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Friday, 27 November 2015

Paintings which seek to dream an ideal of fraternity and love

Here is the talk which I gave to the Walbrook Art Group last Wednesday. This was on the theme of 'My Favourite Art, My Faith.' The other talks in this series are on Wednesday 2 and 9 December at St Stephen Walbrook (1.00pm) and there will be two speakers on each occasion.

Last year I was fortunate, through my sabbatical visits and the Tour of the Holy Land organised by the East London Three Faiths Forum, to see a wide variety of artwork in churches and synagogues by the Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Chagall is one of my favourite artists and the artist, more than any other, who really fired my interest in the visual arts. As well as last year’s visits, I have also visited the National Marc Chagall museum in Nice which houses a collection of 17 large format paintings inspired by the Bible that Chagall gifted to the French state to found the Museum and which form his Message Biblique.

These paintings were originally intended for a Calvary Chapel at Vence and were painted between 1958 and 1966. Chagall spoke of the museum as a house in his inauguration speech saying, ‘I wanted to leave [the paintings] in this House so that men can try to find some peace, a certain spirituality, a religiosity, a meaning in life.’

Meditations on religious art had been part of Chagall’s oeuvre from the off due to the place of religion in his Hasidic upbringing in Vitebsk (Russia). His later commissions for churches, no doubt, also built on discussions about the relations between Judaism and Christianity held when he regularly attended, during his early period in Paris, the Thomist study circle organised by Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain at his home in Meuden.

Chagall conceived the idea for the cycle of paintings which became the Message Biblique while working on his first church commission in Assy (a church I also visited during my sabbatical), although many of the images he used in the paintings were based on gouaches he had originally created as maquettes for a series of Bible etchings commissioned by the publisher Ambroise Vollard. He described the Bible as a great, universal book and so eventually decided not to hang the paintings in a building associated with one religion, such as the chapel at Vence. Initially, as a Jew, he had had concerns regarding undertaking commissions for Christian churches, to the extent that he insisted on the phrase, ‘In the Name of the Liberty of All Religions’ on the baptistery mural Le Passage de la Mer Rouge, which was his first church commission.

On entering the rooms of the Message Biblique - first, the room of Genesis and Exodus, then the Song of Songs - one is struck first by the colours of the works before their content. For each of the Genesis and Exodus paintings Chagall chose a bold, saturated colour suited to his subject - a luminous green for Paradise, deep red for Abraham and the Three Angels, bright yellow for Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law - and worked in pinks and reds for each of the Songs of Songs paintings. Chagall viewed painting as the reflection of his inner self and therefore colour contained his character and message. In his museum inauguration speech he said, ‘If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with our colours of love and hope.’ These are paintings which seek to dream, by their colours and lines, an ideal of fraternity and love.

Chagall wrote of ‘seeing life’s happenings, as well as works of art, through the wisdom of the Bible’ and of trying to express this sense in works ‘shot through with its spirit and harmony.’ So, while the Biblical scene illustrated dominates each of these huge canvases, in the margins, and completing the overall composition, are images of other Biblical scenes and characters, including often the crucified Christ, together with images suggesting the later suffering of the Jewish people. Chagall’s art is one that connects and reconciles disparate images of Bible, experience, history, memory and myth on the canvas through colour and composition.

This sense of Chagall drawing disparate images and styles together and reconciling them on his canvases was a key part of my initial interest in his work so, to be surrounded by these massive statements demonstrating - through content and construction - the potential of religion for reconciliation, was a wonderful and moving experience.

In his work Chagall links up different, unusual and unlikely images in a way that makes visual and emotional sense; in a way that communicates his love of his home, his world, his people, its sights, sounds and smells. He succeeds, as Walther and Metzger write, in "achieving a pictorial unity through the yoking of motifs taken from different realms of given reality". He reconciles emotions, thoughts, reminiscences with lines, colours and shapes to create harmonious, meaningful paintings. Walther and Metzger have suggested that "no other twentieth century artist had Chagall's gift for harmonising what were thought to be irreconcilable opposites".

Chagall’s work can also be understood as exploring Jewish identity by establishing a continuity between Biblical Antiquity and his contemporary experience of exile as, through his Message Biblique and other similar paintings, he engages with his Jewish heritage from the Exodus through the Pogroms to the Holocaust thereby linking past and present together in experience and understanding. In Chagall’s work exodus and exile are the normal state of the Jewish people and the source of their joys, sorrows, inspirations and insights.

Surprisingly, his key symbol of faith in exile is that of the crucified Christ who features centrally or tangentially in many of his works. Always visually and accurately a Jewish Christ, nevertheless Chagall uses this image in ways that have real synergy with Christian theology. In The Sacrifice of Isaac, for example, the crucified Christ appears above Isaac as the future sacrificial son. Christ becomes the embodiment in Chagall’s work of Israel as the suffering servant; an understanding which culminates in the Exodus of 1952 - 1966 where the crucified Christ embraces both the Jews of the Exodus and of the Holocaust.

For Chagall, ‘Christ ... always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr.’ He depicted this perception most famously in White Crucifixion painted in 1938 in response to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, including Kristallnacht. Central to this painting, among scenes of anti-Jewish violence which included the torching of a synagogue, is Jesus on the cross with a tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, draped around him as a loin cloth. For Chagall, ‘Jesus on the cross represented the painful predicament of all Jews, harried, branded, and violently victimized in an apparently God-forsaken world.’

Chagall came to stained glass relatively late in his career with the commissions for the baptistery at for Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce du Plateau d’Assy completed in 1957. These derived from his friendship with a Dominican Friar, Pere Couturier, who was an artist and commissioner of sacred art. This commission included two small windows in grisaille of an angel holding a jug of holy water and an angel with candelabra and flowers.

Following this commission Chagall began working with Charles Marq, from the Atelier Simon Marq, and received many church commissions for stained glass with his ambulatory windows for Metz Cathedral, realized in 1960, being the first of these commissions. “Marq developed a special process of veneering pigment on glass, which allowed Chagall to use as many as three colours on a single uninterrupted pane, rather than being confined to the traditional technique of separating each colour by lead strips.”

As well as being inspired by the Bible, Chagall was also inspired by his visits to Israel. Accompanied by his wife Bella and his daughter Ida, Chagall went to Israel first in 1931. The main reason for this visit was a commission he had received from the Parisian art dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, to do a series of illustrations to the Bible. He travelled a great deal, painting and drawing in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Safed. The country left a vivid impression on him, and back in Paris the light and landscape he had seen were echoed in many of the etchings for his work, The Bible. In 1951, the opening of large retrospective exhibitions of his works, in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, prompted Chagall's second visit, and in 1957, he was again in Israel following the publication of his illustrations to the Bible. Vollard had died shortly before World War II and Tériade published the commission that had finally been completed in 1956. A second book of Bible illustrations was published by Vervé, also in that year.

Chagall said that, “In the East, I found the Bible and part of my own being. The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise.” For him, the Bible was “pure poetry, human tragedy.” He said that it “filled him with visions about the faith of the world” and that it inspired him so that he saw life and art “through the wisdom of the bible.”

Chagall also made a link between stained glass which comes alive “through the light it receives” and the Bible which is “light already.” Stained glass, he suggests, “should make this obvious through grace and simplicity.” Jonathan Wilson has noted that “Chagall became fascinated with stained glass after he had moved to the south of France in 1950.” Chagall was undoubtedly “seduced by the endless Mediterranean unfolding of color-as-light and the possibility of capturing in glass the kind of spiritually charged, quasi-mystical, sometimes biblically inspired images to which he was increasingly drawn.” Indeed, Chagall spoke of light as being the material which creates stained glass. “The light is natural,” he suggested, “and all nature is religious.” Therefore, “every colour ought to stimulate prayer” and, "whether in cathedral or synagogue the phenomenon is the same: something mystical comes through the window.”

André Malraux summed this up when he wrote: “I cannot understand why stained glass, which lives and dies with the day, was ever abandoned. … Artists preferred the light. But the stained glass window, which is brought to life by the morning and snuffed out by the night, brought the Creation home to the worshipper in church. … Stained glass eventually surrendered to painting by incorporating shade, which killed it. It was six hundred and fifty years before someone found a way of shading off colors in glass: Chagall.”

It has been suggested, rightly I think, that Chagall’s use of colour is mystical, with “the yellow of revelation flooding the Tablets of the Law,” “the white of faith surrounding the cross” and “the supremacy of blue in his work” indicating “the wisdom of overcoming bitterness and hatred.” Here we have the yellow of revelation flooding the Garden of Eden in Chagall’s 1963 Creation window for the triforium of the north transept while deep blues and reds characterise the combination of ecstasy and sorrow in the two ambulatory windows from 1960 which tell the story of the Jewish people in key episodes from Abraham to Jeremiah by way of Jacob, Moses and David. James Waller has written that here “Chagall is all curves and tonal flares,” his “modulation of tone, within the fabulously fragmented and flowing glass panes” lending “his colours a deeper, more smoldering dimension.”

The light that emanates from twelve stained glass windows by Marc Chagall bathes the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in a special glow. 'The synagogue's Jerusalem stone floor and walls absorb this beauty and reflect it.' 'The Bible was again Chagall's main inspiration, particularly Genesis 49, where Jacob blesses his 12 sons, and Deuteronomy 33, where Moses blesses the Twelve Tribes. The dominant colors used in each window are inspired by those blessings as well as by the description of the breastplate of the High Priest in Exodus 28:15, which was described as gold, blue, purple and scarlet, and contained 12 distinct gems. Each gem was dedicated to a tribe with the tribe's name engraved on it.'

'To fully understand the significance of the Windows they must be viewed against Chagall's deep sense of identification with the whole of the Jewish history, its tragedies and victories, as well as his own personal background in the shtetl of Vitebsk, where he was born and grew up. "All the time I was working," he said, "I felt my father and my mother were looking over my shoulder, and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago."' After our visit I spoke to our group about Chagall's background and work highlighting the fact that these windows inspired commissions for stained glass in the UK at Tudeley Parish Church and at Chichester Cathedral.

Tudeley Parish church is one of the UK’s finest examples of religious art and a moving example of the crucifixion as a 'conduit' for a very personal tragedy. The church in Tudeley is renowned internationally as the only church to have all its windows decorated by Chagall which fulfilled a long term ambition of the artist. The windows were commissioned by the family of Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid as a commemoration of her tragic and untimely death.

Canon Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, provided Chagall with a brief for his stained glass window at the Cathedral based on Psalm 150. Hussey believed that ‘True artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God.’ When this is done consciously, he suggested, ‘the beauty and strength of their work can draw others to share to some extent their vision.’ This thought underpinned his brief to Chagall for the window based on Psalm 150 and titled The Arts to the Glory of God which takes as its theme ‘O praise God in his holiness … Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.’

Charles Marq, Chagall’s collaborator on his windows, wrote: ‘The triumphal quality of this chant is expressed by the dominance in the composition of the colour red (red on white, on green, on yellow), broken by a certain number of green, blue and yellow blobs. This is the first time that Marc Chagall has conceived a subject composed entirely of small figures; it is the people in festive mood glorifying the Lord, exalting his greatness and his creation.’ The work, he suggests, communicates a ‘message of glory and praise.’ (Chagall Glass at Chichester and Tudeley, Ed. By Paul Foster, Otter Memorial Paper No. 14)

Chagall spoke of colouring life ‘with our colours of love and hope.’ He wrote of ‘seeing life’s happenings, as well as works of art, through the wisdom of the Bible’ and of trying to express this sense in works ‘shot through with its spirit and harmony.’ The light which creates stained glass ‘is natural,’ he noted, ‘and all nature is religious.’ Therefore, ‘every colour ought to stimulate prayer’ and, whether in cathedral or synagogue, ‘the phenomenon is the same: something mystical comes through the window.’

It was Chagall’s hope that a visit to the Musée Chagall, where this talk began, would be an experience akin to pilgrimage rather than simply being a tourist destination to be visited: "Perhaps the young and the less young will come to this House to seek an ideal of fraternity and love such as it has been dreamed by my colours and my lines."


Young Disciples - Freedom Suite.

1 comment:

Victoria E. Jones said...

Thanks for this great write-up and photos.