Once in his or her lifetime, every painter turns out a work of art coming from the heart in which he or she pours out their guts. If that's a little too anatomical for you, perhaps the word "soul" might be more appropriate. Picasso had his Guernica. Michelangelo had his Sistine Ceiling. Gericault called his The Raft of the Medusa. For Marc Chagall, it was The White Crucifixion. Painted in 1938, it may well have been influenced by Guernica, painted less than a year before. But what makes The White Crucifixion so startling was that it was painted by a Jew. More than that, it was not Chagall's first crucifixion. In 1912, while under Cubist influences, he painted Golgotha, heavily laden with blues and greens, a much less impressive though thoroughly "expressive" work.
The White Crucifixion is enigmatic. To describe it, the roughly square painting depicts a slightly distorted crucified Christ clad, not in the traditional loin cloth, but a Jewish prayer shawl; the cross bathed in a blistering white beam of light from above while all around are elements of the Jewish unrest and persecution taking place in Germany and Russia at the time. A synagogue burns, homes are destroyed, the Red Army marches, no match for the impending holocaust. The white and gray tones of the overall painting make all the more disturbing the bursts of color as refugees flee aboard a boat or on foot, attempting to rescue sacred scrolls, or merely themselves, from the onslaught of terror. This was Marc Chagall's Guernica.
Knowing what we do about Chagall, the pre-WW II history of Europe, Jewish traditions, the Holocaust, and all the other baggage this painting carries with it, makes understanding it all the more difficult. Of course Chagall was outraged and fearful of what he knew and heard of the plight of Jews in Europe. But what is he trying to say, juxtaposing all this against the merciless whiteness of a crucifixion? Was he portraying the persecution of the Jews as retribution for a Jewish role in the crucifixion? Was he simply portraying Christ's crucifixion as the ultimate Jewish persecution? Perhaps he was equating it to the quiet desperation of Jews in the world at the time? Whatever the case, the experience of the painting is one of immense tragedy, made all the more powerful to us now by the (then) unknown and unfathomable horrors that were to come.