The fiddler on the roof, seen at upper left in Le mort, is one of the most beloved of all Chagall's characters. This figure, in Chagall's original 1908 oil painting of this subject (Meyer, no. 65; fig. 1), became the inspiration for the opening scene in the 1964 hit Broadway musical The Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Jerome Robbins from the book by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Norman Jewisohn directed the 1971 film adaptation, which won three Oscars. The great violinist Isaac Stern played the fiddler's music on the film soundtrack.
Le mort is one of the pictures that Chagall painted in order to reclaim images in earlier works that were no longer in his possession or accessible to him when he arrived back in Paris, from Russia via Berlin, in 1923 (see note to lot 31). He based this gouache, as well as a second version in oil done around the same time (Meyer, Classified Catalogue no. 360), on the earlier abovementioned Le mort (fig. 1), which the artist painted in St. Petersburg when he was a 21-year-old student. Chagall claimed that this painting marked the beginning of his career as an artist, and in it he anticipated many of the elements that would become part and parcel of his signature style. Franz Meyer wrote, "The Dead Man is a peak in Chagall's early work. Here all of a sudden he solved all of the problems of representation and composition. The visual image became a metaphor of a spiritual reality, as he had endeavored from the start... One can sense behind The Dead Man a balance between undistorted vision and artistic realization that can occur only at a certain moment" (in Marc Chagall Life and Work, New York, 1963, p. 69). The present version in gouache is particularly successful in its own right, especially in the way Chagall has employed more brilliant expressionist color and flatter modernist forms to intensify the contrasts among the figures and their setting.
Chagall recalled a youthful memory in My Life, his autobiographical text published in 1931, which became the basis for the event and some of the characters depicted in Le mort:
"One evening, well before dawn, cries suddenly rose from the street, beneath the windows. In the feeble glow of the night-light, I managed to make out a woman running alone through the deserted streets. She is waving her arms, sobbing, imploring the occupants, who are still asleep, to come and save her husband, as if I or my fat cousin dozing in her bed could cure, could save dying man. She runs farther on. She is afraid to stay alone with her husband. Startled people come running from every side. ...The steadiest, prepared for everything, push the woman aside, quietly light the candles and, in the midst of the silence, begin to pray aloud over the dying man's head... The dead man is already lying on the ground in sad solemnity, his face illumined by six candles. In the end, they carry him away" (in My Life, London, 1965, pp. 65-66).
Abraham Efross, a friend of Chagall in their youth, noted the significance of the fiddler, "he is fiddling his melody to the dancing wind that howls over the sullen sky" (quoted in ibid., p. 63). The music of the fiddler represents the voice of humanity, plaintive or joyous by turns, as it evokes the greater plan of God's universe, as counterpoint to the life of the village and death of one of its inhabitants in the street below.
(fig. 1) Marc Chagall, Le mort, 1908. Private collection. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 25240054