The painting by Marc Chagall entitled “Solitude” is an example of a cultural treatment of alienation and not solitude as usually understood with reference to a person. The intention of Chagall is to represent Jewish culture at the momentous turn of 1933 Europe. The sacrificial ox, the image of God’s messenger, the Torah or scriptural scroll, the traditional headdress, the image of an historical rabbi or elder personifiying Judaism, make this clear.
The painting’s title of “Solitude” may raise the question of why eremitism hardly exists in Jewish traditions. The biblical image of Ezechiel as hermit never served as a model for Jewish eremitism. The medieval Carmelities presented it as an historical precedent for their presence in Palestine, but this analogy was only theoretical.
In part, the post-diaspora experience of Judaism did not permit a cohesively independent cultural identity with any particular geography. The absence of intermarriage with a larger culture or other social relations intensified alienation. The mythic proportions of “chosenness” and of a “holy land,” and the complex theological (and other) relations with Christianity and Islam has only exacerbated the absence of an eremitic tradition. As with Islam and other indigenous nomadic peoples, the cultural model is the social group, and this identity with cultural authority has persisted as a survival mechanism in Judaism and other groups considered anthropologically.
The immediacy of Chagall’s Europe in 1933 is expressed by the forlorn image seen in “Solitude.” But “solitude” at both the personal and cultural level haunts the viewer of Chagall’s work. For the conscious or intentional solitary, it emphasizes the tragedy of culture and society.