By the time Marc Chagall arrived in Paris in 1923, he had lived through and actively participated in two of the most important revolutions of the 20th century, one aesthetic, the other political. The impact of these revolutions is evident in “Chagall: The Early Etchings of the 1920s,” a selection of 65 prints from the Albert Skira Collection on view at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art through December 11.
The Russian artist had encountered the visual revolution in 1911 on his first trip to the City of Light, when he attended the Salon des Independents, the exhibit that introduced Paris to Cubism as a cohesive movement. Chagall had adeptly incorporated into his own work what he called “the rotation of colors which spontaneously and cleverly melted into one another in a stream of thoughtful lines.”
The ferment also inspired a new psychological dimension in his art. Pursuing what he later called “a logic of the illogical,” Chagall refined his quasi-Cubist handling of fantastic themes and subject matter in such masterpieces as “I and the Village,” “To Russian, Asses and Others” and “The Cattle Dealer” — the kind of paintings that prompted poet Guillaume Apollinaire on a visit to Chagall’s studio to whisper, “Surnaturel.”
The artist brought those techniques to bear on the etchings commissioned by legendary dealer Ambroise Vollard as illustrations for “Dead Souls,” Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 classic Russian novel, and “Fables,” Aesop-like tales by 17th-century French poet Jean de La Fontaine. Vollard had originally approached Chagall with another work, but Chagall countered with “Dead Souls.” It would be hard to image a more apt choice. The artist’s flattened space, schematized renderings and fantastical, distorted compositions dovetail nicely with the absurdist comedy of Gogol’s satire. In an illustration for a scene involving a minor coach accident, Chagall renders the entwined animals and driver as a jumbled mess, animal and human parts melded into one unlikely creature.
Chagall loved animals; they’re in just about every painting he made. Many of his “Dead Souls” etchings include roosters, goats or kittens, anthropomorphized and sometimes floating or flying. These typically Chagallian touches give the etchings a real lightness and humor. They also make him the perfect choice to illustrate La Fontaine’s allegories, which often involve speaking birds, cows, lions or other beasts. Chagall spent three years producing 102 etchings and gouaches for this classic of French literature.
His illustrations bear the mark of the political revolution in Chagall’s life, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which impelled him to Berlin and finally Paris, where he remained a permanent exile. Not that the etchings and gouaches he made are overtly political. Rather, Chagall imbued these illustrations with nostalgia for the Russian village life he left behind forever.
Chagall, who had already betrayed a deep sentimentality for shtetl culture in his Russian paintings, fills his illustrations for Gogol’s book with a loving attention to the details of Russian taverns, homes and even the teapots and samovars of the table settings. His sentimental attachment to Russian village life permeates even the illustrations for “Fables,” as in his rendering of a dreamy milkmaid and his beloved domestic animals.
In “Chagall: A Biography” (2008), Jackie Wullschlager writes that the artist was regarded as an expressionist by the Germans and a colorist by the French. The etchings at Oglethorpe give a strong sense of that “expressionism,” if that’s the right word, in Chagall’s fragmented, flattened space and his disregard for matters of scale and gravity. Because the exhibit includes five late lithographs from the private collection of Isaac and Yolanta Melamed, we thankfully get a glimpse at Chagall’s exuberant play with color as well.