Growing up in Vitebsk, the poetic nature of Biblical narratives had surrounded Chagall since childhood, and in 1930, he happily accepted commissions for painted scenes from the Old Testament from the art dealer and writer, Ambroise Vollard. Painted in 1957, the present work echoes Chagall’s continued search for profound reflection in life and in art, which he revisited from the mid-1950s until 1966 through a series of large paintings, which comprised his Biblical Message. In the artist’s own words: ‘For me perfection in art and in life comes from this Biblical source. Without this spirit, the mechanics of logic and constructivity in art, as in life, cannot bear fruit,’ (quoted in ‘The Biblical Message’ in Chagall: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 295).
Interrogating the metaphysical potential of paint, Chagall creates a unique iconography that elucidates a Heideggerian philosophy, presenting the ordinary and the extraordinary as intrinsically aligned. That is to say that the Biblical message of extraordinary miracles are brought into being in the sphere of the everyday. Chagall’s work seeks to transcend modern aesthetics as the artist infuses this paintings with poetic and religious insight that tests the bounds of paint as a medium, elevating it to a realm in which the meaning of the work comes from the viewer’s personal engagement. Chagall wrote: ‘I was born, one might say, between heaven and earth, that the world is for me a great desert in which my soul wanders like a torch, I did these paintings in unison with this distant dream.’ (quoted in Ibid. p. 295).
Through his radical modernist aesthetic and iconic symbolism, La Traversée de la Mer Rouge is a powerfully evocative composition that reveals the psychological and spiritual needs of his time.
This work is most likely a study of the large-scale œuvre, La Traversée de la Mer Rouge (1955), which is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
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