Monday, February 03, 2014

Chagall: Two Left Hands?

The Pinch of Snuff (1912)
Marc Chagall
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As an undergrad at Baylor University back in the latter 70s, I didn't know much about art, but I somehow acquired a poster of Chagall's Pinch of Snuff (also known as The Rabbi), though I didn't know the title back then. I called it "Rabbi with a Book." I liked it a lot and so taped it to the wall of my room, where I stared at it for hours, all told. There was some uncanny quality it possessed, and I took a long time in realizing what that "it" was. Eventually, however, I was drawn to focus on the rabbi's right hand, which seemed awkward, twisted in some way, until I saw that this right hand was another left hand.


I know from German that "zwei linke Hände haben" (to have two left hands) means "to be all thumbs," that is, "to be clumsy," but I don't know if this idiom is relevant here.

Incidentally, Chagall seems to have made at least two variants of this painting, for I've seen one of them with my own eyes at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, dated 1923-26, whereas the one above, dated to 1912, is displayed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My poster's version was more like the variant in Basel. The Hebrew letters on the Torah scroll curtain differ, incidentally, the older painting displaying the abbreviation for God's name and the more recent painting displaying letters standing for "Torah Scroll," according to Benjamin Harshav in The Polyphony of Jewish Culture (2007).

Anyway, all the versions I've found online share this same uncanniness because of the two left hands. Does any reader know why Chagall did this?

I've searched long on the net failing to find any clue . . .

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At 5:21 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Well, Chagall also turned heads upside down, etc. But in this case, the Rabbi's right hand really looks like a right hand to me: he is smoking the way some people do, holding the cigarette between the thumb and the index, and the palm toward 'us.'

The hand is simplified according to Chagall's style, but I don't see it as a 'wrong' -- or symbolic -- detail. The palm is clearly recognizable by the fleshy, bulging part at the 'root' of the thumb. (Hope it is clear, I lack too many words to describe it properly.)

At 5:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What do you make of the fingernails?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The left hand appears unusual in another sense.

Six fingers. Ring finger.

Gleam (mote?) in the left eye only.

The differing colors of the left as opposed to the smoking left thumbnails.


At 7:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The image is odd, JK, though I can't see the six fingers -- maybe my old eyes.

I've also begun to wonder if Dario might be correct, and that I've fallen for an unintended optical illusion, for by a gestalt-type switch, I can see the hand as both left and right.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:26 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I think Dario is correct that the hand is a right hand (mainly because of the "meat" of the thumb which defines the hand), but I can see the optical illusion as well, and I can definitely see JK's "six fingers" just by staring exclusively at the fingertips all in a row: there really seem to be five fingertips, plus that thumb. It's almost Escherian, this effect.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Now, I see what look like the five fingertips plus a thumb tip -- because the second finger from the left appears to have two fingernails (one of which is actually a finger joint).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Intriguingly, the painting in Basel's Kunstmuseum -- the version from 1923-26 -- has an even more pronounced 'left hand' effect.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:36 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

"Right," the nails do suggest a double image. This also is a feature of Chagall's paintings. I used to hold a column on Chagall's illustrations for the Bible
in this Italian blog
and such 'dreamy' features proved to convey very deep and witty meanings, but I honestly wouldn't know how to interpret the Rabbi's portrait here.

At 9:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see this as a normal motion for putting snuff in your lip. As a former smokeless tobacco user, the hand is actually turned with the palm facing the chin so that is why you can see the fingernails. You can try the motion yourself and see what I am talking about. It would be almost impossible to put snuff in your lip with your palm facing outward.

I do agree te hand "looks" awkward, but it is actually correct for the act being performed.


At 9:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But Jay, if it "would be almost impossible to put snuff in your lip with your palm facing outward," then this hand would be another left hand -- assuming that the snuff goes into the lip, but isn't snuff meant for the nose?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, had to stop the last comment before I was done. Per the previous comment, I agree with Jeff that the painting is depicting two left hands.

I do not see any discernable lines that you would expect to see if the palm was facing outwards. Also, the Rabbi is not smoking but putting snuff in his mouth. Of course that is the point of most art, to cause conversations and varying opinions.


At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose the snuff could be for his nose, but there again, if the palm is facing out you would not see fingernails as you observed, and if the palm is not facing out the fingers are on the wrong side. Two left hands for me.


At 3:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comparing the two studies removes what was at the time of my earlier comment, a not so vague feeling the painting accompanying your post was suggestive of ...

Two individuals ... [more accurately] "of two minds" or perhaps - "the mind has yet to settle on a framework."

While the hand is important to my contextual understanding/feeling, the lines of The Book's shape ...

I'll cease attempting to convey (in writing anyway) what I've concluded. Don't reckon I could go further without confusing further.


At 7:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The other image can be seen in the next blog entry.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:39 PM, Blogger Rick said...

Great analyses from all. Very interesting take(s). This painting has mystified me since I purchased it @1995. There are several very intriguing characteristics when you actually view the original painting, (i.e., the way it was torn from the paper tablet and the tiny pin hole top center that was used to pin it up until it dried). I get such satisfaction, odd as it may be to, actually hold it in my hand, which has only happened on two occasions, knowing that Chagall himself had held it. My ownership is about to reach 30 years, which was my originally intended sale date. I'm still torn over the decision. Time will tell.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

How many copies of this rabbi did Chagall paint?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:18 AM, Blogger Rick said...

Jeffrey, I've been able to identify 5 of this subject. A few are very similar while another couple are very odd and as dissimilar as you can imagine.

At 9:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting. Do you suppose that Chagall was trying to get things right (or left, one could say)?

Jeffery Hodges

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