“I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time” – Marc Chagall to Franz Meyer, 1964.
In the Autumn of 1930, French art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard had already commissioned two major series of etchings from Marc Chagall (‘Gogol’s Dead Souls’ and ‘Fables of La Fontaine’), when he approached Chagall to create around 100 illustrations of Biblical scenes. Between 1931 and 1934 Chagall worked fixatedly on these etchings and took the commission so seriously that he travelled to Amsterdam to study the biblical paintings of Rembrandt and El Greco, and went to then-Palestine for 18 months to immerse himself in the world of the Old Testament. This intensive focus had a profound effect on Chagall who described the experience as “making his past real”, and the experience was in many ways a catalyst for the increasingly important role that his Jewish identity began to play in his art.
The completion and production of the Bible etchings was, however, a troubled process. In 1934, as the Great Depression ground on, Vollard had no choice but to suspend financial backing for the project. Chagall, however, was so invested in the project by this stage that he persevered regardless – completing 66 of the plates by 1939. In the same year, Vollard died in a tragic car accident, leaving the project without a publisher. The outbreak of the Second World War further stalled the project’s progress, and in 1941 Chagall and his family finally fled France after securing safe passage to America. Eleven years later, after not only the end of the Second World War but also the tragic death of his much-beloved wife Bella, Chagall resumed the project and completed the plates. In total he produced a total of 105 plates, and in 1956 these were published by Editions Teriade in two volumes in an edition of 295 impressions.
The Eames Fine Art Gallery, based in London Bridge, has recently purchased over 100 of these etchings for exhibition and sale at their Bermondsey Street Gallery. The gallery has long been known for its focus on original prints and etchings, and its support of contemporary artists such as Anita Klein, whose work is often in the form of etchings, linocuts and lithographic prints. On 10 October 2018, I was lucky enough to attend the preview of the Gallery’s exhibition of these Chagall Bible etchings, and would thoroughly recommend readers trying to catch this exhibition before it closes on 4 November 2018.
The events which occurred during the years Chagall spent working on the Bible etchings are not just of historical interest. The pain and turmoil which tore apart Europe’s Jewry during this critical period had a huge impact on Chagall and, in turn, on his Jewish identity. When viewing these etchings, it is clear that not only has Chagall’s vibrant approach rendered stale biblical scenes accessible and exciting, but that a tremendous amount of emotion has been poured into each etching. These ancient scenes are underscored by a sincere poignancy that causes the viewer to truly empathise with a young David, a dying King Saul, or an over-awed Samuel, perhaps for the first time.
Such suites of etchings used to be produced for sale as a whole, with the entire suite being contained within what was essentially a large book. In more recent years, however, the appetite for such large and, frankly, impractical works has pretty much evaporated, and so it is becoming more common for individual pages to be separated out and sold. As the gallery claims, to find a selection as extensive as this on the market is extremely rare. The vast majority of the etchings on exhibition have been signed in the plate, with Chagall’s signature visible upon inspection. Even those that have not been so signed come with a justification page attesting to its provenance, and all of the etchings are of a wonderful quality, making it easy to understand the view that Chagall’s etchings constitute his finest graphic work.
Whilst Chagall did produce one set of these same etchings which he added colour to by hand, that set is accordingly extremely rare and far more valuable than those available for sale in this exhibition, all of which are – by comparison – priced very reasonably, even for a new or young collector. If in search of a particularly ‘Chagall-type’ piece, whilst some of the etchings tend to be more realistic in their depictions of people than much of Chagall’s painted work, certain motifs are still visible which are immediately recognisable. For example, ‘Salut pour Jerusalem (The Salvation of Jerusalem)’ is markedly more abstract, with a symbolic crowned lion in the foreground, and a classically ‘Chagall’ pair of entwined lovers soaring overhead.
I will stop there, however, with the same conclusion as Meyer Shapiro came to in 1956: “I do not have to itemise what is clear enough in the plates – Chagall’s capacity to create the sorrowful and gay, the grave and the charming, scenes of the most ingratiating lightness and the awesome apparitions of God.”
The exhibition runs 11 October – 4 November 2018 at Eames Fine Art Gallery, Bermondsey Street, London.
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