By Kayla Green
For the first time in history, Marc Chagall’s Bible-themed engravings, originally intended as a gift for his second wife, are on display to the public. The engravings are part of the “Chagall and the Bible” exhibit in Paris’s Museum of Jewish Art and History which contains 105 of Chagall’s engravings illustrating the 1956 edition of the Bible. The full exhibit consists of half of Chagall’s preliminary sketches for the book’s engravings, 25 oil paintings of Biblical scenes and watercolor and gouache mock-ups of Chagall’s glass work. These intimate and historically rich pieces lend insight into the deep complexity of Chagall’s Jewish legacy, from his identity as a Jew in exile to his reawakening upon his first visit to Israel. Most importantly, they are able to convey Chagall’s interesting perspective of what it means to be a Jew in a Christian world, as well as the Jewish aspects of Christian life.
The three-story exhibition is filled with bright colors and dramatic artistic touches. The whimsical Biblical scenes are accompanied by multi-lingual Biblical verses, ensuring comprehension for each viewer, while the gouache mock-ups of stained glass windows are eye-catching with their vivid orange and purple hues. More amazing than the splendor and beauty of Chagall’s work is the symbolism and meaning that underlies it.
Chagall’s art attempts to reconcile Jews and Christians, usually by depicting Christian beliefs and history through a Jewish lens, creating the effect that Jews and Jewish history are integral to Christian survival and legacy. In one painting, entitled White Crucifixion, Jews flee their Nazi persecutors while Jesus hangs above them on the cross, trying to protect them. This heartbreaking image exposes Chagall’s perception that gentile society could only understand the plight of the Jews in Christian terms. In fact, Chagall painted more than 100 scenes of Jesus and the crucifixion in his life. The connection between Judaism and the New Testament was a common theme in Chagall’s art, says Susan Goodman, senior curator of New York’s Jewish Museum. “It was a way of asserting an ideological challenge to the dominant Christian culture. He was asserting the Jewishness of Christ.” Here, moreover, we can see Chagall trying to downplay the “otherness” of the Jews by reasserting the original connection between Christ and Judaism.
Chagall’s worldview represents the difficulties he faced as a Jew, from his exile from Russia to France and his eventual move to the United States during the time of World War II. The inspiration he found in his trip to Israel, where he visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall is also palpable from the exhibit. What it best describes though, is the complexity of Jewish-Gentile relations. In the middle of Paris, a city known for both philo-Semitism, and xenophobia, art-lovers are introduced to one man’s attempt to explain the plight of the Jews by emerging them in familiar Christian settings as well as his ability to demonstrate the Jewish roots of Christianity. The overall effect is both unifying and eye-opening, as it conveys that peace and understanding art can convey.
By Chelsea Beroza
Walking into Abraham Yurberg’s retrospective at Ten43 Gallery is like walking into a moment trapped in time. Yurberg transports us through a lifetime of intense emotion and expression in the twenty-five paintings and twelve works on paper spanning the artist’s seventy-year career. It is incredible to consider that this exhibition marks the first time Yurberg has allowed his work to be shown since retreating from the public eye in 1967. Why he would hide such beauty from the world is unfathomable.
Upon entering the left side of the gallery is covered with colorful, deeply saturated paintings with heavy impasto representative of the Abstract Expressionist style. The works are hung in chronological order from the 1940s onward thus adding to the biographical narrative. On the right side of the gallery a series of drawings he created while fighting in World War II are on display. The drawings are wrought with conflict, as the young man experienced horrors of war while also trying to hold on to his own humanity. Faces and backgrounds are obscured creating a notion of displacement. Both the paintings and drawings are visual memoirs from his past and although figural, his drawings suggest the abstraction he invokes later in life.
Born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1912, Abraham Yurberg immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy where he was raised on New York’s Lower East Side. The harsh realities of the Depression prompted Yurberg to embrace the alternative reality offered by the city’s museums and galleries. When he started painting his style was defined by an emotional intensity. Following Yurberg’s first taste of critical success, he was drafted into the United States Army, serving on the front lines of Italy and North Africa. Art became a form of therapy when coping with the war’s trauma. As a Jewish soldier, his role in the war took on a more symbolic meaning. Not only was he fighting for his country, but also the lives of his people suffering under the most palpable evil the modern world had ever known. The works on paper during this time are evidence of his struggle to make sense of the war and the staggering loss of entire generations of Polish and German Jews.
The devastation and loss stayed with Yurberg upon returning to New York. He had difficulty confronting the horrors he experienced overseas and although he continued to show his work sporadically in exhibitions at Harry Salpeter Gallery, the British American Museum, The Riverside Museum and The Hanover Trust, in 1967 he retreated from the public eye completely though he continued to paint almost daily for the next forty-four years.
The paintings are a visual mapping of the artist’s emotional history. Yurberg’s art conflates the various stages of his life into a rhythmic pattern that breathes life and loss. Although specific to the artist’s experiences, his work also speaks to the shared history of the Jewish communities in New York and overseas. The Great Depression and World War II were the catalysts that drove his work.
Landing a solo gallery show so late in one’s career is not an easy task by any means. Yurberg’s obvious ambition so late in life speaks to a real need to share his artistic output. Yurberg honors the ghosts of his past and confronts them on the stark gallery walls with his brush, a moving tribute and catharsis for the 98 year old Polish immigrant.
Abraham Yurberg’s retrospective will be on view at Ten43 Gallery (1043 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10075) through February 19th, 2011. www.ten43gallery.com