Marc Chagall, who died on the 28 March 1985 at the age of 97, was the last great representative of the Ecole de Paris. He reached out to people like no other artist in the 20th Century, inspiring fascination and admiration across the world.
He managed to combine his Russian roots and the Parisian avant-garde, with its Fauvist, Cubist, Expressionist styles, to create a visual language of his own. Throughout his life, he preferred the company of poets to that of painters, mistrusting theories of painting, especially dogmatic ones. Thus he did not fall under the name of any school, founded no school of his own and had no followers or successors. Visiting Chagall in his studio in 1913, Apollinaire called the artist’s paintings “sur-naturel”, accurately describing the “super” or “trans-natural” pictorial contents of the unconscious, of dream-like memory. Some ten years later the Surrealists drew their images from the same source. “The good days have passed when art nourished itself exclusively on elements of the external world, the world of forms, lines and colours. Today we are interested in everything, not just the external wall, but also the inner works of dream and imagination”, Chagall said many years later in a lecture on the nature of his paintings. In 1941, Andre Breton, the founder and theoretician of Surrealism, wrote in a late tribute to Marc Chagall when both were in “exile” in the US: “His great lyrical explosion happened around the year 1911, when solely through Chagall metaphor made his triumphant entry into modern painting”. Although, with his imagery, he was in effect one of the main pioneers of Surrealism however in the 20s he refused an invitation from Max Ernst and Paul Eluard to publicly align himself with the Movement.
His palette became brighter and he turned into the great colourist, of whom Picasso later said: “Now that Matisse is dead, Chagall is the only painter who really understands what colour is…There is never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.” His colour abilities made the artist painted his first flower compositions, which show Chagall’s quit loving immersion in the wonders of nature. His happy mood of the 20s and early 30s is also reflected in other subject matters: lovers, animals, musicians and circus.
As the first signs of the persecution of the Jews in Germany became manifest, Chagall devoted himself to biblical themes which he illustrated wonderfully using all the colour techniques he experimented.
In exile in America his pictorial status condensed, on the basis of the old iconographies, to hermetic picture parables with a dark serious character.
At the same time, however, he had an unexpected opportunity to design stage sets. This décor shows Chagall’s colours singing again in their freedom and even more when he returned to France where he worked on numerous public commissions.
Chagall lived through the most turbulent years of 20th century. He endured war and revolution, escaped the Holocaust in exile in the USA.
Despite all this, the central theme of the artist’s oeuvre is love: “Despite all the troubles of our world, in my heart I have never given up on the love in which I was brought up or on man’s hope in love. In life, just as on the artist’s palette, there is but one single colour that gives meaning to life and art - the colour of love”. This conviction was Chagall’s lifelong credo.
The Master of Printmaking
Marc Chagall began his distinguished career as a printmaker in 1922 in Berlin. He first experimented with the etching and dry point technique, depicting scenes and figures from his youth in Vitebsk. Chagall’s first major commission was an illustration of the Fables de Jean de la Fontaine – of which we have examples on page 12 and page 13 - and which was ordered by the French dealer Ambroise Vollard.
Chagall loved books and had a great respect for printmaking. He happily accepted to illustrate this book for Vollard.
The Bible series was also commissioned by Vollard. To find inspiration Chagall prepared a trip to the Holy Land and mentioned “Since my earliest childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me the greatest source of poetry of all time.” In 1931, Vollard tragically died in a car accident and thus the Bible series was postponed to be finally published in 1956 by Teriade.
From the 1950’s onwards the master realised an exceptional body of lithographic works comprising 1,100 lithographs depicting his favourite subject matters: marriages, flowers, animals, birds, the prophets from the Bible and the Circus.
It is not possible to show Chagall’s immense graphic oeuvre without talking about his collaborator Charles Sorlier who from the 1960’s helped Chagall in the lithographs he realised. Sorlier was particularly involved in the lithographs from Saint-Paul de Vence. Expert in his field, Chagall treated him as a son rewarding him with multitude of prints, gouaches and drawings.
Chagall’s creativity with this medium was limitless and we hope the artworks in this catalogue will give an extensive vision of the immense body of work printed by the artist.
We are glad to be able to show an outstanding collection of important works by Marc Chagall. The highlight of our collection is the wonderful oil on canvas titled “Study for a Woman in Red”, realised in 1956, and previously part of the artist collection and of the Marc Chagall Estate. The work also comes with a certificate of authenticity issued by the Chagall committee.
Study for a Woman in Red, 1956
Other two rare pieces are the two oil monotypes “The Clock” and “Red Boot”. Marc Chagall began to produce monotypes only when Gerald Cramer, his Swiss publisher at the time suggested it to him in 1961. From that point, Chagall worked with Cramer and the printer Jacques Frelaut to produce an outstanding group of 306 monotypes including our works. Monotype is the most painterly method among the printmaking techniques and is often called "the painterly print" or the "printer's painting. The works were painted with Oil paint on a copper plate and then they were pulled on paper. These works are therefore unique pieces.
An exhibition of examples from the Chagall monotypes body of works was presented at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York between November 1979 and January 1980. Riva Castlemain, Director of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the MOMA, interestingly noted at the time that "This exhibition is about the creative interaction of three devoted people".
The Clock, 1975
Other important works are represented by a group of drawings coming directly from the David McNeil collection (the artist's son): “The Bridge” , “Young Woman with Bouquet” , “Standing Nude” .
The Bridge, 1910
From the “Fables de la Fontaine “, realised in 1927 to the 1960’s lithographs illustrating the Bible, it seems that Marc Chagall has always been a brilliant and exceptional printmaker. His ability to create wonderful works such as in the “Saint Jean de the Cap Ferrat” and in the “Bouquet of Roses” was limitless. His use of colours, of lines and his recurrent motifs such as the rooster, the lovers and the clock made him one the greatest artistic minds of the 20th century. Printmaking was crucial to his oeuvre, as the artist himself declared: “It seems to me that something would have been lacking in my art if, besides my painting, I had not also produce etchings and lithographs”.
Chagall’s love of art was profound and we hope this exhibition will transmit the passion that animated this great Master during in his long prolific life.
We are looking forward to welcoming you in our Hampstead gallery!