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In the Galleries: Marc Chagall's "Let My People Go" from "The Story of Exodus"

By Io Montecillo

"Let My People Go" by Marc Chagall, 1966. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris.
"Let My People Go" by Marc Chagall, 1966. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris.

From the very beginning of printing, the Bible was regarded as the ultimate challenge. It presented printers and artists with the daunting task of creating an appropriate medium for communicating sacred text. They met this challenge with widely divergent methods. Some favored sharp, clean typography and traditional artistic approaches, placing as little as possible between the reader and the word. Others celebrated the text with elaborate typographical or artistic interpretations of biblical passages.

One such example of the latter is this large publication in which the text of Exodus is paired with 24 color lithographs by artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985). The prints show Chagall’s expert use of color and are representative of the lyrical, dream-like scenes for which the artist is known. The Story of Exodus represents a major focus of Chagall’s work, namely Judaic spirituality and Hasidism. One of the great lithographers of modern art, Chagall produced more than 1,000 original lithographs over the course of his career.

Fifteen of the 24 prints from The Story of Exodus are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

In the Galleries: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

By Io Montecillo

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley.
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) was born in Africa and sold into slavery. At the age of seven or eight she was purchased by a Boston tailor, John Wheatley, for his wife. While in the Wheatley household, Wheatley learned to read and write. Within 16 months of her arrival, Wheatley said she could read “the most difficult part of the sacred writings.” She also read extensively from the poetry of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray, as well as classics from Ovid, Horace, and Virgil.

Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and in September 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. As the title suggests, Wheatley’s collected poems explored a variety of topics, from the well-known “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to elegies on the deaths of loved ones to a poem simply titled “On Imagination.” Two of these poems, “Goliath of Gath” and “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8,” incorporate the language of the King James Bible. This excerpt from “Isaiah” reveals the influence of the King James Version on Wheatley:

“Mine was the act,” th’ Almighty Saviour said,

And shook the dazzling glories of his head,

“When all forsook I trod the press alone,

“And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;

“For man’s release sustain’d the pond’rous load,

“For man the wrath of an immortal God:

“To execute th’ Eternal’s dread command

“My soul I sacrific’d with willing hand;

“Sinless I stood before the avenging frown,

“Atoning thus for vices not my own.”

Like Milton, Wheatley incorporated elements of classical literature into her poetry. Her retelling of the story of Goliath not only reproduced the language of the King James Bible but also followed the conventions of classical epic poetry. Wheatley’s poetry was largely forgotten after her death until abolitionists rediscovered and popularized her work in the 1830s.

Some of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and those of other poets inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, through July 29.

In the galleries: Jacob Lawrence’s "Eight Studies for The Book of Genesis"

By Io Montecillo

"Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis, No. 4" by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. © 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
"Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis, No. 4" by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. © 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) received his early education as an artist in Harlem. By the time he was in his twenties, he had received national recognition for his work, notably “The Migration Series,” about the African-American migration from the South to the North following World War I. Lawrence spent most of the rest of his life in the Pacific Northwest, and at the time of his death, he was generally recognized as one of the most important African-American artists.

All eight of Lawrence’s large silkscreen prints for the Book of Genesis are on display in sequence in The King James Bible: Its History and Influence exhibition. They show the artist’s strongly colorful and mildly abstract style at its best. The words of the preacher invoke the simplicity and force of the King James Version.

Lawrence’s works and those of other artists who were inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Senior Book Conservator Olivia Primanis executes the quarterly page-turning of the Gutenberg Bible to preserve the spine. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Senior Book Conservator Olivia Primanis executes the quarterly page-turning of the Gutenberg Bible to preserve the spine. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Members pose in the photo booth at “Kings & Creators, the opening reception for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Members pose in the photo booth at “Kings & Creators, the opening reception for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Artists draw calligraphy onto postcards for patrons at the “Kings & Creators” opening reception. Photo by Pete Smith.
Artists draw calligraphy onto postcards for patrons at the “Kings & Creators” opening reception. Photo by Pete Smith.

Robert Alter shares insight about the King James Bible

By Kelsey McKinney

A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center
A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center

In conjunction with the current exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, Robert Alter speaks this Thursday about “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.” The event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, takes place in Jessen Auditorium and will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Alter is a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967. Alter’s 23rd book Pen of Iron: American Prose in the King James Bible was published in March 2010. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Alter about his own translations of the Hebrew bible and the influence of the King James Bible today.

In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from  the King James Version translators’?

For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.

In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?

Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.

With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?

Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

From buildings to books to tattoos: The language of the King James Bible

By Alicia Dietrich

A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from 'Cape Fear.'
A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from 'Cape Fear.'

“Eat, drink, and be merry.” “The skin of our teeth.” “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Phrases from the King James Bible are so thoroughly integrated into our language that we often don’t think about their origins. In conjunction with today’s opening of the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, co-Curator Danielle Brune Sigler explores the translation’s influence on works ranging from the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. to Robert De Niro’s tattoos in Cape Fear.

Charles Dickens turns 200 today

By Alicia Dietrich

Charles Dickens was born in 1812—200 years ago today—and his works continue to be some of the most beloved and enduring stories in the English literary canon. The Ransom Center has strong holdings of Charles Dickens materials, many of which were donated to the Center in the 1970s by Halstead B. Vanderpoel.

Dickens started his career as a journalist when he was 19, though he kept trying his hand at fiction on the side. He published his first story in the Monthly Magazine in December 1833 at age 21, and three years later he published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The book, which was published in serial form, was an enormous success in England, and Dickens went on to become the most popular writer of his time. With the serial format, Dickens could offer his novel at a low cost and enjoy a wide circulation among readers. The formula was so successful that many of Dickens’s subsequent novels were also published in serial form.

Dickens followed up success of The Pickwick Papers with Oliver Twist (1838), Nicolas Nickleby (1839), David Copperfield (1849), Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860), and other classic titles.

A forerunner to modern-day publishing marketers, Dickens knew how to make his works appeal to the widest possible audience. A Christmas Carol, for example, was published just in time for Christmas in 1843. Dickens wrote with humor, but he also wrote to shed light on the dark side of poverty in England at the time.

In a posthumous biography, it was revealed that Dickens came from humble beginnings. His own father was imprisoned for debt when Dickens was a child, forcing the boy and his siblings to work in a factory in terrible conditions to support the family. His experiences in the factory were later immortalized in David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

Our Mutual Friend was Dickens’s last complete novel before his death in 1870, following a 36-year career as a writer. He was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he died, but he completed only six of the planned 12 installments. Dickens is buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Ransom Center’s Dickens holdings are extensive and include 168 letters, a virtually complete run of his published works, 14 books from the author’s library, and Dickens ephemera. The Charles Dickens literary file includes 39 photographs, many of which are portraits of Dickens.

The Charles Dickens art collection contains more than 1,000 paintings, drawings, prints, postcards, plates, clippings, and portfolios relating to Dickens, including original illustrations for editions of his works, renderings of fictional characters, and images of settings of his novels.

In the above slideshow, view some of the materials from the Dickens collection at the Ransom Center. Dickens’s copy of The Life of Our Lord will be on display in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, which opens February 28.

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

 

Image: Wax impression of Charles Dickens’s seal. Photo by Pete Smith.

King James Bible exhibition opening at Folger Shakespeare Library will travel to the Ransom Center in the spring

By Io Montecillo

First edition of the authorized version of the King James Bible, 1611, Pforzheimer Collection. Harry Ransom Center.
First edition of the authorized version of the King James Bible, 1611, Pforzheimer Collection. Harry Ransom Center.

In the four centuries since its printing, the King James Bible has influenced much of the English-speaking world in its history and culture. In a collaboration between the Harry Ransom Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Bodleian Library, an exhibition has been launched that tells the little-known story of this influential work. From today through January 15, the Folger will present Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. This exhibition will present the history leading up to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, the process of translating the book, and finally, its influence on English-speaking cultures from the seventeenth century until today. View a video preview of the exhibition.

An online exhibition accompanies the physical exhibition and provides a series of multimedia presentations concerning the history of the King James Bible, as well as many interactive resources that can be accessed online that are meant to supplement the exhibition and to prepare guests prior to visiting the Folger.

After its time at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the exhibition will travel to the Ransom Center, where it will be presented as The King James Bible: Its History and Influence and include additional material from the Center’s collecions. The exhibition will be on display at the Ransom Center from February 28 through June 2, 2012.

The Manifold Greatness project is jointly produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library at University of Oxford, with assistance from the Ransom Center.