Monday, January 16, 2017

Marc Chagall's Praying Jew and the origins of the Jewish People.

The latest edition of Segula Magazine features an interview with Aharon Melamed, a former Haifa District Judge. One of the illustrations caught my eye. It was a reproduction of Marc Chagall's famous painting Praying Jew. As you can see from the caption, the subject of the article is convinced that it is based on a true live portrait of his direct ancestor. This, incidentally, does not jibe with Chagall's own recollections as recorded in his autobiography My Life see here

In his 1931 autobiography, My Life, Chagall related how, while visiting Vitebsk (present-day Belarus), the city in which he was born, he realized that the traditions in which he had grown up were fast disappearing and that he needed to document them. He paid a beggar to pose in his father’s prayer clothes and then painted him, limiting his palette primarily to black and white, as befit the solemnity of the subject.

Be it as it may, the painting reminded me of the now widely discredited book The Thirteenth Tribe by Hungarian Jewish novelist, Arthur Koestler. This painting graces its cover. As you can see, the painting on the cover differs slightly from the other one. This is because Chagall made three different versions of it see here

Chagall often painted variants or replicas of works he particularly loved. The Art Institute’s Praying Jew is one of three versions of this composition. He painted the original canvas in 1914, and when he traveled back to Paris in 1923, he took this painting with him. He learned upon his return that much of the work he had left in France had been lost during World War I. This prompted him to make two versions of The Praying Jew before it left his studio: they are the present work and another in the Ca’ Pesaro, Venice; the original is now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. The later compositions differ from the original only in small details.

If Aharon Melamed is indeed correct, however, it magnifies Koestler's ironic choice of jacket design. The Melamed family is one of those old established 'litvak' families who descend from the earliest Sephardic and Ashkenazic families.


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