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Chagall’s Bible Images

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Chagall and the Bible

Museum of Jewish Art and History, Paris

71, Rue du Temple, Paris, France


Until June 5, 2011



Ironically the same quote by art critic Robert Hughes cited in my May 20th review “Chagall and the Cross” namely that Marc Chagall was the “quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century,” is applicable in our consideration of Chagall’s images for his graphic masterpiece, The Bible.  Except here it illuminates the truth: his greatness as a Jewish artist is founded on his lifelong obsession with the Torah.  No matter how far he strayed from his Jewish roots, even his late-in-life dalliance with Judeo-Christian universalism as surveyed in that review, nothing could compromise his amazing insights and comprehension of the Torah narratives.


His status as a “quintessential Jewish artist” began when he formed a working relationship with the legendary art dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, in Paris sometime after 1922.  Chagall had recently arrived from his native Russia and was by then somewhat of a celebrity.  As such he was commissioned by Vollard to illustrate Gogol’s Dead Souls, a masterpiece of 19th century Russian literature.  Afterward Vollard commissioned him to illustrate the 17th century French classic, La Fontaines’s Fables, further developing Chagall’s etching techniques and skill as an illustrator of complex narratives.  By mutual consent, in 1931 the next project was a series of 105 black and white etchings of the Bible.  According to scholar Una E. Johnson, Vollard “wanted to be immortalized as the publisher of a modern Bible.” 


In my review of “Chagall’s Bible” at MOBIA (Jewish Art 01-02-2009) I described the two editions of hand colored etchings in this series published by Verve magazine in 1956 and again in 1960. These colored versions were all based on the original black and white etchings done more than 20 years earlier between 1931 and 1939.  Much to my surprise the current exhibition in the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris shows 20 original color studies in gouache (opaque water color) of these biblical narratives, all done in 1930-31.  They are simply a revelation.


            Previously Chagall’s depictions from the Bible were limited and not seriously engaged in the substance of the subject, always reflections of his personal life or memories of the Russian shtetl.  Now, at age 44, he unleashed his fully mature imagination and artistic prowess upon the heart of the Torah narratives.  In comparison with the black and white etchings that would follow in the next eight years, these color studies are deeply poetic and nuanced.


The Creation of Man shows a winged figure flying across the page carrying the newly created Adam, seemingly still asleep, echoing Genesis 2:8 which sates that after God created Adam he placed him in the garden in Eden.  This mysterious nocturnal scene is illuminated by a glowing sun that still contains the smaller moon within it.  While Hashem’s name is written in the sun-moon orb, it seems that Chagall had originally considered the winged figure to be a depiction of God Himself, but later changed his mind.  Over the years we see this motif of God/angel interchangeability in many of Chagall’s biblical images, much as our Torah text will switch between an angel speaking on God’s behalf and God speaking directly.  The luminescent colors subtly shift from the warm whites of the angel to the pale pink of Adam in rich contrast with the deep blacks and blues of the nighttime sky.



Noah and the Angel [detail] (1931) gouache on paper by Marc Chagall

Courtesy National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice



Chagall’s use of angelic figures is given free rein in many of these images, not the least in his Noah images.  Noah and the Angel depicts a celestial being pointing heavenward to the Divine name in a starry sky as he commands Noah to construct the ark.  Noah, garbed in deep earth reds, is wonderstruck, gazing at the angel under his crimson streimel.  This angel is truly unique in that his wings do not function as limbs to fly but rather cover his body, perhaps reflecting the prophet’s description in Ezekiel 1:11.  The pure faith and astonishment in Noah’s face and hands aptly captures his emotions.  This was the first time in the ten generations between Adam and Noah that God spoke again to man.



Noah’s Rainbow (1931) gouache on paper by Marc Chagall

Courtesy National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice



The mood has radically changed in Chagall’s Noah’s Rainbow.  Here Noah, dressed in all black as an Eastern European chassid has been knocked down by both the covenant of the rainbow and the terrible events he has just witnessed in the flood and annihilation of all mankind.  While the promise of God’s beneficence is reflected in the angelic profile and gesture, it is underscored by an awesome fear of what God is capable of when mankind sins.



Abraham and the Angels Going to Sodom (1931) gouache on paper by Marc Chagall

Courtesy National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice



The theme of man becoming increasingly overwhelmed in his interchanges with the Divine becomes a subplot as the biblical narrative unfolds.  Abraham and the Angels Going to Sodom depicts a captive Abraham, surrounded and firmly guided by two winged beings as the lead angel points down to a tiny city in the lower left.  We are high above the doomed city, practically up in the clouds, and yet the humble and somewhat bewildered Abraham is forced to confront Sodom’s grim fate.  As in many of these images, it is Chagall’s genius and light touch that depicts the narrative in a way which gives insight into the emotions and dilemmas of our patriarchs.



Abraham and Isaac [detail] (1931) gouache on paper by Marc Chagall

Courtesy National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice



These are essentially Chagall’s first visual explorations of the fundamental biblical stories.  Chagall’s depiction of Abraham and Isaac on the way to Mount Moriah has the refreshing directness of a folktale.  Isaac is seen lugging a heavy bag, presumably containing the chopped wood for the altar.  Abraham walks pensively alongside him, knife in one hand and a lit candle for the fire in the other.  With this charming and clearly unrealistic scenario (since no candle could last for three days) Chagall has transformed the straightforward text into a metaphor.  While the knife represents, of course, the harsh reality of God’s command, the candle is the truth of Torah that will somehow illuminate and explain the deed about to be done.



Rebecca and Eliezer (1931) gouache on paper by Marc Chagall

Courtesy National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice



Perhaps one of the most poetic images of this series is Rebecca and Eliezer. It depicts an exquisite Rebecca, here quite grown-up, balancing a water jug on her head as the astounded Eliezar looks on.  A curious camel driver sits atop the camel also watching the scene unfold.  Eliezer is wide-eyed, his hand gesturing to himself as he realizes that God has provided the perfect match for his master’s son.  Aside from the beauty of her soft billowy blouse and rich crimson skirt, it is Rebecca’s closed eyes and pensive expression that clinch our understanding that indeed she is Isaac’s bashert.  With the exception of her red skirt, the image’s colors are dominated by the soft blue sky, sandy ground and the pastel-green of the servant’s cloak.


In each of these remarkable early color drawings for the graphic project, the Bible, that Chagall would refine, develop and elaborate over the next fifty years of his career, he has established a wellspring of insight and interpretation of Torah.   While some, like Noah and the Angel and Abraham and Isaac, never made it into the final set of etchings, nonetheless the majority of these images Chagall created in 1931 would become the basis for much of his subsequent biblical artwork.  Most importantly it was the methodology developed in those years that became the model to investigate the narrative from a deeply personal and empathetic point of view, always imbuing the characters with an abiding humanity and involvement with the events as they unfolded.  And God, whether represented by one of His myriad angels or the Divine name written in the sky, was always close by in these images, deeply involved in the unfolding fate of his chosen people.  Chagall’s genius is to involve us in constantly unexpected ways with the biblical narrative that sets the essential tone of discovery and attachment so necessary to animate Jewish thought and art.  One couldn’t ask more of “the quintessential Jewish artist.”




Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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