Chagall: Stories into Dreams

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            Marc Chagall was one of the best-known and most beloved artists of the 20th century, with a style instantaneously recognizable around the world. The odd charms of Chagall’s imagined dreamscapes — suffused with folklore and allegory and occupied by flying cows and horses, enigmatic symbols and narratives, and humans suspended in space — have captivated audiences for more than one hundred years.

            This September, Chagall arrives at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College. Chagall:  Stories into Dreams is a uniquely curated show that seeks to explore the ways in which Chagall was able to transform even the most familiar parables in human history into fantastically new visions, moral tales re-imagined by his unparalleled creative mind. Comprised of loans from The Art Company in Pesaro, Italy, the exhibition entails 42 works of art, including Chagall’s complete Story of Exodus color lithographic suite and his renowned illustrations from his Fables of La Fontaine series of etchings, alongside an additional two paintings L’Inspiration and Deux Têtes that allude to the creative muses that inspired the artist.

            Chagall’s re-envisioning of the boundaries of art and of archetypal texts, in particular, speaks to his ability to engage wide audiences, even when grappling with religious stories and non-canonical representations of them. His renditions of the world are inflected with shards of memory and fantasy, and his illustrations of familiar narratives purposefully reject the obvious moment most artists would choose to depict. For the sake of his composition, Chagall will sometimes depart extravagantly from the climactic moment of the tale at hand, favoring drama, action, and magical touches over faithfulness to a story or the moral it tries to impart. Famously, Chagall would ask his wife to read texts he was illustrating aloud to him while he worked but would insist she cease reading before arriving at the ending.

            For all his fame and name recognition today, though, Chagall (1887-1985) began his life far from the epicenters of modern art. Indeed, Chagall’s background and upbringing would have seemed to forecast anything but worldwide fame. Born into a Lithuanian Hasidic Jewish family in the town of Liozna, near Vitebsk, Belarus, in 1887, Chagall was the son of a herring merchant and a grocer. The oldest child of nine, Chagall moved to the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, in 1906 when he was 19 years old. There, he attended art school and experienced big city life for the first time, but, as would be true for the rest of his career, the memories of Vitebsk were never far from his mind. Vitebsk will become a recurrent motif for Chagall, with folkloric nods to his childhood and his observant Jewish upbringing pervading his works forever.

            In 1911, Chagall moved to Paris, the center of the art world, and observed firsthand the early years of the most avant-garde styles of the period, including Cubism and Orphism, a manner developed by his friend Robert Delaunay and marked by its light-filled explorations of color. Chagall dabbled in these styles during his years in Paris, but ultimately he was a synthesizer of influences, modifying each to suit his needs. More interested in narrative and allegory than with breaking conventions of what made art “art,” Chagall infused his modernism with an inimitable brand of fantasy steeped heavily in his Belorussian past. By the time he returned to Russia in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, he had begun to develop the unique pictorial language for which he remains best known.

            Like many Eastern European artists, Chagall reflects heavily on his cultural roots in his art, imbuing his work with folkloric elements that hark back to his past. Ironically, the very act of Chagall’s incorporating such throwbacks to small-village life into his pictures set him apart from the more bold, stylistic experimentation of his peers; in its uniqueness, the retrograde nature of Chagall’s seemingly “naïve” work made him paradoxically all the more avant-grade.  

            Chagall returned for his second Paris sojourn in 1923, when Surrealism was in its early years. More than a decade before, Chagall had made the fantastic and the magical his niche, and, while he seemed almost predestined to be a Surrealist, he turned down an invitation to join the movement. Chagall was forging his own increasingly successful path.

            In 1927, during Chagall’s second Paris sojourn, art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard approached the artist with the idea of illustrating The Fables of La Fontaine, a literary masterwork written by Jean de La Fontaine in the 17th century. Whereas Aesop’s fables were passed down as oral lore, La Fontaine’s fables were text-based from the start. With Aesop as an acknowledged forerunner, La Fontaine often covers similar territory in his Fables, finding in the foibles of animals and humans the moralistic lessons from which his readers could learn. Upon their publication in volumes between 1668 and 1694, The Fables were acclaimed as treasures of French culture, but their reach was global.

            Even before Vollard offered Chagall the commission, Chagall knew The Fables well, and Vollard saw echoes of Chagall in La Fontaine. Both intermixed creatures of all sorts with humans in often-whimsical situations, and both aspired for wide audience reception for their works. After all, fables are premised on the presumed universality of their morals, and there were few artists other than Chagall who could garner near universal love across cultures. It was the French-ness of The Fables that held especial appeal to Chagall, though, as he was eager to illustrate something identifiably “French” to prove he that he could mature beyond Russian and Jewish influences.

            Chagall’s illustrations for The Fables were created preliminarily in color as gouaches, intended as the bases for black-and-white etchings that Chagall would recreate himself and that could be printed and mass-produced. The black-and-white prints in the exhibition retain the loose, fluidly painted quality of the original gouaches, revealing Chagall’s mastery of translating his own work into multiple media to reach expansive audiences. Chagall’s unrelated gouache Deux Têtes (1966) appears in the exhibition and allows visitors to get a sense of the style of the gouache paintings Chagall used to prep for the Fables etchings. Although the plates for the etchings were completed in the late 1920s, they were not published until 1952 — hence the date of the prints of the Fables on display in the exhibition — and not by Vollard (who delayed and delayed) but by Tériade Éditions, a publisher founded in 1943 that specialized in illustrated art books.

            Despite his failure to publish Chagall’s Fables, Vollard convinced Chagall to create another set of etchings in 1932, this time based on scenes from the Bible. Once again, Chagall worked on the etchings initially in the form of color gouaches, the compositions of which he would in turn replicate as etchings — and once again, Vollard never published them. By 1934, Chagall had completed the first 40 etchings for the eventual 105-print Bible suite, but financial constraints, Vollard’s death in 1936, and World War II impeded their publication until 1956.

            A decade later in 1966, Chagall returned to the subject of the Bible, producing a color lithographic suite entitled The Story of Exodus. Many of the scenes from the Exodus series recall scenes from his earlier Bible series, but Chagall’s focus in the new series was more directly impacted by a world that had changed drastically in the intervening three decades. Since his first lengthy foray into the Bible, six million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust; post-World War II, Chagall homes in on the second book of the Bible, as The Story of Exodus had never seemed more pertinent. Jewish culture and identity had been threatened with decimation, and Chagall resolves to illustrate the foundational narrative of the Jewish people’s flight from persecution and their becoming God’s chosen people.

            The 24 colorful lithographs that comprise the complete Story of Exodus suite present an exciting visual dialogue with Chagall’s illustrations for The Fables of La Fontaine. One is based on an inherently religious text, a core of Judeo-Christian belief, while the other is secular, based on supposed collective truisms. Yet, both tackle concepts of morality and immorality, right and wrong, and good and bad, studying specific characters to illuminate larger lessons about how we should act as participants in a shared world. Now, in Chagall: Stories into Dreams, visitors have the opportunity to marvel firsthand at Chagall’s gift for translating the written word into fantastic pictures that reveal greater truths about mankind.

— H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D., Curator and Director of Galleries & Exhibitions