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Marc Chagall's literary illustrations on exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum

The early etchings of a master

February 15, 2013|By Terri Martin
  • "Nosdriov" is one of 65 illustrations by Marc Chagall now on view at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale.
"Nosdriov" is one of 65 illustrations by Marc… (Courtesy of the…)

Once again, the Forest Lawn Museum is host to the work of an extraordinary artist: the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall. Currently on its walls are 65 early monochromatic works, under the exhibition title “Chagall: The Early Etchings,” showing illustrations that are vivid and imaginative.

The etchings originally illustrated two popular literary documents: “The Adventures of Chichikov,” by Russian poet and novelist Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), also known as “Les Ames Mortes” (translation: “The Dead Souls”); and “Selected Fables,” as told by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), a French classical author.

In the first novel, the protagonist Chichikov concocts a bizarre plan to purchase ownership of deceased male serfs (i.e., their souls) for which landowners are still taxed by the local greedy governance. An outdated census gives an illusion of value to the dead serfs and it is against this property which con artist Chichikov intends to borrow to complete his fraudulent scheme.


Chagall's depictions of Gogol's characters are replete with indications of their quirks and absurdities. He masterfully uses a monochrome gradient to depict duplicitous and cloudy thinking in “Dispute De Pliouchkine Et De Mavre” (“Dispute Between Pliouchkine and Mavre”), one of 27 images in the exhibition from Gogol's novel.

His illustration of the novel was the result of Chagall arriving in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, when he received his first important commission based upon a recommendation by Ambrose Vollard, one of the most influential art dealers in 1920's France. Vollard was also an art collector and book publisher, and helped many great emerging artists — including Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh — simply by encouraging the idea that they illustrate great literature.

Immediately after completing the Gogol illustrations in 1927, Chagall began work on “Selected Fables,” also a commission by Vollard. Chagall is seen emphasizing La Fontaine's moral lessons in “Le Cheval s'etant voulu venger du Cerf” (“Stag Hunting in the Forest”) 1927-30. Ignorance is depicted as a black forest, and white figures bolt like lightning through the darkness. The black and white of Chagall's images serve the concept of duality in his storytelling quite well.

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