Marc Chagall (Moishe Shagal) was born in 1887 near the city of Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement. The Pale of Settlement was a stretch of land at the western border of the Russian Empire that included modern Ukrain, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, where all the Jews of the Empire were confined to live under strict regulations. This restriction gave rise to the Shtetls, the typical Jewish market-villages of Eastern Europe that provided the community with everything from schools and hospitals to an own language and identity.
At the time of Chagall’s childhood Vitebsk had a population of approx. 66,000 people; half of the population was Jewish. The city was almost completely built from wood. And though his father was employed by a herring merchant, doing what Chagall recalls as ‘hellish work, the work of a galley slave’, and his mother sold groceries from home, the main source of income of the Jewish population in town was from manufacture of clothes, furniture and various agricultural tools.
Chagall was the youngest of six children. His parents were observant Hasidic Jews. Despite or because of their hard lives they found spiritual satisfaction in a life defined by their faith and organized by prayer, though this made them outsiders in a frequently hostile society. It made his father get up every morning summer or winter at 6 o’clock to go to the synagogue and pray.
This, his Jewish identity as the boy from simple means from the rich, but doomed culture of the shtetl, influenced Chagall throughout his career. Whether he lived in Russia, France or found temporary refuge in the US, whether he tried his hand in Cubism, Symbolism, Fauvism or Surrealism, he always remained the homesick boy, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk.
He was homesick for a place he left in favor of his passion and life: art. And soon he was homesick for a place that didn’t exist anymore but in his memories and dreams (from a population of 240,000 at the time of Nazi invasion only 118 inhabitants of Vitebsk survived WWII and the city was mostly burnt down). He used his art to keep dreams alive as well as the memory of his wife Bella, who died in 1944 – a death that blended in his mind with those of the millions of victims though it happened thousands of miles apart and in the security of New York. Had he known of the Avengers he probably had wished them to come to the rescue. So, I sent them out.
But this isn’t just about the extinction of a unique, Jewish way of life by Nazis. Just as the extinction of the Dodo isn’t just about the disappearance of a hobnailed, flightless bird from a tiny island that didn’t know any predators until humans landed at the island’s shore. It is about diversity – evolution’s greatest strength and nature’s biggest beauty – that frightens us humans and can bring out the worst in us.
Being different was the key to survival for our earliest ancestors. Being different is the key to success for a company in a crowded market. Being different is the strength of every actor, writer, singer or artist. Being different is what enables The Avengers to become heroes.
But until the success becomes visible, and often even after, being different in whatever way equals bearing a scarlet letter. It turns you into the miscellaneous group of ‘them’ that has to be distinguished from the ‘us’ by any means. It is what made us introduce terms like race, nation and culture, but also normal into our thinking and acting.
While it isn’t the diversity that should scare us, but the idea that ‘us’ is superior and hence preferable to ‘them’, because ‘us’ and ‘them’ are as interchangeable as label as ever can be, it is apparently as much part of human being as the need to find a place to belong is. And so The Avengers remain misfits as well with an idealized place of their dreams worth keeping alive and defending; very much like Chagall.
It brings to mind another world filled with Joss Whedon’s creativity and a quote whereof: Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh and cruel. But that’s why there is us (ahem): Champions. It doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered or even if we make a difference. We live as through the world were as it should be to show it what it can be.
OK, I can live with that ‘us’.
(All painting of mine are acrylic on 73.5 x 51 cm paper)