Efraim Sicher: "The Semiotics of Hunger"


A different example that illustrates the visual reading of the performance of the text is Chagall's 1919 drawing "Acrobat with a Violin" (Figure 2, below), a constructionist experiment which recalls the more painterly The Violinist (1912-1913, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; a variant on the theme is The Violinist, 1911/14, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf). The motifs of the shtetl violinist, the cockerel and the absurd trapeze artist with the head of a goat (a biblical scapegoat?) are characteristic of Chagall's whimsical humor. The artist is struggling not to fall off the tightrope and struggling to maintain this balancing-act of constructionist forms, semi-erotic and Jewish symbols, as well as no doubt his unpaid grocery-store bills. Boris Aronson, in a little book about Chagall, insisted on Chagall's "zhivopisnost'" (painterliness), which further underscores the way we read the visible, painterly space of the artistic performance, as distinct from a linear narrative — a point very much at issue in the artistic debates in Russia in the early twentieth-century between line and color.1 This would then be a performance of hunger that dialogizes with other artistic modes of representation in a contemporary debate involving Malevich, Lissitzsky and Chagall himself and in a struggle for survival.

The drawing clearly looks forwards to the clowning figures in the ekphrastic murals Chagall did before he left Russia in 1922 for the vestibule of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre which represent art and literature, including a portrayal of the artist himself being borne into the theatre by a critic—a performance that is a preamble or prologue to the dramatic performance in the theatre. These clowns and acrobats (some with long beards and phylacteries) are turning tradition upside- down in a revolutionary, carnavalesque Purimspiel, which celebrates the inversion of the Jews' fortunes in the Book of Esther. The inversion of the official cultural code and hierarchy of values visualizes Yiddish sayings and thus renders the legible visible in a parody of sign and signifier. Chagall performs a balancing-act with politics and the insecurities of Soviet life—critics had little sympathy for the plight of a starving artist and after losing his post as art commissar in Vitebsk, Chagall was reduced to teaching art to war orphans. In Chagall's much later "Three Acrobats" and "The Juggler" too we find an ekphrastic statement in which the performer resists any simple interpretation of the figure of the artist. One artist is reading the performance of another kind of artist, and for both the performance of art is a self- deprecating, self-sacrificing, almost suicidal act to keep alive and to celebrate life, a parable of art as an acrobatic display.

Kafka, too, did an allegorical drawing of acrobats, which Claude Gandelman has read as the artist's attempt to metamorphose art into life: in both Kafka's drawings and Expressionist art there is raised the similar question of the meaning of the figure, whether it should be read as prophetic vision, as allegorical of the human condition, or as a phenomenological reduction to the sign in some Theatre of the Absurd (Gandelman, 1974). Elsewhere, Kafka speaks of his precarious position as a Jew between cultures as that of a circus rider on two horses (Loeb 1998: 188), but my argument is that these "straight" readings scramble for easy interpretation while ignoring the complex relations between the lisible and the visible in the performance of the text. Kafka's "Erstes Leid" ("First Sorrow"), for example, tells a story of a trapeze artist who cannot distinguish between life and art, and who spends all his time at the top of the circus tent, in perpetual performance of his art. The plot is complicated by one small request of the artist, for a second trapeze to be always available to him. The story ends with the artist's unresolved dissatisfaction, thus frustrating any satisfactory interpretation of what the story "means."

Figure 2: Marc Chagall, "Acrobat with a Violin" (1919) (in Aronson) — © ADAGP Paris 1999

Performing the Body / The Body of Performance

The body of the figure of the artist in these pictures is under the public gaze, but demands the autonomy of solitude. As in Poe's "Man of the Crowd," which Baudelaire translated, the paradox is set up when the gaze is returned. The figure is imprisoned in the frame, but the gaze of the observer enters the scene and unwillingly or unconsciously participates in the game of gazer and gazed. The rules of the game have changed, however. The glass of Baudelaire's "Vitrier" (in Spleen de Paris) has smashed, and the flâneur can no longer dream of even false Edens. The flâneur has disappeared into the crowd. He is a cog in the machine, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, with no leisure to roam the streets or dream of the absent pastoral of Baudelaire's "Paysage." With the flâneur has gone an epistemology. How to explain what has happened to the artist and to art? How to bring a minority interest to the attention of a new bourgeois public that has not the slightest interest in a hunger artist? How to be an artist if one can't even starve without dying? Or more accurately, as Maud Ellmann has pointed out in her meditation on anorexia and hunger strikes, how can the hunger artist exist when his self-immolation is no longer subject to the public gaze, when nobody is paying the attention for which he is literally starving. (Ellmann 17)


1. For another example of the "line" and "color" debate in the short story writer Isaak Babel', see Sicher, Style and Structure 104-23; Gandelman Reading Pictures, chapter 5 passim. [RETURN]

Page - 1     Page + 1

AS/SA Nº 8, Article 5 : Page 3 / 7

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

E-mail to the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction