I have been lucky enough to live near a gallery that has just held an exhibition of Marc Chagall original lithographs and etchings. Chagall (1887-1985) was born in Russia where his Jewish upbringing later became a source of ideas for his works. He moved to Paris as an artistic émigré where he became a member of the modernist avant-garde. He was a prolific artist working in many different mediums. Much of his work is of a religious nature. Chagall is famed for used vivid colours and thick outlines producing images that appear quite simplistic and lodged on the edge of fantasy. It is said that Picasso remarked ‘When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is’ (http://www.pablopicasso.org/picasso-and-chagall.jsp). His exhibition of lithographs and etchings were mostly from the 1950’s-1970’s.
Chagall’s Bible series ( shown here from the exhibition catalogue) shows his use of colour and his quick simplistic style to great effect. it is the vivid colour that first catches your eye, off-set by the thick black outlines of the figures. The actual themes of the images, in my mind, take a little working out. This images also show the variety of mark making used by Chagall in his work. For instance compare the fine detail shown in Moses III (bottom left) with the broad marks of The Angel (centre right). As these are original lithographs presumably each colour had to have its own plate made.
Chagall was commissioned to produce a series of etchings to accompany the text of La Fontaine’s Fables. Here we have quite dark backgrounds produced by all manner of marks which allow the individual characters of the Fables to stand out and he highlighted in colour (this set was apparently hand coloured by Chagall personally!) At first glance I thought many of the figures were outlined thickly. On closer inspection I realised that Chagall has actually used darkened areas to contrast with highlights to create found edges. This can be seen particularly well along the neck of the bull in The Frog who would grow up as big as the Bull (top left) and the limbs of the boy in The Boy and the Schoolmaster (bottom right).
The Celui qui Dit les Choses sans Rien Dire series displays a different side to Chagall’s style. These etchings are far more delicate than the other work shown here. There are no thick heavy black lines or dark tones in the background. The use of colour is also muted in this series. These were illustrations for the French Poet Louis Aragon who was one of the founding members of the Surrealist movement, perhaps explaining the subject matter of these etchings.
Another series of illustrative work on show were etchings produced to accompany Gogol’s Dead Souls. These were the earliest work that I saw, having been done in the 1920’s but not issued until the late 1940’s. They show a different style again, this time very limited use of colour (sepia only). The figures are again drawn very simply, such as in Mort de Mets les Peids dans le Plat (top left), with only small areas depicting tone and form. Not having read Gogol, I am not sure of the subject matter (beyond the title). However I feel there is a certain amount of humour behind these works. A review written by AS Byatt (2004) about a translation of Dead Souls into English described it as ‘a linguistic phantasmagoria – full of people and things with a hallucinatory reality that rushes into the surreal’. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/oct/30/classics.asbyatt) May be that was what I was picking up!