecdotes from the rabbis but guidance towards a life well lived through faith in God.

It is fascinating that both Christians and Jews gravitated towards pietism around the same time and for the same reasons. In each case, villagers rebelled against either an established Church or legalistic Judaism, both of which must have seemed remote to them. Fiddler on the Roof is a good example of Jewish pietism.

Christians might have had less of the mystical element in their pietism, but in both theirs and in the Hasidic counterpart, holiness, emotion, love, good deeds combined with a populist outlook to create an all-encompassing way of life.

Those who enjoy Chagall’s art know it revolves around love, a strong pietistic theme for both Christians and Jews.

Hubbard tells us (p. 58) that when Chagall was born in Vitebsk in Belarus near the Polish border in 1887, his parents — Yiddish speakers — found him a lifeless newborn. They pricked him with needles to elicit a reaction. They had no luck. So, they placed him in a trough of freezing water. Eventually, he whimpered.

He was a rather weak boy and young man. He had a stammer and was known to faint. To make up for this, his inner world became dreamlike and once he began painting, he chose love as his theme.

As would befit the pietist Hasidim, his family disapproved of Chagall’s boyhood interest in art (p. 60). They believe that none of God’s creation should be depicted graphically. He managed to grind his mother down enough to allow him to enrol in a local art class. However, once Chagall turned to art, one of his uncles refused to shake his hand.

In 1906, Chagall studied in St Petersburg at the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Fine Art. He left discouraged at the emphasis on classicist training he received. He later enrolled in the city’s Zvantseva School.

In 1911, he moved to Paris to continue painting. He was truly poverty-stricken and painted privately in the nude in order to save his threadbare clothes further wear and tear. He ate only half a herring a day. It took him a while to make friends in the city. He was not yet attending any art school, he did not speak French and he was under suspicion because he was a Jew. Eventually, he enrolled at the Académie La Palette and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In time, he made friends with a few other Jewish artists, Amedeo Modigliani among them. Cubism and Orphism were popular artistic themes of the day. In literature, Symbolism was all the rage; Chagall also got to know the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

However, love called him back to Vitebsk in 1914 (p. 61). He married Bella Rosenfeld, who came from a local wealthy family singularly unimpressed by Chagall’s general scruffiness. You might recall his painting of two lovers flying — that was meant to be him and Bella soaring over Vitebsk.

The Great War kept him in Vitebsk and he was appointed the city’s commissar for art. However, the city’s art school disliked Chagall’s style of art. They wanted the social realism of the fomenting Revolution. Chagall had supported the Revolution because he believed it would be good for the Jews, liberating them from the urban ghettos and rural shtetls, putting an end to decades of pogroms.

Chagall and Bella eventually moved to New York via Berlin and Paris. Chagall was unhappy in New York. Just as in Paris, his lack of language skills held him back. By now — 1941 — the Second World War was underway. Then, three years later, Bella died of a viral infection. He thought he had reached the abyss. After some time, he met a woman named Virginia McNeil. They had a son together, David, who took his mother’s surname. Virginia left him after seven years. Chagall’s daughter by Bella — Ida — then introduced him to a Russian, Valentina Brodsky, who became his housekeeper and, in time, his second wife.

Although Chagall knew the various artistic movements, some of the major artists of his time and was partially influenced by them, in the end he wrote (p. 61):

Only love interests me and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love … Art seems to me to be above all a state of soul … Let them eat their fill of their square pears on their triangular tables.

Those living in or near — or who plan to visit — Liverpool can view the exhibition ‘Chagall: Modern Master’ at the Tate Liverpool from 8 June to 6 October 2013.