The prints of Marc Chagall: ‘Something would have been lacking in my life if… I had not at a certain stage become involved in engraving and lithography’
Although he came to printmaking relatively late, by the end of his life Chagall had produced more than 1,000 lithographs and over 500 etchings. His collaborator Charles Sorlier remarked, ‘At times, it seems as if an angel has entered the workshop’
Marc Chagall had lived an eventful life before making his first print, aged 35. It included spells in St Petersburg and Paris as he embarked on a successful painting career, followed by a return to his native town of Vitebsk (in modern-day Belarus), where he served as Commissar for Art after the Russian Revolution.
Ideological differences soon saw him pushed out of that role, however, and in 1922 he moved to Berlin. It was there that he began making prints, on the advice of a local publisher, Paul Cassirer. Chagall had arrived in Germany with a handwritten autobiography, and Cassirer suggested he create a set of accompanying etchings to illustrate it.
Difficulties in translating the artist’s prose from Russian meant that publication of the book was delayed, and Cassirer ended up issuing the 20 etchings as an album without text. The album — titled, like the autobiography that was eventually published in 1931, Mein Leben (‘My Life’) — appeared in an edition of 110 copies. Complete sets today are extremely rare.
Illustrations for Gogol’s Dead Souls
Following the successful publication of Mein Leben, the eminent art dealer Ambroise Vollard urged Chagall to move to Paris to work with him. The artist, who had always had a love of literature, agreed to illustrate an edition of Gogol’s classic Russian novel, Les Ames Mortes (‘Dead Souls’). He spent a great deal of 1924 and 1925 on the project.
Though the etchings are ostensibly a response to Gogol’s text, their warm, playful, occasionally absurd depictions of provincial life in the Russian Empire clearly derive from the artist’s own upbringing in Vitebsk. In this regard they’re comparable to the prints of Mein Leben. However, Les Ames Mortes marked a development in Chagall’s printmaking career, with the artist’s expressive use of etched lines and aquatint tones resulting in dynamic compositions.
Etchings for Les Fables and the Bible
Chagall went on to collaborate with Vollard on etchings to illustrate two further books: Les Fables by Jean de La Fontaine, and the Bible. For the former, he adopted a varnishing brush with different tips, which helped build up a painterly surface — with areas of absolute black, a range of greys, and also flashes of white unprinted paper glimmering through.
In 1931, in preparation for what would end up being 105 etchings of the Bible, Chagall travelled to the Holy Land for two months. ‘I wanted to see Palestine,’ he said in later life. ‘I wanted to touch the soil.’ Staying true to his Hasidic Jewish roots, he stuck to episodes from the Old Testament (aka, the Hebrew Bible), ranging from the Creation of Man to David slaying Goliath.
Tragically, Vollard died in a car crash in July 1939. A notorious perfectionist, he spent years working on projects, leaving Les Ames Mortes, Les Fables and his edition of the Bible — among many other planned publications — unfinished at the time of his death. (In fairness, although Chagall had long since completed the plates for the first two books, he was only around two-thirds of the way through his etchings for the Bible at this time.)
The three books would eventually be published after the Second World War by the Paris-based publisher Tériade.
The first major lithography series, ‘Arabian Nights’
Vichy France was an unsafe place for Jews to live, so Chagall, his wife and daughter fled to New York for the duration of the war (and a few years after it). His printmaking thus far had predominantly consisted of etchings. In 1948, however, he produced his first major lithography series, ‘Arabian Nights’, depicting four stories from the collected Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales known as The Thousand and One Nights.
Chagall was renowned for the rich palette of his paintings (before Matisse’s death in 1954, Picasso said that ‘Chagall will [soon] be the only painter left who understands colour’). Lithography offered him the chance to show that same richness in prints, investing the images with a sense of magic that is integral to his visual storytelling.
Friendship and collaboration with Charles Sorlier
In the early 1950s, after returning to France, Chagall began a friendship and long-term collaboration with the master printer Charles Sorlier. Sorlier worked at Imprimerie Mourlot, a lithography studio where the likes of Picasso, Braque and Miró also made prints.
‘With Chagall, nothing is quite as we expect it's going to be,’ wrote Sorlier in 1974. ‘He has the rare ability to start each morning afresh. For him, each day is the first day, each flower the most brilliant, each fruit the sweetest… With every stone, lithography is born again… I have had the rare privilege of seeing Chagall at work, and it cannot be denied that, at times, it seems as if an angel has entered the workshop.’
Chagall would continue to work with Sorlier right up until the artist’s death, in 1985, aged 97.
‘Daphnis and Chloé’
Arguably Chagall’s finest series of lithographs was ‘Daphnis and Chloé’. Again, his inspiration was literary: a pastoral romance of the same name by the ancient Greek author Longus. It tells of a pair of infant foundlings who end up falling in love and overcoming various obstacles before finally getting married.
Chagall made a number of visits to Greece in the 1950s (including on honeymoon with his second wife, Valentina, in 1952). Delighted by the Mediterranean light, landscape and sea, he produced several gouaches and pastel drawings there, which served as preparatory studies for the 42 lithographs he would make back at Imprimerie Mourlot in Paris.
The ‘Daphnis and Chloé’ suite was published by Tériade in 1961, in a deluxe edition of 60 (distinguished by wide margins and a signature on each lithograph) and a standard edition of 250.
Interestingly, three years earlier, Chagall had been asked by the Paris Opera to design the sets and costumes for a production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. The grace and litheness of many of the figures in his prints hint at the impact of working with dancers.
‘Le Cirque’ and ‘L’Odyssée’
After the Second World War, the ever-experimental Chagall made work in a host of media that were new to him, among them stained glass, ceramics and tapestry. He also remained a prolific printmaker.
As he himself said in the 1960s, ‘Something would have been lacking in my life if… I had not at a certain stage become involved in engraving and lithography… Each time I had a lithographic stone or a copper plate in my hands, I felt that I was touching a talisman to which I could entrust all my sorrows and all my joys.’
Two further lithography suites of note were 1967’s ‘Le Cirque’ (dedicated to the circus) and 1975’s ‘L’Odyssée’ (inspired by Homer’s epic, The Odyssey).
It’s worth stressing, though, that Chagall also produced many individual prints (i.e. works that were not part of a series). In many cases, these have the same subjects as those we’re used to seeing in his paintings, such as rooftop violinists and lovers floating in mid-air.
Although he came to printmaking relatively late, Chagall certainly made up for lost time. By the end of his life, he had produced more than 1,000 lithographs and over 500 etchings.
His final hurrah came with a series called ‘The Fourteen’ (sometimes known by its longer title of ‘The Fourteen Large Lithographs of 1980’). The works reveal that Chagall still had the capacity to be innovative, even in his nineties. Utilising the maximum dimensions of Sorlier’s press, he made prints bigger than any he had made before, albeit with typically vibrant colour and whimsical imagery.
‘Colour is really the key’
‘When it comes to Chagall, colour is really the key — and that applies as much to his prints as to any other medium,’ says Murray Macaulay, head of Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘His lithographs produced in vivid colour are perennially the most popular.’ (The five highest auction prices for Chagall prints have all been for lithographs.)
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‘Something important to remember, though,’ adds Macaulay, ‘is that many examples circulating on the market have, over the years, suffered from pigments fading, or even changes in colour, because of exposure to sunlight. A premium is attached to impressions with colour as close as possible to what Chagall originally intended.’