The Arts
Chagall Windows – Two Generations of Travelling Creatives & A Modern Art Lesson
August 9, 2018
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American Windows - Chagall | Highlights from the Art Institute of Chicago | Duende by Madam ZoZo

When my mum was young, footloose and fancy-free, i.e. before I came along, she travelled. One of her trips to Europe included a visit to Israel. There she picked up a couple of soulful souvenirs—tapestries of two Chagall Windows. The Windows are a set of twelve created by early modernist artist Marc Chagall for the Hadassah University Medical Center synagogue. But mum didn’t complete her tapestries, so roughly thirty years later I volunteered to take the needle and this is what I learnt along the way.

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The Chagall Windows, Israel

In 1959, Dr Mariam Freund (President of the Hadassah) and Joseph Neufeld (the architect of the medical centre) commissioned artist Marc Chagall to create stained-glass windows for the synagogue. Each of the twelve windows was inspired by one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The artist spent two years working on the project and the completed Chagall Windows were exhibited in Paris, and New York before they were permanently installed at the Medical Centre in 1962.

Mum's photos of Israel

Volunteering to be held at needlepoint

I remember seeing the tapestry (technically needlepoint) canvases in a cupboard as a child. Even more so, I remember seeing the bag of colourful embroidery thread that accompanied them. It was the colours that first drew me into Chagall’s work. He is often said to have crossed Fauvism, Cubism and Symbolism. It was the Fauvists, “wild beasts” like Henri Matisse, who used vivid and unnatural colour in their work. Chagall chose the dominant background colours of each window based on bible verses describing Jacob blessing his 12 sons and Moses blessing the twelve tribes, which mentioned gold, blue, purple and scarlet.

A few years ago, mum considered giving away the needlepoint canvases which she never found time to complete. I ignorantly volunteered to do them – oh boy! I can’t even tell you how long it took me to finish the first one. It would have been in the realm of 3 years. I would work on it in fits and spurts as I found renewed inspiration to tackle those tiny stitches.

I didn’t realise how much detailed black outline there was to complete – I much preferred the colourful parts of the design. Chagall’s assistant Charles Marq, developed a special process of applying colour to the glass so that Chagall could use three colours per pane, rather than the traditional technique of separating each stained-glass piece with a strip of lead. Yet there is still a lot of black outlines, in the needlepoint version at least.

I was so relieved to get through the first one, I hesitated to take on the second. Then I saw the first beautifully framed and decided the second had to be completed. But I procrastinated for at least a year. I wasn’t ready to place that first stitch. I knew once I started, it had to be completed—for my own satisfaction.

Marc Chagall - I and the Village (1911)
Marc Chagall - I and the Village (1911)
Tribe of Joseph - Hadassah Chagall Window

The first encounter – New York City

In that year’s “break” we relocated from Singapore to the U.S.A. Now there isn’t any better motivation to take up an indoor project than a Midwest winter, let me tell you. Still I procrastinated. Then in that first year, I went to New York and visited the Modern Museum of Art where Chagall had exhibited the windows before they were installed. I saw my first Chagall artwork face to face there. You can read about I and the Village in my Art Highlights of New York City post. I also saw the murals he created for the Metropolitan Opera House, installed in 1967.

I was buoyed for a while and made a start, but it faded. Then I began to read about Chagall and learnt that tapestries were one of the many mediums he worked in besides painting and glass. Chagall created book illustrations, stage sets and ceramics. Again the motivation petered out.

The Four Seasons - Marc Chagall
The Four Seasons, Chicago

Chagall in Chicago!

Yet almost another year passed. We went to Chicago and there in the Institute of Art, and I stood in front of Chagall’s America Windows. The six panels of luminous blue glass debuted at the Art Institute in 1977. The windows came about because Chagall had gone to Chicago in the early seventies to create The Four Seasons, a mosaic located in front of the Chase Tower. The city showed such enthusiasm for his tiled work that Chagall offered to create windows to commemorate America’s upcoming bicentennial. The windows celebrated America’s cultural and religious freedom through the arts (Jewish Chagall fled Europe for the USA during WWII). The glass works depicted music, painting, literature, theatre and dance. If you’ve ever seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ve seen the windows even if you didn’t realise it.

American Windows - Chagall | Highlights from the Art Institute of Chicago | Duende by Madam ZoZo
American Windows - Marc Chagall (1977)

Tapestries and travel tools

Finally, I have the inspiration to complete the second window! You really have to stand in front of these glass artworks to understand how ethereal and beautiful they are. They are every bit worth recreating stitch by stitch. I also added the Chagall windows at the Hadassah Medical Centre on my art bucket list.

Now, as of July 2018, I am almost halfway through the second canvas. It’s my new evenings-in-front-of-the-tv project. Unfortunately, the tiny stitches require more light than my living room affords after dark. As if these tapestries weren’t already interwoven with travel inspiration, now they require some travel practicality as well—my trusty headlamp—handsfree illumination for creative hands and adventurous travellers!! I’m sure I look ridiculous but it gets the job done.

Issachar window tapestry in progress
Issachar window tapestry in progress
A work in progress

Places to experience the art of Marc Chagall

  • Hadassah University Medical Center, Israel
  • MoMA, New York, USA
  • The Metropolitan Opera House, New York, USA
  • UN Building, New York, USA
  • Union Church of Pocantico Hills, Tarrytown, USA
  • Chicago Institute of Art, Chicago, USA
  • Chase Tower Plaza, Chicago, USA
  • Paris’s Opéra Garnier, Paris, France
  • Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France
  • Chichester Cathedral, Chichester, UK
  • St Stephen’s Church, Mainz, Germany
  • Fraumünster, Zurich, Switzerland

What creative project has your travel inspired you take on? Tell us in the comments below.

Keep me accountable and sign up to the Duende email list for pics when I finally complete this tapestry!!

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Souvenirs of Israel and a modern art lesson

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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