Of all 20th century artists, Marc Chagall may have been the perfect one to illustrate episodes from the Bible, as clearly shown by the exhibit "Chagall's Exodus," opening today at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Dec. 30).
Born in a Jewish ghetto in Russia in 1887, his religious heritage would have given him a natural interest in the Bible's stories. And the kind of imagery he developed, surreal and fantasylike, with an element of childlike innocence, is ideal for the depiction of events that blend history, religion and myth. The 24 colored lithographs from his 1966 project "The Story of Exodus," which form the bulk of this exhibit, demonstrate vividly how aspects of his style conspire not just to illustrate the life of Moses, but to humanize the story and communicate its deeper religious meaning as well.
Chagall's nervous, fluid line gives the events of the story, from the burning bush to the parting of the Red Sea to the receipt of the Ten Commandments, an energy that adds to their immediacy and excitement. His expressionistic color heightens the mood of each segment of the tale, from pastoral yellows and greens for the picture of Israelites gathering to drink water flowing from the rock to black for Moses' anger as he flings down the tablets.
The deliberate simplification of forms give the images a sense of childlike wonder and completeness of belief; the blobby, not-quite-solid bodies look as if they exist in some realm between real people, with their feet on the ground, and dreamed or imagined beings.
The distortions and exaggerations of space and scale constitute another felicity. The adult Moses is almost always much larger than any other character (with the exception of Aaron) in those scenes in which he appears, so that while we know the Israelites in his charge are also adults they appear as his children. When Moses and Aaron visit the Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelites, even the Pharaoh appears smaller in scale. The angel appears smaller than Moses, except in the penultimate lithograph when the angel lifts Moses into the sky. In this, the two appear much the same scale, as if Moses has at last entered the realm of the angel.
Chagall is an artist who is at his most winning when in his own company. One of his works, seen in a gallery full of other 20th century artists, may seem pretty or slight. But when you step into his world he becomes completely convincing.
Aside from the Exodus suite this show contains about a dozen other works, also from the museum's holdings, including examples of his illustrations for an edition of Gogol's "Dead Souls" (1948) and prints from the much-earlier "My Life" (1923).
Chagall's work gains depth from a frequent note of sadness that underlies the fantasy. Sometimes, if related in mere words, a Chagall will seem silly. But in execution it works. In 1943, in New York during World War II, he pictured the "Eiffel Tower" with an eye weeping for France.
Yes, yes, it sounds trite, even stupid, but you have to be there.