Talmud and the art of Ben-Zion and Marc Chagall



Show Opening:
Saturday, October 7, 2023 · 2p—5p

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Show Statement

Noun [tahl-mood, -muhd, tal- ] Late Hebrew talmudh, literally, instruction. The collection of writings constituting the Jewish civil and religious law: it consists of two parts, the Mishnah (text) and the Gemara (commen-tary), but the term is sometimes restricted to the Gemara. (Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, second edition)

The title TALMUD is appropriate for this show that brings together the Biblical work of two of the most important Jewish artists of the 20th Century. Even though Talmud deals traditionally with text and not image, these images are commentaries on the text of Scripture in the best of the Talmudic tradition. Not only can this tradition continue as we meditate on the individual subjects of these works, but the Talmudic dialogue is also accomplished as we view the works of these two artists side by side. It is hoped that together, you and the artists will set in motion a joyous interchange of instruction and learning, perhaps even holy delight, that will not fade as you leave the gallery.

William Rubin recounts in his Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy the making of Jacque Lipchitz’s sculpture of the Virgin, and the artist’s thoughts on the subject. Himself a Jew, Lipchitz rejected the notion that a Buddhist sculpture could properly be placed in a Catholic church in the same way that Jewish sculpture might. Lipchitz said, “we belong to one Judeo-Christian Western Tradition. For me, it’s the same thing, a kind of direct continuation.”

In the same way, Christians understand that the Scriptures, both old and new, are a continuation. In fact, the accounts of the formation of the early church wrestle extensively with the problem of what to do with all the Gentiles who wanted to join the essentially Jewish Church—what was the Greek and Roman believer’s relationship to the laws and rituals of Judaism? As Jesus told the Samaritan woman who wanted healing for her child, “Salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22)

Steven Glucksberg, an artist friend of mine, is Jewish. We met when he sought me out after seeing a reproduction of my painting “Christ Whipped” in the Washington Post a number of years ago. It is a rich friendship that continues to grow because we both understand our faith and we are therefore able to relate to one another, “core to core, not fringe to fringe” as Chaim Potok has put it. We are able to acknowledge our differences instead of acting as though they don’t matter.

Of course, we do have much in common. For one thing, Steven and I both fervently await the Messiah. Jesus as the Messiah is the stumbling block between us; the point at which we disagree. As Steven says, “All I know is that when the Messiah comes, he will not die.” I counter, “But there was the Resurrection.” He says that there is a historical dispute among the rabbis as to whether the Messiah will come in gentleness or judgment. I say that we Christians have that covered—He came first in humility and will come again in judgment. Steven says that God promised Noah that he will never destroy the world again, but God never said that man would not destroy the world—it is up to us. I say that we Christians agree that destruction by flood is out, but God may do it by fire, even by giving free rein to our arrogance. And so it goes. We both agree that when the Messiah comes, in whatever manner that He might choose, He will complete the world—make it perfect.

It is hard to imagine a more kind and generous friend than Steven. As our families have celebrated the Passover Seder over the last years much depth and richness of understanding has been added to my faith. And I think that it is not unimportant that we met through Steven’s response to a painting with a core Christian subiect—the Passion of Jesus.

At times we talk about the Talmud. (Less orthodox Jews might say we “do Talmud,” or “create Talmud,” as they see Talmud as a process, an ongoing commentary on Scripture and the written law, but Steven eschews such liberalizing language.) Steven will see one of my paintings on a Biblical theme and we will comment on it from our respective traditions. He has taught me about angels and Jewish martyrs and has suggested subjects that I should consider. I have encouraged him to do paintings of the Scriptures and of Jewish life and worship, for I have sensed that it is there that my friend finds his true passion. In these discussions about art and religion and how the two relate to the meaning of Scripture, new understandings are reached and new insights are found. This may not be traditional Talmud, as we deal with images and not text, but I think that it is within the boundaries of the tradition of Talmud in the same way that the works of Ben-Zion and Marc Chagall are. There is a continuation not only between Jew and Christian in our discussions but also between image and text.

It is therefore quite fitting that as Christians Diane and I should have in our collection the works of Ben-Zion and Marc Chagall, both of whom give interpretive insights and instruction on the Biblical narrative. We prize these works all the more because of their witness not only to the continuity between the Jewish and Christian faiths but to the primacy of Biblical Truth—God’s Word to us—and the foundations the Scriptures lay for the coming of the Messiah. It is our hope that as you view these Biblical stories you will be able to continue, with much enjoyment, the Talmudic dialogue that these artists have begun.

—Edward Knippers




Reared by his father for the rabbinate, Ben-Zion Weiman came from Poland to America in 1920. After turning to art (and shortening his name), he became a founding member of The Ten, the 1930s’ avant-garde group, with Ilya Bolotowsky, Lee Gatch, Adolph Gottleib, Mark Rothko, and others. Ben-Zion’s work is represented in many museums throughout the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. The Jewish Museum in New York opened in 1948 with a Ben-Zion exhibition.

Ben-Zion brought his blunt, powerful expressionism to Biblical subjects not only in his paintings, but also in four intaglio portfolios of eighteen prints each. The first three portfolios, Biblical Themes (1951), Prophets (1952), and The Book of Ruth, Job, and Song of Songs (1954), were published by Curt Valentin, who was also Max Beckmanni’s dealer. The fourth, Judges and Kings, delayed for ten years because of Valentin’s untimely death in 1954, was printed by la Couriere in Paris, who also printed etchings by Picasso, and was published by Graphophile. The Biblical Themes portfolio is complete in this exhibition.



Marc Chagall

The name of this artist, one of the most brilliant lights of the 20th Century art world, is forever linked with the Bible in the formation, by the French Government, of the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice. Born in Vitebsk, Russia, Chagall began to study painting in 1907 in his hometown and then for three years in St. Petersburg. In 1910 he began a four-year stay in Paris. After a one-man show in Berlin, he returned to Vitebsk in 1914 where he married Bella Rosenfeld, who he celebrated in many of his works. Chagall, with his wife and daughter, returned to Paris in 1923 where he met the art dealer and fine art publisher Ambroise Vollard. In 1931 he began a suite of etchings on the Bible for Vollard, which eventually encompassed 105 prints but which would remain unpublished during Vollard’s lifetime.

The Biblical suite was finally published in two volumes by Teriade in 1956. The French magazine Verve published a suite of color lithographs of Chagall’s Biblical themes the same year as a double issue. Four years later a larger suite, Drawings for the Bible, was published in both a French edition and an American edition. This suite of prints is complete here.

The 24 original color lithographs in this exhibition were printed by Mourlot Freres, and are from the American edition. The printing was completed in Paris on the 29th of July 1960. The book cover included in this exhibition is also a lithograph specially designed for this edition.