In the next few Art Unboxed posts, I would like to explore some historical artists, their techniques, and their influences. To me this is important, not only how it has influenced my artistic style and what I enjoy in art, but how it has impacted the world itself in some way. I’ve shared before my definition of the word. Art should inspire, reflect God’s majesty, warm the hearts of loved ones, and communicate with strangers.
Those four points are what I believe a true work of art is. Even if I don’t care for the artistic style, if it does these four things, it becomes for me a work of art. It is because of this definition that I want to share with you the first artist in this part of the series.
It may surprise you as he was a modern artist, something I don’t normally talk about. In this case his personal story is as important as his art, because it impacted the world. Marc Chagall, born Moishe Shagal, was a prolific artist. Of him Pablo Picasso once said “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is”. Art critic Robert Hughes once said that he was “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.”
My primary focus with his art, which would not surprise you, are his Biblical paintings. Art Historian Le Marie said that his paintings of the Old Testament were “full of divine inspiration, which retrace the legendary destiny and the epic history of Israel to Genesis to the Prophets, through the Patriarchs and the Heroes. Each picture becomes one with the event, informing the text with a solemn intimacy unknown since Rembrandt.”
I admire his devotion to Biblical artistry, especially his paintings of the prophet Jonah. To appreciate Chagall’s Biblical paintings, you have to understand how he arrived at them. As with many journeys it didn’t seem to start out as a pilgrimage, but that wasn’t what put Jonah on the boat either. It started out as a business deal.
Ambroise Vollard, one of the major art dealers in that day, commissioned him to illustrate the Old Testament. This led to a research trip to Israel. Of it Chagall said later “In the East I found the Bible and part of my own being.” Pouring himself into these paintings for years, he also studied the Biblical paintings of Rembrandt and El Greco.
The irony is that while Chagall was painting the Bible, Hitler was growing in power in Germany. Later when France began to collapse under the German invaders, Americans helped to rescue some 2,000 artists including Chagall and his paintings. I can’t help but smile that Chagall and his paintings evaded Hitler. Light will always conquer darkness.
In many ways this reflects something that Jonah’s rescuer was trying to show him. Mercy sends a prophet, first warns then spares a city, and reaches into the heart of the sea to salvage a rebellious soul. For me personally, Chagall’s connection to Jonah is interesting because much earlier in the first century, the beginnings of Christian art were mostly images of the Old Testament prophet Jonah.
They used Jonah as a symbol of Christ. This has everything to do with what The Lord Jesus said when they asked Him for a sign to prove that He was Christ. He said that no sign would be given except for that of the prophet Jonah. As Jonah was in the belly of the great fish three days and three nights, so would The Son Of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
It is amazing how early Christians understood so clearly what Jesus was saying. So much they used it as a reminder in their paintings and statues. The early Church not only understood Christ’s words, they celebrated them. They reflected light in the midst of darkness. Art and Ministry both use symbols to illustrate concepts, each is concerned with shadow and light.
Chagall’s Bible paintings being produced at the same time Hitler was expanding is itself about light and darkness. The darker the background of an area of a painting, the more attention the adjoining light areas will be. Light grows brighter, darkness eventually fades Chagall’s art far outlived Hitler.
In addition to his paintings Chagall created stained glass for Churches, Synagogues, and other organizations. He said that stained glass was, “… something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace…“
Many artists will tell you that conveying light is their technique’s primary focus. A painter mixes yellow and white to convey a sunrise to illustrate the beauty before them. They know, and are never expecting any human to be capable of producing something as beautiful as what they’ve seen. Regardless if they are a believer or an atheist they’ll admit they can only mimic true beauty, but they will reflect it as best they can. An artist will pursue this pursuit of light for a lifetime.
Chagall knew, whether a reading in Jonah, or a painting of his redemption, it is about light. He attempted in his own finite way, to reflect what he had experienced in Israel researching the Bible. As a result his paintings of Scripture inspired, reflected God’s majesty, warmed the hearts of loved ones, and communicated with strangers across the world, they were works of art.