Chagall’s Darkness Over Egypt (1931)

This is the story of how I think I made sense of an unfamiliar artwork, Chagall's 1931 hand-colored etching of Moses ordering the plague of darkness over Egypt (left). One of the tricks of interpretation is to let your mind work the way it wants to even if it seems contrary to intelligent thinking. Point being, even when you know you're wrong, you may still be right. On seeing Chagall's print for the first time, I could not help thinking of a famous series of photographs of Matisse taken two decades later. I knew that the Chagall was not based on Matisse (obviously not) but my mind still thought that it was a compelling comparison. Instead of stopping there as I might have done in earlier years, I followed the trail.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Chagall, Darkness over Egypt from the series La Bible (1931) Etching with hand coloring. Edition of 100.

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When the elderly Matisse was designing large-scale murals he would tie a piece of chalk to the end of a long pole and draw on paper tacked to the wall (top). Was Moses doing the same (bottom)? That seemed unlikely.

Refreshing my knowledge of Moses, I re-read the beginning of his story in the Bible when, as a Jewish newborn in danger of being killed, his mother placed him in a basket to float down the River Nile. He was found by the pharaoh's daughter who pulled him from the bullrushes and gave him to a wet nurse. After he had been weaned he was brought back to the princess who then named him Moses because [in her words] "I drew him out of the water."1 That blew me out of the water in turn because, as I soon learned, the Hebrew root of Moses means "to draw".

Chagall, commissioned to illustrate the Hebrew Bible, would have known this well. In French though, the same word (tirer) is not normally used for to draw a picture. Yet draw a line is tirer un trait and pull a print like this etching is tirer too. And an artist's approval to his printer is always conveyed by the same phrase: bon à tirer meaning good to go.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Photograph of Matisse drawing with charcoal at the end of a long stick (1940's)
Bottom: Detail of Chagall's Darkness over Egypt

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Once the pun is recognized, this Biblical illustration becomes spiritual art. A prophet and artist each contact their inner divinity to bring light out of darkness and meaning out of chaos. These outstretched arms are an artist's, no matter what scale they "draw" on. The young God even has Chagall's long curly hair.2 Cosmic creation is the model for creative thought in the minds of both prophets and artists. By drawing out their inner purity, they think creatively to help solve the problems of humanity.

Now note how the end of Moses' stick which reaches for the heavens actually touches the edge thereby conveying (in art's secret symbolism) that the image itself is the surface of a mirror.3 Insight and out-sight, the two forms of an artist's visual perception, can also be seen in Moses' eyes: one looks out, the other up.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Chagall, Darkness over Egypt

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In the lower corner a spectator, superficially a terrified Egyptian, looks upwards with a prominent hand (left). Like a small-scale donor in the sacred images of the Middle Ages, he stands in for the real-life artist in whose mind this is all taking place. Chagall thereby unifies opposites as both Moses and the Egyptian, artist and viewer, subject and object.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Chagall's Darkness over Egypt  

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That's why two giant 'eyes' loom in the dark on either side of Moses' arm. This is no real Egypt but the dark, subconscious source of wisdom in Chagall's mind and your's.

Chagall had a particular interest in helping others learn to be fully human. He said in Israel that: "The more our age refuses to see the full face of the universe and restricts itself to the sight of a tiny fraction of its skin, the more anxious I become when I consider the universe in its eternal rhythm..
" And he added of the prophets, "Have they not truly and justly shown in their words how to behave on this earth and by what ideal to live?"4

It's strange. The photo of Matisse was irrelevant but, without it, this print and its meaning might have passed me by. The lesson is: don't think logically to grasp an image. Trust your mind. As Chagall suggests here, it's wiser than you know.

Captions for image(s) above:

Chagall, Darkness over Egypt

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Exodus 2:10

2. In some of the 100 prints of Darkness over Egypt the handcoloring of God's cloak in the upper right corner makes it resemble an eye, thus strengthening God's identification as an artist. 

3. Not only does the stick meet the edge but Moses turns to look out over his shoulder as artists do when looking in the mirror. See "Pointing at the Edge" (Dec. 1st 2012)

4. Chagall, "Remarks at the dedication of the Jerusalem Windows" (1962)

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 20 Jan 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.