Chagall first visited Paris from 1910 to 1914, and it was here that he first caught sight of the famous dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard.
“Vollard’s shop particularly attracted me… I press against the window, flatten my nose against it, and suddenly I bump into Vollard, himself. He is alone in the middle of his shop, wearing an overcoat. I’m afraid to enter. He looks sullen. I dare not.” (The artist, quoted in: C. Sorlier, Marc Chagall et Ambroise Vollard, Paris 1981, pp.14-15).
It was not, however, until almost a decade later that the artist and publisher first met. Vollard’s genius as a publisher was to commission prints and books from talented artists, whether or not they were experienced printmakers. Following the successful publication of Chagall’s first portfolio of etchings Mein Leben by the Berlin publisher Paul Cassirer, Vollard urged the artist to move to Paris to work with him. On the first of September 1923, Chagall arrived back in Paris with his wife and daughter.
In the wake of their first meeting, Chagall who had always had a great interest in literature, agreed to illustrate an edition of the classic Russian novel, Les Ames Mortes by Nicolai Gogol (see lot 31). This established a close working relationship between the pair, which saw Vollard commission two further illustrated books from Chagall, Les Fables de la Fontaine (the present lot), and La Bible (see lot 33). Unfortunately, Vollard’s sudden death from a car accident in 1939 meant he never saw the completion of these books, and following the outbreak of World War II their production was put on hold. It was not until after the war that the finished books were published by Tériade.
In the case of Les Fables de la Fontaine, Vollard’s choice of a Russian painter to illustrate a great work of a French literature was met with uproar and criticism. Vollard defended his choice declaring “that was precisely why I chose Chagall. Because of La Fontaine’s interest in Oriental culture, I wanted an artist whose background and family connections had familiarised him with Eastern civilisation.” (quoted in: C. Sorlier, Le livre des livres, Paris, 1990, p.11).
In Chagall’s endeavour never to repeat himself, he deployed a very different style and technique for Les Fables than he used in Les Ames Mortes. The painterly nature of the first gouaches he made of the subjects were retained in the prints by first etching the plate and then reworking it with retouching varnish. Using a brush with different tips, he built up a painterly surface, creating areas of absolute black, and a range of greys with flashes of unprinted white paper glimmering through.
Les Fables moves away from Chagall’s imaginative Russia to a dream-like world of fable and myth. The personification of the animals is heightened as Chagall explores the limit of animal and man. We are confronted by animals with human characteristics; a lion stands upon its hind legs, his paws around the neck of a female, his face that of a man. In other scenes horns protrude from the skulls of men, and a feline head sits atop a woman’s body. As the fables unfold, man and beast become interchangeable, and with this a lesson of their equality prevails.
Although Chagall had completed the plates by 1930, Les Fables was not published until 1952.