Nassau County Museum of Art
One Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, New York
Nassaumuseum.org 516 484 9338
Tuesday – Sunday; 11am – 4:45pm: Adults $10, Seniors $8
Until November 4, 2012
Chagall’s reputation needs no burnishing and yet refinements are always welcome. Indeed the Nassau County Museum of Art has mounted a wonderfully extensive survey of Chagall’s works with a unique emphasis on his 1957 Bible series of hand-colored etchings that significantly casts many aspects of his work as uniquely Jewish. Amid the complexity of Chagall’s entire oeuvre, this is deeply significant in the exhibition history of non-Jewish institutions.
The current show is sensitively curated by former director and guest curator Constance Schwartz. The first floor features an exciting survey of many of his early works from both private and public collections (including A Pinch of Snuff(1922) – a rabbinic figure about to take a olfactory hit) all of which emphasize the wide range of Chagall’s imagination and pure joy of image making. Further along we see examples from his etchings of Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” his problematic images of “universalist” crucifixions, clowns, circuses, and many playful pastiches of his signature motifs; flowers, lovers, flying animals and other fantasia all held together with vividly beautiful color. It is tour-de-force of Chagall the master conjurer of instant visual delights.
From a biographical perspective Chagall’s last painting, Job, finished on March 28, 1985, the day he died, is perhaps the most moving. At the age of 97 Chagall, who had continued to create artwork seemingly unabated, was “deeply aware of his own mortality,” and therefore this work and its subject takes on added significance. The gouache on paper was actually a preparatory image for a massive tapestry that was in fabrication at the time for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where it has been since 1986. This commissioned work, created in close collaboration with the renowned weaver Yvette Cauquil-Prince, depicts Job and his wife and was dedicated to the disabled of the world, a more than fitting appropriation of the tragic story of Job. Poignantly it is a reflection of Chagall’s own tortured struggle with faith, Jewish identity and the vicissitudes of 20th century history.
Upstairs on the second floor 50 of 100 hand-colored images from Chagall’s 1957 opus “Bible” are displayed in quiet splendor. Next to each 24” x 18” image is the biblical text. In a superficial way we are well accustomed to these images. As we have recounted many times in these pages, Chagall first began his Bible etchings from 1931 to 1939. Interrupted by the war and exile he returned to France in 1952 and finally completed the black and white etchings in 1956 when they were published, along with a separate limited edition of etchings that were hand-colored by Chagall himself. This selection at the Nassau County Museum of Art is on loan from the Haggerty Art Museum of Marquette University in Milwaukee.
It is crucial to note a fundamental difference between the black and white edition and the hand-colored images currently on display. Aside from minor printing variations between sets, all of the black and white images are identical. The opposite is the case with the hand-colored etchings; each is totally unique since each was thoughtfully and sparingly colored one by one. And most importantly, each was the artist’s refinement and comment on work he had done up to 24 years earlier.
Almost 60% of the etchings were originally done before Chagall’s exile, the War, the Holocaust, and the devastating death of his beloved first wife Bella. The Chagall hand-coloring his interpretations of the biblical narrative was a deeply different man from the man who first created them.