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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Chagall Bible Series' Displays Universal Themes

Inspired exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee

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The current exhibition at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, "The Children of Israel Journeyed: Selections From the Chagall Bible Series," features 21 fine art block prints and a giant tapestry illustrating scenes from the Jewish Scriptures. The exhibit coincides with Passover. "The first seder is April 18, so we're a little bit ahead of it," curator Molly Dubin says.

The core themes of Passover are universal, she adds. "The very idea of an Exodus includes having faith, persevering, surviving, and starting over on one's own again—reborn and free," Dubin says.

Marc Chagall was living in Paris in 1931, when art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned a set of Scripture-themed prints. Seeking inspiration, Chagall visited Palestine. He completed 66 copper plates from 1932-'39. He rounded out the set with 39 more from 1952-'56. The current exhibit is drawn from etchings in the permanent collection of Marquette's Haggerty Museum of Art.

"While in Paris, he was introduced to Cubism," which broke artistic ground in depicting multiple perspectives at once, Dubin says. "His works are truly multilayered—visually, but also historical, scriptural and metaphorical."

The influence of Fauvism, which emphasizes the significance of colors, is apparent in the way Chagall used color splashes on the etchings for emphasis and meaning: yellow for the divine, red for humanity and energy, green for new life and new birth, and splashes of orange and blue for perspective and balance.

The prints are masterpieces of simple precision. Intricate cross-hatchings and meticulous shading scratches melt, blend and emerge in bold figures with strong lines. Moses, Miriam, Aaron and Joshua carry much of the Passover theme. David appears as warrior, king and poet minstrel. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Samson and Delilah, and the prophet Isaiah are also showcased, alongside Chagall's trademark animals: birds, goats, chickens and lions.

Nearly every other print features at least one angel. It was one way "of actually circumventing Jewish tradition, which is pretty set against graven images of God," says Ellie Gettinger, Jewish Museum Milwaukee educator.

If there's a downside to "Selections From the Chagall Bible Series," it may be that it leaves viewers wanting more. The exhibit runs through June 6.