The etchings originally illustrated two popular literary documents: “The Adventures of Chichikov,” by Russian poet and novelist Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), also known as “Les Ames Mortes” (translation: “The Dead Souls”); and “Selected Fables,” as told by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), a French classical author.
In the first novel, the protagonist Chichikov concocts a bizarre plan to purchase ownership of deceased male serfs (i.e., their souls) for which landowners are still taxed by the local greedy governance. An outdated census gives an illusion of value to the dead serfs and it is against this property which con artist Chichikov intends to borrow to complete his fraudulent scheme.
Chagall's depictions of Gogol's characters are replete with indications of their quirks and absurdities. He masterfully uses a monochrome gradient to depict duplicitous and cloudy thinking in “Dispute De Pliouchkine Et De Mavre” (“Dispute Between Pliouchkine and Mavre”), one of 27 images in the exhibition from Gogol's novel.
His illustration of the novel was the result of Chagall arriving in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, when he received his first important commission based upon a recommendation by Ambrose Vollard, one of the most influential art dealers in 1920's France. Vollard was also an art collector and book publisher, and helped many great emerging artists — including Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh — simply by encouraging the idea that they illustrate great literature.
Immediately after completing the Gogol illustrations in 1927, Chagall began work on “Selected Fables,” also a commission by Vollard. Chagall is seen emphasizing La Fontaine's moral lessons in “Le Cheval s'etant voulu venger du Cerf” (“Stag Hunting in the Forest”) 1927-30. Ignorance is depicted as a black forest, and white figures bolt like lightning through the darkness. The black and white of Chagall's images serve the concept of duality in his storytelling quite well.
One of the most poignant images in the exhibition was based on La Fontaine's beautifully worded poem “La Jeune Veuve” (“The Young Widow”), circa 1659. A young woman's grief is depicted as she implores her dead husband's soul to wait for her: “To other worlds her husband went, and left his wife in prime of youth. Above his dying couch she bent and cried ‘My love, O wait for me!'”
The porcelain face of Chagall's young woman looks upward, imploring, hands clasped at her chest, the emotion pouring out of her. Her dark hair provides the necessary contrast and she radiates as if willing her own soul to leave her body. It is a stunning image.
“Chagall: The Early Etchings” is a fitting follow-up to the exceptional Picasso, Braque and Leger exhibition organized by Forest Lawn Museum curator Joan Adan. It is another triumph, well worth the visit to this dependable Glendale venue for fine art.
Where: Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale.
When: Through April 28. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Monday.
Info: (323) 340-4792, forestlawn.com
--TERRI MARTIN is an art historian and art critic and a previous contributor to Marquee.