Arts & Minds: New exhibits highlight Marc Chagall and Bob Dylan

“Marc Chagall and the Bible" is at Wheaton College through March 8, and "Bob Dylan: Electric" will be at the American Writers Museum through April 30.

bob dylan exhibit image
Visitors to the American Writers Museum viewing the exhibition 'Bob Dylan: Electric.' Photo courtesy of American Writers Museum.

Wheaton College exhibition captures Marc Chagall's images of Hebrew Bible and New Testament

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is the most widely known and beloved of 20th century Jewish artists -- a master of capturing the dreamlike, mystical elements of life in works that are at once deeply rooted in tradition and infused with the revolutionary developments in modern art.

Among Chagall's abiding themes were the stories in the Hebrew Bible and the books Christians call the New Testament, with a notable number of his images involving the crucifixion of Jesus. As the artist once explained, "Since my early youth, I have been fascinated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me that it is still the greatest source of poetry of all time. Since then I have sought this reflection in life and in art. The Bible is like an echo of nature, and this secret I have tried to transmit."

Now on display at the Billy Graham Center Museum of Wheaton College (the Christian evangelical Protestant liberal arts college and graduate school in west suburban Illinois) is "Marc Chagall and the Bible," an exhibition of more than 40 of the artist's brilliantly colored lithographs and black and white etchings. This traveling show, on loan from the Bowden Collections (which is overseen by Susan Bowden, an artist, art historian, and collector with a special interest in Christian art), it is open to the public. But it also serves as part of Wheaton's Core Studies program which, according to Robert Hooker, an Art History professor at the school, is designed "as a way to pose questions to freshmen seminar students about understanding the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible, and to get them thinking about how modern art functions in society, and how we can have a better understanding of each other's past."

"Chagall's painting, 'The White Crucifix,' which is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, [painted in Paris in 1938, as a response to the brutal events of Kristallnacht] has always been a very powerful work for me," said Hooker. "It was his way of reminding people of the Holocaust by making it clear that the Jews were not 'the other,' but that they are us. And I think about that often with this exhibit.

Hooker is particularly intrigued by a series of three works in the Wheaton show that are about Sarah, the wife of Abraham -- one showing her with angels, another in which Abraham touches her tenderly on the shoulder, and a third depicting God intervening (via angels) to protect her.

"If you look at the three images you see God's faithfulness to Sarah, and Chagall's suggestion that God's promise is stronger than the marital promise."

Chagall grew up in a Hasidic family in Vitebsk, a city in Belarus. But he visited Russian Orthodox churches there, and as he wrote, "The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring it out of my young heart." He did so for the first time in 1908, during a time of pogroms, and returned to the crucifixion theme, with far less innocence, in the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazis. A 1957 lithograph in the exhibition, "Christ as a Clock," features Jesus in the form of a grandfather clock, and suggests how the plight of the Jewish people has withstood time.

The etchings by Chagall that are part of the exhibit were originally intended to be illustrations for a Hebrew Bible and were drew on the artist's first visit to the Holy Land in 1931. The suite of colored lithographs was created for the French magazine Verve , which published them in special editions in 1956 and 1960.

Chagall lived in Russia, Berlin, Paris, and New York, and made it through all the great upheavals of the 20th century, including the Russian Revolution and the two world wars. But as Sandra Bowden observed, "He also lived in the world of imagination and felt that the inner world was as real as the external world. And he was able to illuminate the scriptural stories in new ways."

As Hooker noted: "Looking at Chagall's work has helped me grow in my own faith and rethink parts of the Old Testament in ways I hadn't done before. Taking that dive into Chagall has great value for Christians."

"Marc Chagall and the Bible" runs through March 8 at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center Museum in Wheaton, Ill. Visit wheaton.edu

NOTE: The national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof , whose title was inspired by a Chagall image, runs through Jan. 6 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Visit broadwayinchicago.com

Bob Dylan: That Jewish guy from Minnesota who championed folk music and then went electric

He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941. Raised primarily in a small town in Minnesota, he moved to Minneapolis in 1959 to attend the University of Minnesota but soon dropped out to pursue his passion for music. His initial obsession was rock 'n' roll, but he soon became enthralled by American folk music and songs that, as he put it, "were filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural and much deeper feelings."

He became involved in the Dinkytown folk music circuit in Minneapolis and adopted a new name. And yes, you guessed it -- Bob Dylan. The rest is history, including the notorious moment during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he declared his musical independence and left many of his fans in a state of dismay by "going electric." Dylan would go on to flirt with Christianity during the late 1970s, and then return to his Jewish roots. He would forge an extensive later career that has found him recording everything from new work to American standards and Christmas songs. And finally, with some hesitation, he would accept the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature that paid tribute to his generation-shaping lyrics.

Currently on display at Chicago's American Writers Museum is "Bob Dylan: Electric" an exhibit (running through April 30) that uses the Newport incident (and the actual 1964 Sunburst Fender Stratocaster that made it possible) as the catalyst for a look at Dylan's overall impact on our culture.

On Jan. 10, Ronald Cohen, a history professor at Indiana University Northwest and the author of many books and articles about folk music in America, will give a talk at the museum that will place Dylan in the context of American and British folk music in the 1950s, discuss the culture from which it emerged, and follow Dylan into the mid 1960s.

"The talk is based on an essay I'm contributing to a massive 34-chapter book, Bob Dylan in Context to be published in 2020 in conjunction with the new Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, which houses Dylan's archives.

Said Cohen: "The man is just a musical and literary sponge."

Cohen's talk will be held at the American Writers Museum, located at 180 N. Michigan Ave. (2nd Floor) in Chicago. Visit americanwritersmuseum.org

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the Chicago Tonight program.




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