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Purim, c. 1916-1917
Marc Chagall, French (born Russia)
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Petrograd Murals

In 1916, while living in his native Russia, Marc Chagall was invited to create a series of large-scale murals of religious festivals for a Jewish secondary school adjacent to the main synagogue in Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg). Purim and Man with Lulav are important studies for this never-executed mural cycle, which would have allowed the artist to paint scenes evocative of his childhood as a Hasidic Jew in Vitebsk. Bright, warm colors and striding figures of grand proportion are the hallmark of such studies. Chagall also eschewed the Cubist fragmentation he had experimented with in Paris in favor of an easily comprehensible, faux-naïf style, which he probably felt was more suitable for schoolchildren. Unfortunately, at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Chagall had to abandon the mural commission--his first for a Jewish organization--so that he and his wife could return to the relative calm of Vitebsk.

Man with Lulav
Man with Lulav, c.1916-17
Marc Chagall, French (born Belorussia), 1887 - 1985
Pen and brown ink, watercolor, and wax crayon on paper, 10 ½ x 9 inches
Private Collection, Philadelphia
Twenty years later, political unrest would again alter the fate of Chagall’s Purim. The study was seized by Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party from the walls of the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, and shipped to Munich for inclusion in the state-sponsored exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). This exhibition--seen by more than three million people during its four-year tour of Germany, Austria, and Poland--used Nazi slogans and anti-Semitic captions to link modern art with social degeneracy and political subversion. Because of its Jewish theme, as well as its expressive use of non-naturalistic color and scale, Purim was featured in the exhibition and the related press as a paradigm of the art that the Nazi’s authoritarian agenda sought to repress.

In 1941, the same year that Entartete Kunst ended its tour, Chagall was able to flee France for the safety of New York. He continued to paint and make prints, as he had in Paris, but much of his work also dealt with the extreme danger and persecution confronting the Jewish people. One project from this period was a set of illustrations for the book Burning Lights, a memoir by Chagall’s wife Bella about her Jewish upbringing. His drawings of religious holidays and festivals appear based on his memory of works like Purim and Man with Lulav, thus preserving the legacy of his never-realized Petrograd mural commission.

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