Beneath the Duke Chapel’s stained glass, amongst the cold walls of gray stone and warm pews of richly dark wood, a collection of pieces of art — fifty in total — are on display. And though the Chapel’s resplendent Gothic glory is very different from the works' understated nature and modernist style, they share a focus on the biblical past and traditions of faith. This is the Duke Chapel’s Marc Chagall exhibit — on display until March 30, 2023 — a series of works in which Chagall merges biblical tales with his incredible understanding and command of color, shadow and shading to create transfixing new takes on familiar tales.
While his name may not elicit an immediate reaction like Picasso or da Vinci would, Marc Chagall is acknowledged in the art world as both one of the earliest and best modernists and the preeminent Jewish artist of his time. Born in Vitebsk — today part of Belarus but then part of the Russian Pale of Settlement — as the oldest of nine children, he grew up in a devout Hasidic home and developed his love of drawing at a young age. After dabbling in commissioned portraits while attempting to hone his craft, he moved to St. Petersburg and then Paris to develop his art style, which fused cubism, fauvism and symbolism into what would later be considered modernism with a constant focus on surreal depictions of his home.
While Chagall’s style changed and adapted through his career, his focus remained on chronicling the traditions of his fellow Jews and of his home of Vitebsk — by way of images from his childhood. Over the course of career, he dabbled in paintings, drawings, book illustrations, ceramics, stage sets, tapestries, fine art prints and stained glass windows and continued to produce work until his death in 1985.
Though Chagall’s scope was incredibly vast, the works at the exhibit are composed primarily of etchings and lithographs, with the addition of a signed poster. But this limited selection in no way detracts from the exhibit. Curated by art collector Sandra Bowden, it draws heavily from a series of etched illustrations of the Hebrew Bible that Chagall initially illustrated for French art dealer Ambroise Vollard.
In the colorless etchings, Chagall captures the scene with such detail that one can constantly discover new intricacies hidden in the work. Additionally, in contrast to the typical highly stylized and stoic illustrations of the Bible, Chagall’s illustrations are far more subtle and present a more emotional picture of each event. These works also demonstrate his incredible talent with shadow and shading, with him repeatedly using small variances in the level of black to subtly build depth and detail in items.
Chagall’s colored works are equally phenomenal, often presenting either multiple interpretations of different events or very similar but slightly different works. They alternate between more abstract depictions of biblical events with bold colors and highly detailed depictions with trends of spectacular realism and vivid surrealism. One can get lost in the little details and pieces of Jewish culture and history hidden within his works, from little stars to the Hebrew characters, while also pondering his choices of colors.
The exhibit being on display in the Chapel is a result of an ongoing collaboration between Duke Chapel and the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA), part of Duke Divinity School. According to Associate Director of DITA Dan Train, the Chapel serves as the site of DITA’s exhibits due to its prominence and location in the middle of campus, which is intended to bring the exhibit to a large and diverse group of people. Chagall’s exhibit was selected because it connects well with DITA’s goal of sparking reflection on religion. As part of the exhibit, DITA will be hosting two additional events: a public panel on an undecided date with scholars knowledgeable of Chagall and the Old Testament and a lecture on March 29 from Vivian Jacobson, a close friend of Chagall with unique insights into the late artist’s life.
I found the exhibit both enjoyable and educational, as I got to see alternative takes on stories from the Hebrew Bible while getting access to part of my culture which is usually inaccessible. I especially enjoyed getting to experience works by a Jewish artist about Jewish history (a part which is also a part of Christian and Muslim history), as that is somewhat of a rarity among the world of high art.
I chose to view each work first without reading the title, and then read the title and return to the scene to see if my interpretation changed. In terms of favorite works, I preferred the etchings while Train liked the various King David and Creation inspired works.
For those who are not Jewish or not from another Abrahamic faith, the works are interesting and compelling on the basis of the skill and talent of the artist who made them. This is an exhibit for everyone, with a special bonus for those interested in the Hebrew Bible. When asked to say who he’d recommend visit the exhibit, Dan Train said that everyone should see the exhibit, because it truly does have something for everyone: from art fanatics to lovers of interpretation to history lovers. I’d add that this exhibit is truly a beautiful experience that will resonate with all visitors due to the talent and style of Chagall.
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