‘For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world,’ Marc Chagall wrote in 1966. ‘These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions. Why? Why am I so touched by their make-up and their grimaces? With them I can move towards new horizons.’
The spectacle of the circus and its performers had fascinated Chagall (1887-1985) from his childhood days in Vitebsk, Russia, where travelling acrobats and equestrians often came to entertain crowds at village fairs. Chagall never forgot an incident when, as a young man, he had looked on as a father and his children performed clumsy but strenuous acrobatic stunts on the street. The passing public deemed their efforts more pathetic than laudable, and Chagall watched as they walked away, unappreciated and empty-handed. Then, as at other times during his career, Chagall must have feared that this might be the fate of anyone who sought for himself the life of an artist.
With time, the circus came to lie at the very heart of his personal mythology. In his art, he summoned the spectacle of the experience in all its colourful variety — clowns, acrobats and women riding bareback, stands brimming with onlookers — as a vivid metaphor for the life he had decided to lead.
Ambroise Vollard, Chagall’s dealer and the publisher of his prints in the 1920s and 1930s, was himself a great aficionado of the circus; in 1927, Vollard asked Chagall to produce a suite of gouaches on this theme. As an incentive to take on the assignment — not that Chagall needed it — the dealer suggested that the artist make use of his personal box at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. As Chagall’s biographer Sidney Alexander has written, the ‘childishly delighted’ artist happily availed himself of this offer.
The project, when completed, became known as the Cirque Vollard series. The sheer exhilaration of these pictures, their unalloyed joy and life-affirming spirit, contrasts sharply with the sombre clowns and circus queens of Georges Rouault, another artist who produced illustrations on the circus theme for Vollard.
In 1962, Chagall began work on a series that came to be known as Le Cirque. Taking the early gouaches commissioned by Vollard as a point of departure, Chagall engraved 23 colour and 15 black-and-white lithographs. The artist was fascinated with colour lithography as a printmaking medium, as it offered almost unlimited painterly freedom. He worked directly on the lithography stone, and the resultant prints conveyed the spontaneity of his brushstrokes and drawn lines. The colour lithographs were published in 1967 by Tériade Éditions in a deluxe edition of 24 and three artist’s proofs, for which Chagall wrote accompanying text.
In his work, Chagall consistently sought to create fantasy worlds in which anything was possible. For him, the circus stage was the ideal setting for dreamlike, extraordinary acts: trapeze artists, lovers, cockerels and violinists floating in their own metaphysical spaces, defying, like the circus itself, the formal laws of composition.
‘A circus is disturbing. It is profound,’ Chagall wrote in 1966. ‘A timeless dancing game where tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of a great art.’
Lithographs from the deluxe edition of Le Cirque will be offered at Christie’s in Marc Chagall: Le Cirque from 19 February to 1 March, online.