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"The Green Violinist" by Marc Chagall

Posted by on in Fiddler on the Roof
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This painting, the inspiration for the title of the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is also the inspiration for the "Dream Scene" in our production. Get your tickets now and enjoy an afternoon of magical theater in the woods.

The following is excerpted from a "Truth in Art" column by W. Scott Lamb entitled The Green Violinist by Marc Chagall:

“A fiddler on the roof. It sounds crazy, no?” asks the poor Jewish milkman. “In our little village of Anatevka you might say every one of us is a fiddler on a roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask why do we stay up here if it is so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance. That I can tell you in one word. Tradition!” (from the opening of Fiddler on the Roof)

Fiddler on the Roof is loosely based on a novel called "Tevye, the Milkman," written by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem and published in 1894. At the time of its publication and in roughly the same area of the world, another Jewish Russian was experiencing life in similar fashion to the fictional characters of Anatevka. The boy’s name was Moishe Shagal, but the world knows him best as Marc Chagall, one of the best-known painters of the 20th century.

Even though Chagall moved away from his hometown of Vitebsk, the town remained a part of his memory and is reflected in The Green Violinist – a merry celebration of the tension between change and continuity of our lives. Chagall painted this in 1923-1924, thirty years after Aleichem’s novel and forty years before the Broadway production of Fiddler (which took Chagall’s painting as inspiration for the title of the musical).

The painting itself is enjoyable. Set against a bland backdrop of grey, brown, and black, a geometrically-inspired man in vibrant secondary colors (purple, orange, and green) plays a violin while standing on top of two houses. And check out that purple coat with triangle patterns! The painting is intended to make us reflect on the transitory and changing nature of the world in which we live. How should we respond to change and how should we relate to the past?

Imagine the historical changes that took place in Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk. When Chagall was born, the town was under Tsarist rule. The Communist revolution brought political change and much turmoil. The Nazis took over the town for over three years, during which time 150,000 Jews died. Then, the Soviet Union took over the area and ruled until 1991.  

How does one move forward into the future while not losing the essential character of who they are? In Jewish villages, the fiddler would come out and play at births, weddings, deaths – all transforming events that cause us to reflect on the past, present, and future.

Regarding tradition, Fiddler’s Tevye says, “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you!  I don’t know. But it’s a tradition... and because of our traditions... Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

There is real tension between the forces that pull us forward and those that keep us in the past. Chagall’s fiddler is a modern Moses, commanding the people to remember the past even as they experience the change of the present and the promise of the future. The fiddler stands for joyful tradition, even while playing out to people leaving the village (horse and cart at top left) and finding freedom elsewhere (man floating off the page at top). The drumbeat of change will not stay outside of this man’s town, and yet the dog reminds us of fidelity to some part of the past. The ladder is at once both bound and free, one end on the ground and the other in the air. The tree itself is barren, but the bird in the branch reminds us of Chagall’s use of birds as a symbol of freedom.

And the fiddler himself is standing on and above the bedrock institutions of his village – home and synagogue. He is larger-than-life and yet his feet are still connected to things of the earth. This fiddler, central to “the tradition” of the village is also alive and well even in the midst of the fast-paced changes all around him. And the purple speaks of stable passion, emotional exuberance under control of the mind. Excited about the future even while retaining memory of the past.

Perhaps Chagall is saying that it is up to individuals to live larger than life by finding color and joy in remembrance of the past, even as the call of the future beckons.

What do you see in this painting? Leave a comment and tell us.

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