"The Bible is life, an echo of nature, and this is the secret I have endeavored to transmit."
-- Marc Chagall
For the next few months, the Nassau County Museum of Art will be one of the world's greatest repositories of art by Marc Chagall. Among the treasures of "Chagall," opening Saturday, are 60 of the 105 hand-colored Bible etchings he created starting in 1931. None has been displayed before on Long Island, and some, drawn from private collections, have rarely, if ever, been seen in museums.
In addition, 47 paintings and gouaches round out this major exhibition of works by the 20th century master who resisted art fads throughout his long career. Chagall died in 1985.
The idea for the show began with Arnold Saltzman, founding president and now vice president of the Nassau museum. "He loves Chagall and saw this as a wonderful opportunity," says Constance Schwartz, guest curator of the show and director-emeritus of the museum.
"We were looking to establish that Chagall was a storyteller free from influences of various 20th century movements," Schwartz says. The show draws heavily on private collections, but there also are loans from Marquette University's Haggerty Museum in Milwaukee "almost never seen in New York," Schwartz says. Other loans are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Armand Hammer and Edward Albee foundations.
BIBLE AS A MUSE
"Although Chagall was not pious," says Schwartz, "he carried the feeling of being Jewish all his life." A native of Vitebsk, Russia, he moved to France -- permanently, he thought, at the start of the Russian Revolution. Commissioned to create Bible prints, he traveled to Palestine, land of the Old Testament. Returning to France, he stayed too long and was in Vichy, France, when the Nazis were sending French Jews to concentration camps. By then, a renowned artist, he was saved by entreaties from the New York Museum of Modern Art. Following his American years in the '40s, Chagall returned to France and published his etchings in 1957, confirming his reputation as one of the great colorists of his time. "Nobody knows what God looks like or David, for that matter," says Schwartz, "but Chagall created a living imagery."
PAINTING HIS OWN PATH
While Chagall dabbled in cubism and surrealism -- he was even invited to join André Breton's circle -- "he did his own thing," says Schwartz. "Love is evident in much of his work," she says, adding that his muses were his wives, Bella, who died in 1944, and Vava, who died in 1993. "His paintings are full of symbolism, often returning to themes that formed him in his native village," whether it's an early portrait of his sister or "L'Acrobate," balanced on a circus unicorn. Both are in the Nassau show. "He never forgot who he was," says the curator.
ADMISSION $10, $8 seniors, $4 ages 4-12, $2 parking on weekends; nassaumuseum.org, 516-484-9337