Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



1887 - 1985

Painting as Poetry



Part I

"Painting as Poetry"

Part II

Daphnis and Chloe

Drawings for the Bible


Other Paintings

Part III





"A painter does not usually have a true picture of himself.

But he may achieve this with time.

In old age you look back over your life.

You see through yourself, as if from outside,

and paint your inner life as if you were painting a still life."

Marc Chagall






Tapestry, the art of weaving decorative textiles, is one of the most ancient artistic forms. It was widespread in the early Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian and Indian civilisations, as well as in Ancient Greece, where tapestries adorned the walls of the Parthenon, in pre-Columbian Peru, and among tribes such as the Navajo Indians.



Coptic tapestry
Egypt, 6th-7th century BC

Tapestries have been produced down the ages in many different cultures, for the aristocracy and for ordinary citizens. They were used to cover and decorate the walls and floors of public and private places, and even for clothing. The weavers of those tapestries were regarded by their contemporaries as innovative artist-craftsmen, who with skill and patience, and by various techniques, took the designs of other artists on paper or canvas and transformed them into richly coloured textiles.

Some of the earliest and most beautiful tapestries were woven in the 5th and 6th centuries by the Copts in Egypt. Their looms consisted of a simple frame with a roller at each end. In the Middle Ages, when tapestry weaving became an important form of employment, new techniques were developed to create illusions of light and shade. During the Renaissance, weavers succeeded in reproducing every brush stroke and nuance of the image by a skilled mixing of dyes.

Colour has always been a central element in tapestry weaving, and the dye master's profession was a highly specialised one. Before the development of chemical dyes, colouring substances were extracted from insects, plants, flowers, shells, onion skins, lemon peel and saffron.

Wool is the material most frequently found in tapestries, although other fibres such as cotton, silk and linen are also common. The Peruvians used fine alpaca and silky vicuna wool, the Copts favoured linen, and the Chinese silk. Down the ages, the predominant subjects portrayed in tapestries have been religious motifs and scenes from myths and legends.

The age-old art of tapestry weaving flourished right up into the 20th century. In the 1930s the French weaver Мгле. Marie Cuttoli gave the craft new impetus by commissioning famous contemporary artists such as Picasso, Braque, Derain, Rouault, Miro, Raoul Dufy and Le Corbusier to create cartoons for tapestries. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, new techniques and artistic approaches to tapestry weaving were developed. A leading light in this field was Yvette Cauquil-Prince, a master-craftswoman who produced fascinating tapestries also from the designs of leading artists, including Picasso, Leger, Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder and Roberto Matta. Marc Chagall's interest in this art form - just one of the many to which he turned his hand during the course of his long life - began in the early ig6os, when he was already well into his seventies.

Pablo Picasso
Woman with Doves

Tapestry, manufactured by master-craftswoman Yvette Cauquil-Prince

Paul Klee
Tapestry, manufactured by master-craftswoman Yvette Cauquil-Prince




Chagall's tapestries for the Knesset



In February 1962 Chagall visited Jerusalem to attend the unveiling of his twelve magnificent stained-glass windows in the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre. On this occasion, Radish Luz, the Speaker of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) at the time, asked him to take over the decoration of the state reception hall in the new parliament building, still under construction. The Israeli Knesset is situated on a hilltop known as Givat Ram, affording a beautiful panorama of Jerusalem. On one side there is the Israel Museum, facing the campus of the Hebrew University, and on the other side several government buildings, including the Prime Minister's offices. Originally, stained-glass windows were proposed and later a large mural. However, in the summer of 1963, Chagall decided that tapestries would best suit this huge hall, flooded with natural Jerusalem light. The subject suggested to him for the tapestries was the History of the Jewish People, from their return to their homeland, Zion, up to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Chagall accepted the proposition with great enthusiasm. He decided to do three tapestries and began straightaway to work on the first cartoon - a preparatory gouache which served as a model for the tapestry weavers. This first cartoon was presented on November 30, 1963 in Paris to the world-famous French tapestry manufacturers : Manufacture nationale des Gobelins, an institution founded by Louis XIV in 1667. The state-subsidised factory also received financial support from the Parisian branch of the Rothschild family.


In the summer of 1964, after returning from another visit to Israel, Chagall completed the second and third cartoons. It was estimated that the weaving of the three tapestries would take four years. 160 different shades of colour and 68 kilometres of thread were needed to reproduce Chagall's gouaches in these huge wall hangings. The 120 cm-high cartoons had to be enlarged nearly four times to reach the required height of 475 centimetres. Chagall, who was living at the time in Vence in the South of France, travelled frequently up to Paris to watch the work in progress and discuss problems with the weavers as they arose. The weaving of the three tapestries, begun in February 1965, was finished at the beginning of 1968, a year earlier than planned. The triptych consists of one 904-cm-wide tapestry and two smaller, 528-cm and 533-cm-wide ones, all of the same height, that were hung side by side. The theme of the largest of the three, in the centre, is Exodus, that on the right, Isaiah's Prophecy and that on the left, The Entry into Jerusalem. Exodus shows Moses, portrayed by Chagall in blue, leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Hovering over them is the large cloud that accompanied them on their long journey and protected them from their Egyptian pursuers until they had crossed the Red Sea. The angel blowing the shofar, or ram's horn, over the cloud has been sent by divine providence to guide them on their way. The tapestry is full of symbols and references to biblical events, such as Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on two tablets on the right of the picture. Higher up, one can see the Golden Calf and Jacob wrestling with the Angel. More recent events such as pogroms, the burning of houses, and memories of the Holocaust were also incorporated into the work. The figure of the wandering Jew with a sack on his back is a reference to Chagall's exile in the United States during the Second World War. The central theme, however, is the return of the Jews to their Holy, Promised Land - Israel. This monumental wall hanging is dominated by two great biblical figures: Moses, receiving the Ten Commandments, and King David, playing on his harp. These two themes recur again and again in Chagall's biblical works, including the monumental paintings he did for his own museum, the Musee National Message Biblique Marc Chagall in Nice.


Tapestry, manufactured at the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins in Paris by master-craftsman M. E. Lelong


Exodus (detail)


Exodus (detail)



To the left of Exodus is the Entry into Jerusalem, the site of the Jewish Temple and the capital of Israel. The central figure of King David playing the harp, in red regalia and crown, makes this tapestry an obvious continuation of the narrative beside it. A festive scene is portrayed with many figures playing musical instruments, beating drums and blowing horns. In their midst the Ark of the Covenant can be seen. To the left you find the Israeli flag with the Star of David and "Israel" written in Hebrew. In this magnificent tapestry, with its magical colours, Chagall combines biblical history, the present, and the future.

The three tapestries draw together the main elements of Jewish history relating to the foundation of the State of Israel. While Exodus shows the handing over of the tablets of the Law to Moses and the suffering throughout history of the Jewish People, The Entry into Jerusalem portrays the triumphal entry of King David into Zion and the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. The third tapestry, to the right of Exodus, entitled Isaiah's Prophecy depicts the idyllic vision of the prophet Isaiah. Chagall has translated the Bible passage into pictorial language, word for word: "and the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fading shall graze together; and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah n, 6)

The Entry into Jerusalem
Tapestry, manufactured at the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins in Paris by master-craftsman M. Bourbonneaux


Isaiah's Prophecy
Tapestry, manufactured at the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins in Paris by  master-craftsman M. E. Meot



These three tapestries, with their powerful imagery, constituted a huge triumph for Chagall. They were a testament to his successful collaboration with the weavers, whose faithful rendering of all the many blue, green, red, gold, yellow, brown, purple and white colours of his cartoons was a great accomplishment. All three tapestries bear the date of completion and are signed by the artist and the weavers involved.

The triptych was officially unveiled with great ceremony on June 18, 1969 in the presence of the artist, the then President of Israel, Zalman Shazar, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and the Knesset Speaker Kadish Luz. In his speech, Chagall said that these works had been inspired by the founding of the State of Israel, that they represented a kindling of "new hope" and that he had put into them "the experience, the suffering and the joy of a whole lifetime". "My aim was to get closer to the biblical homeland of the Jewish people, to the land where the creative spirit, the Holy Spirit, is at home, such as hovers over every page of the Bible; and hovers here in the air, over the fields and in the hearts and souls of the inhabitants!...] Works of genius and luminosity are so rare [...] People prefer to be content with evil and injustice than to reach out with love [...] There is no art or creation in a life without love. Love lives in this land and everything that comes of love is great and sublime. Let my work here, whatever it may be, serve as an expression of my love and devotion to this land, the land of justice and biblical peace."


President Zalman Shazar, Marc Chagall and Prime Minister Golda Meir
at the inauguration of the Knesset Tapestries, June 1969



The three Knesset tapestries are full of harmony and inspiration. Chagall once said: "I am against terms such as 'fantasy' and 'symbolism'. Our whole inner world is real, perhaps even more real than the visible world." For Chagall, tapestries were a completely new venture and a unique experience, yet his were acclaimed the world over as masterpieces. In his inimitable way he had composed a symphony of colours for the eyes, those unique colours that Chagall used in the many biblical works he painted in the course of his long and rich career. As he himself said: "You have to arrive at an age like mine before you can produce something like this."

In his world-famous tapestries for the Knesset, Chagall shows his admiration for the phenomenal achievement of the Jewish people in bringing to fulfilment the biblical prophecy of the rebirth of Israel. The brilliant, magical colours, the light effects and the rhythm of this monumental project of huge dimensions, energy and power, express his faith in Israel and the Jewish people.


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