Nostalgic Impulses: Marc Chagall’s Illustrations for La Bible

Auteur / Author: 
Jessie KUO (Institute of Cultural Disciplines, Leiden University, Pays-Bas)
Lundi 22 Août 2011 - 15:15

This essay takes Marc Chagall’s etchings for La Bible, commissioned by Ambroise Vollard in 1930, as an example to explore the possibility of the visual realization of nostalgic ideas and the interaction between sacred texts and images. Under his contemporary social context of the Jewish Diaspora, this Russian-Jewish artist injects his own identities into the biblical images and hence inscribes the bible with his personal experiences. In Chagall’s illustrations, the direct use of Hebrew letters sheds a new light on biblical iconology, and the epoch of exiles is also reflected in the images of Jerusalem.

I will discuss how the artist interprets well-known biblical stories through his choices of illustrations, the pictorial devices with Jewish or Christian roots, and related subjects from his other artworks. It’s not difficult to point out that when choosing the verses to illustrate, Chagall tends to stick to themes concerning the history of Israel and the inheritance of God’s covenant. His visual presentation of these scenes on the one hand shows influences from both earlier illustrators and religious teachings, and on the other hand reveals his innovative way of entangling words and images; for example, the image of God is replaced by the inscription of tetragrammaton, and hymns or regulations are shown directly as written words coexisting with visual objects. Also, the artist’s narration of the Scripture is testified again by examining Chagall’s other works of related subjects, including another Bible version Chagall made for the Verve magazine (1956).

This essay attempts to demonstrate that there are two levels of nostalgia presented in Chagall’s biblical illustrations: nostalgic ideas not only refer to the physical longing for a lost motherland, which meets the political situation between the Wars, but also refer to the spiritual quest for a stage when God and humans share a closer relationship and an eternal commitment.