Curator, Leah Dickerman: We’re looking at Marc Chagall’s I and the Village that the Russian artist made in Paris in 1911. And what you see when you look at this work of art is a brilliantly colored field in which the figure of a young peasant boy that some think might be Chagall himself stares intently at the image of a cow, and there’s a small, dotted line that connects the eyes of these two creatures and behind there’s an almost magical village in which a young peasant carries his scythe and a young woman floats upside down, and below at the bottom is a hand in which a flowering tree seems to grow. What you see in the work of art is a kind of conjuring of the place that he came from.
But I think it’s also important to think about the ways that this isn’t an actual depiction of a Jewish village in Russia. These villages were of course very, very poor and they had been wrecked by violent pogroms so it isn’t necessarily a wonderful place to be, as it’s depicted here, but it’s very much about being in Paris and thinking about home from a distance.
Chagall came of age in an important moment in which there was a flowering Yiddish renaissance in Russia, where it was possible for the first time for young Jewish artists to imagine a Jewish culture, a culture that wasn’t tied to a religious tradition, and they turned to Yiddish, the secular language, not Hebrew, the religious language to create this world that specifically addresses Jewish experience.