MILWAUKEE – Since its opening in 2008, approximately 70,000 people have visited the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, viewing exhibits ranging from fashion design to baseball. But one of its most striking treasures has been on exhibit for decades before the museum existed.
On the south wall of the building’s atrium hangs a tapestry 14 feet wide and 9 feet long, the creation of artist Marc Chagall and weaver Yvette Cauquil-Prince.
“I open every single tour of the museum with the Chagall tapestry, and the story of how it came to be here, and also the themes of the tapestry,” said Ellie Gettinger, education director.
Chagall painted the small gouache of the prophet Jeremiah in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the painting became associated with Milwaukee’s Jewish community.
That was when Melvin Zaret, then the Milwaukee Jewish Federation director, realized his vision to create a single geographic hub for Milwaukee’s Jewish community. He, Albert (Ollie) Adelman, Federation president, and philanthropist Evan Helfaer were the leading forces behind the initiative. A parcel of land on Prospect Avenue was purchased, an architect (Edward Durrell Stone) was hired and Adelman was determined that a Chagall tapestry be installed in the Federation building’s atrium, according to archives and “A History of Jewish Milwaukee” by John Gurda.
Adelman had recently attended a state dinner at the White House for Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister. There, Adelman told her that were Milwaukee successful in its efforts to build a Jewish Federation building, he would ask Chagall to create a tapestry for it in her honor.
Adelman and Chagall had a friend in common – Teddy Kolleck, the mayor of Jerusalem. Kolleck arranged an introduction. In a letter to the Chagalls in February of 1972, after Adelman and his wife Edie visited them in France, Adelman reiterated some of what they had discussed in person.
“…on the edge of the bank overlooking beautiful Lake Michigan, we in Milwaukee will have this magnificent Jewish Complex comprised of the Home for Aged Jews, the Jewish Community Center, and the Jewish Federation Building,” Adelman wrote. “…how gratifying it would be to have Mr. Chagall, one of the great artists in the world, add his genius to this worthy project. That is why Mr. Helfaer commissioned you for a tapestry.”
At the end of the letter, Adelman indicated that an addendum to the letter would follow shortly that would include the atrium’s dimension in feet and meters and a description of the color scheme. He also stated that the tapestry would be installed in a position so that sunlight didn’t harm it, that it would be the only work of art in the atrium and that no plantings would interfere with the work.
The following month, Madame Chagall wrote Adelman to let him know that her husband had agreed to create the work. Over the course of the next several months, Adelman corresponded with both Madame Chagall and Madame Cauquil-Prince. Both were paid separately, and the tapestry was unveiled in April 1973. At the time, it was the first by Chagall in the United States and one of 10 in the world.
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation paid Chagall $45,000 for his work on the tapestry, according to Federation records. Chagall gave the money to the Federation’s Israel Fund, to be used in developing educational programs for children in Israel, according to the records.
Early discussions on the theme included great women of the Bible and their hope for understanding, and that God watched over and guided all people in establishing unity, peace and love. In a document attached to the finished tapestry, Chagall interpreted the symbols and their meaning.
The prophet, he said, told the history of the Jewish people and the pages of the book he holds contained prophecies of peace, wisdom and comprehension between everyone on earth. The red bird symbolized joy and hope, its color alluded to Jewish suffering through the millennia; one woman symbolized women of the Bible, Golda Meir and all women of valor, the other evoked Miriam Helfaer, who died before the tapestry was created. Blue, he said, represented hope and the young country of Israel and the blue bird symbolized hope and good fortune. The moon, he said, “in another era of my life, permitted us to dream of a better future.”
The tapestry has been removed three times since its installation. In 1994, it was sent to New York to be cleaned and restored. In 2003, the Haggerty Museum of Art borrowed it in conjunction with its exhibit of Chagall’s Bible Prints. Finally, in 2006, when the Helfaer building was undergoing the renovations necessary to transform the first floor into the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, it was placed in storage.
Since then, the tapestry has become an integral part of the Museum. Gettinger said about 14,000 students have toured the museum, learning the story of the tapestry and, after providing their own interpretations, its symbolism. “They have come from Malawi, Northern Ireland, Israel, students from choice, charter, public, private schools throughout Milwaukee and as far away as Eagle River.”
“It’s this amazing way to take a breath before you dive into the complicated history of Jewish Milwaukee,” Gettinger said. “You can see the connections to Torah, the connections to history and connections to some of the notable people you’ll see in the museum, like Golda Meir, and the tapestry was commissioned to honor her. It’s central to the story we tell, and it’s central to how we tell that story.”
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About Marc Chagall
- Born in Russia in 1914. Fled to the United States during World War II, then settled in France before his death in 1985.
- Commissions in 1960s included windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah University Medical Center, Jerusalem; a ceiling for the Paris Opéra; a window for the United Nations building, New York; murals for the Metropolitan Opera House, New York; and windows for the cathedral in Metz, France.
- An exhibition of Chagall’s work from 1967 to 1977 was held at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, in 1977 and 1978.