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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Chagall's Biblical Journey

Inspired Exhibit at Milwaukee Jewish Museum

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The Milwaukee Jewish Museum enjoyed an association with Marc Chagall even before it opened in 2008. Chagall's spectacular tapestry of the Prophet Jeremiah in the Museum's atrium was inherited from the space's previous tenant, the Evan and Marion Helfaer Community Service Building. As the first Chagall tapestry in the U.S. when it was unveiled in 1973, the Prophet Jeremiah symbolized the Milwaukee Jewish community's aspirations; how appropriate that the Jewish Museum should host a modestly scaled but inspiring exhibition of the great artist's work.

"The Children of Israel Journeyed: Selections from the Chagall Bible Series" features 21 works on loan from Marquette University's Haggerty Museum, which possesses the entire set of 105 hand colored etchings. The Haggerty borrowed the Jeremiah tapestry when it exhibited its Chagall collection in 2004 and returned the favor by lending the etchings to the Jewish Museum. "The Children of Israel Journeyed" depicts archetypal stories from the Jewish scriptures from the creation of Adam through the Great Flood, the Exodus and the visions of Isaiah. As explained by the Jewish Museum's program coordinator, Molly Dubin, Chagall executed the Bible Series in two periods; the first group, produced from 1932-1939, was probably inspired by the artist's visit to Palestine and the second, 1952-1957, was produced under the long shadow of the Holocaust. One problem is an apparent lack of documentation on which etchings were made. All the title cards bear the same date, 1957, the year the series was completed. It's impossible to determine the direction Chagall took from the information at hand. The etchings are displayed in the Museum according to the occurrence of their story in the scriptures, not according to any estimate of their order of composition.

Born in the Russian city of Vitebsk in what is now Belarus, Chagall became one of the great figures in modern art after his move to Paris. With his famously surreal gravity-defying cows and cubist-inspired X-ray views of pregnant women, Chagall was in many respects one with the artistic spirit of his epoch. Yet, for all his modernity, there was something ancient and wise at the heart of his work. Chagall seldom adopted the pose of rebellion against Western bourgeois and artistic conventions so characteristic of his peers. Unlike Toulouse-Lautrec, who found revelations of composition and color in Japanese prints; or Picasso, whose forms were inspired by African masks; or Gaugin, who painted from an idyllic Tahiti; Chagall did not have to travel spiritually or physically to escape the legacy of Western European art. He had no Western legacy to escape from.

As the son of Hasidic Jews, a mystical sect born in Eastern Europe, Chagall's home was a painter's tabula rasa. Taking literally the Mosaic injunction against graven images, Hasidism, though encouraging such forms of expression as music and dance, prohibited as idolatry any form of representational art. By preventing the depiction of external reality, Hasidism sought to cultivate the inner reality. Chagall's background was an ideal training ground for 20th century modernism, whose exponents often arrived by other paths at a denial of external reality in favor of the significance lurking behind forms. And yet some of his family members never came to terms with Chagall's calling as a painter.

"He always had a religious influence in his life, but it was really amplified when he went to Palestine in 1931," Dubin says. "He spoke of not just being able to see the Bible, but to dream the Bible." The later etchings in the Bible Series might be expected to have a darker hue. "There definitely was a reflection of the experience of European Jews during World War II—a struggle between humanity with its hardships and a devout feeling of "Where was God during all of this?'"

The stylistic variation between the 21 works on display at the Museum could have resulted from the gap in time and experience between the first Biblical etchings and the completion of the series. In the whimsical David and theLion, the Jewish king seems to dance with the Lion of Judah. By contrast, the Sacrifice of Abraham eschews whimsy in favor of a nightmare image of killing narrowly averted. The patriarch is dark and brooding as he draws a sacrificial knife over the pale, prostrate form of his son Isaac, perhaps unaware of the spectral angelic figure about to intervene. In The Song ofDavid the king is in ecstatic transport, hands raised to heaven; in Moses Breaking the Tablets the prophet is in rage and despair, streaked red with passionate anger as he beholds the misdeeds of his people.

Dubin's description of the etchings as "trying to strike the balance between the terrible reality of humanity and the presence of God" sums it up well. "The Children of Israel Journeyed" is an illuminating depiction of a faith that has always been tested against the hard edges of the terrible and the material.

The exhibit runs March 6-June 6 at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. At the opening on March 6, Ilana Setapen and Margot Schwartz of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert at 2 p.m. Admission is $5 for public, free to Museum members.
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