Currently there are two museum exhibits featuring the work of Mark Chagall in Manhattan. This post is about the Chagall only show at the Museum of Biblical Art.
For notes and comments on the current superb show at the Jewish Museum which includes work by Chagall and many other fine artists, and places their work in the context of time and place and most interesting in politics as well, please see my previous post by scrolling down below past this post. The interaction of the art work and the intelligent notes are excellent.
The MOBiA show titled Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling, has beautiful works of art by Chagall which includes the lithographs of his famous windows and paintings, the works are well displayed, and you can pay as you wish when you enter the museum. No problem- all nice.
But there is a tremendous problem with the information cards which are part of this show. Perhaps this is the best that a museum usual devoted to Christian themes can manage, but I saw this exhibit with two friends, one of whom is an author and Holocaust scholar, and we all shared the same dismay at the “information” which explained Marc Chagall and his work which were on display.
The exhibit explained the Pale of Settlement of eastern European Jews as “a huge multi-sect Jewish Ghetto spanning thousands of miles”, really wrong and it is a very strange definition- part the the extreme dumbing down of education, I guess, distressing… The exhibit cards refer to “Hasidic Jewish” imagery when referring to symbols from the Torah that are common to all Jews throughout time, that means it is common to Jews for thousands of years. Hasidism is a modern movement originating in what is now Belarus and Ukraine in the 18th century.
Another card refers to the “Yiddish religion”, there is no such thing… and “Yiddish Hasidim” (is there some other kind of Hasidim perhaps?) It makes one wonder what on earth they have against calling the religion of the Jewish people ”Judaism”? No mention was made of the Kabbalistic imagery in Chagall’s work, thankfully, I guess.
The beautiful lithograph called ”Mystical Crucifixion“ on display is dominated by the lush deep colors and has a crucified figure, presumably Jesus, the full moon, and the Red Heifer in the center of the painting.
In Judaism, The Red Heifer is an absolutely rare and perfect animal, without blemish, never yoked, with perfectly straight hairs all of the same color, used in a mystical ritual sacrifice. The ashes of the sacrificed and burned animal are mixed with water for a purification ritual. The portion of the Torah describing the Parah-Red Heifer- are read at special times during the year in the synagogue. It is also an example of a law that has no apparent logic and demands faith.
The Red Heifer clearly has very special status in Jewish tradition. Certainly Chagall’s painting deals with the special, rare, mysterious, irrational, sacrifice of Jesus and the Red Heifer.
Nothing about this symbolism appeared in the cards.
Neither did the snippet of information that the little goat that dances around Chagall’s world is often the symbol for the Jewish people, or any other cogent explanation of Jewish symbols. I guess it would be asking just to much.
See the art work and spare yourself from reading the “information” cards about the exhibit.
There is an exhibit booklet written by art historian Tom Freudenheim which is available at the counter (only $4) and it does not suffer from any of these short-comings, of course.
On our way out of the museum, we passed the gift shop which featured large posters which were pro-Creationism vs Darwinism, etc, this is very exotic for the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Also, if you walk just a few blocks north from the museum, Marc Chagall’s tapestries hang in the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.
Also, the MOBiA wesite explains it’self as follows:
“Unlike many other museums, MOBIA looks at art through the lens of religion, carefully explaining the original context of the artworks on exhibit in order to illuminate symbolism, ritual and history. As an educational institution that takes no position on religion, MOBIA provides a neutral meeting ground where visitors, of all faiths and none, can learn about the history and significance of art that has been have been inspired by the Bible, and explore the symbolism and traditions which, though profoundly influential, have frequently been left unexplained by many of the worldÃs museums. Here, audiences gather to openly discuss the complex impact of the Bible on art, culture, and society. “
Judge for yourself.
Marc Chagall’s Biblical Visions:
Echoes of Loss, Promises of Renewal Chagall’s Biblical Imagination
Jean Bloch Rosensaft, director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York discusses Chagall’s interpretations of biblical characters and narratives. Co-sponsored with and held at the Museum of Biblical Art, 1165 Broadway at 61st Street, by the JCC of Manhattan.
Thu, Dec 4, 6:30-7:30 pm Free .This should be a good counterpoint to the inadequate information cards at this exhibit.