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National Gallery of Canada shouldn’t sell a Chagall

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Chagall's La Tour Eiffel.

Marc Chagall is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century but very few of his paintings are owned by Canadian public art museums. The Art Gallery of Ontario has only one that I know of (not currently on display). By contrast, the National Gallery of Canada is lucky enough to have three of these treasures.

But in an act of what can only be properly described as ignorance tinged with madness, it now proposes to offer one of them, La Tour Eiffel, for auction next month in order to fund the acquisition of some undisclosed, unidentified work of, it assures us, importance to Canadian heritage that is in danger of leaving Canada.

La Tour Eiffel was selected as the sacrificial lamb because it is considered “a spare” given that two will still remain. This perverse justification is like saying if you have three children you should place one for adoption, or if you have three boys you might trade one of them to a family that has an extra girl (especially if she is in danger of leaving Canada). This leads me to believe that the real reason the National Gallery’s directors have approved the sale is that they don’t truly understand what is happening in a Chagall painting. If they did, they would never have allowed such a travesty.

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Chagall is not just someone with a superhuman ability to blend colour and form. Nor did he paint farm animals and Jews because he felt nostalgia for or dreamed about his childhood shtetl, Vitebsk, in Belarus. (In truth, Vitebsk never was a shtetl; when Chagall lived there it was a city of over 65,000, more than half of them Jews, and a Russian army headquarters during the First World War.)

This kind of superficial reading of his work– which, in fairness, is proliferated not just by the National Gallery but also by other museums to their visitors – fails to explain the characters floating in the sky, the heads severed from their bodies, the Jews playing violins on the roofs of the ramshackle dwellings, the horbuns, they inhabited. His  “decapitations” are depictions of the mind separating itself from and soaring above the pain of the body.

Chagall’s works consider the same theme: the human spirit transcends the physical world. Look at Over Vitebsk, with the Jewish beggar plodding his mendicant way through the sky above the frozen city, or Le Violiniste, which depicts a  Jew playing the violin, dominating the town from a rooftop. In these paintings Chagall is saying that these Jews may have been poverty stricken, persecuted, never knowing when the next pogrom would start, oppressed and living in dirt  – but because they used their minds and their imaginations they rose above their miserable physical circumstances. (Vitebsk would certainly have been the inspiration for that theme: its Jewish progeny included Zhores Alferov, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 2000, S. Ansky, author of The Dybbuk, and Isser Harel, the legendary head of the Mossad who supervised the capture of Adolf Eichmann and whose intelligence service was the only one  that succeeded in obtaining  a copy of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech in which he outlined Stalin’s  crimes  to a closed session of the 20th Congress of the  Communist party in 1956.) This theme can even be seen in La Tour Eiffel. Imagine the picture without the tower and then view it again, as painted.

Let’s assume that the mystery work the National Gallery is pursuing is so valuable that something else has to go to raise money to buy it. Why, with tens of thousands works of art in its possession, could the gallery not auction off something else? If sold at auction, La Tour Eiffel might never be seen again by the public. It could fall into the hands of a private collector, or be moved to a site, like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where people will have a hard time viewing it.

That would be a tragedy for art lovers and the National Gallery, whose mission statement reads: “The collection opens the way for appreciation of the finest in artistic expression… The collection must be expanded, preserved, interpreted, and used extensively by the public for pleasure and understanding, for research and the advancement of knowledge.”

The National Gallery’s board of directors would do well to recite that mantra and seriously rethink selling a Chagall.

Murray Teitel is a Toronto barrister and freelance journalist.