Commentary Magazine


Illustrations for the Bible, by Marc Chagall; Chagall, by Lionello Venturi

Chagall
Illustrations for the Bible
By Marc Chagall. Introduction by Meyer Schapiro. Text (Poem) by Jean Wahl.
Harcourt, Brace. 15 pp.; 105 black and white plates; 16 lithographs in color. $25.00.

Chagall
By Lionello Venturi
The Taste of Our Time Series. Skira. 124 pp.; 53 color plates. $5.75.

 

The only one comparable in our time with Picasso as a graphic artist is Chagall (not Rouault), and nothing even the former has done as a graphic artist quite matches in intensity or integrity these illustrations of Chagall’s for the Bible. Commissioned in 1930 by the late Ambroise Vollard, the renowned art dealer and art publisher, they are now presented complete in a setting that is perhaps not as magnificent as Vollard intended, but which is splendid nevertheless.

That Chagall, whose production in oil has on the whole declined over the last thirty years, has been able during that time to make such progress in his graphic work has to do, I feel, with his essential conservatism, his profound and sophisticated nostalgia for the museum. A similar nostalgia, but with different roots (in culture rather than in temperament or autobiography), has exempted Picasso’s graphic work from the even more general decline his painting, too, has suffered over recent decades. The fact that the print has never been a quite appropriate vehicle for modernist art in the making is what seems precisely to enable both artists to continue to exploit it successfully now that the Han of their original contribution to modernist art has faded.

The print may, in such hands as Chagall’s and Picasso’s, still be able to register the results of innovation, but not since Goya has it lent itself to the working out of innovation. The great etchers of the 19th century, like Meryon and Bresdin, had no part in the radical changes pictorial art underwent in their time. Modernism has been almost exclusively an affair of paint and, except during its Cubist phase, has shifted the emphasis cumulatively to direct color as well as to surface design. Even Manet’s preoccupation with contrasts of dark and light was something quite different from that reliance on gradations of dark and light which was intrinsic to the naturalism of pre-Impressionist art; and to the extent of that difference Manet’s art fails of its characteristic effects when translated into ink on paper. Etching and engraving—if not lithography and the woodcut—lose their traditional point when it is no longer a question of the subtle transitions of shade and shadow by which a “body” illusion of space and volume is articulated.

In his paintings themselves Chagall has hardly ever abandoned the indication of illusionist space, or failed to hint at modeling; but given that his style as a fainter was formed under the aegis of Matisse and Picasso, the limits within which he could satisfy his vein for chiaroscuro in paint itself has remained relatively narrow. To give it freer play, he has had to resort to the needle and plate. It is an unexampled use of chiaroscuro that we see then, in which its traditional application is suggested, but a modernist flatness is actually realized, so that something of the best of both worlds seems preserved. In time to come Chagall’s prints will possibly be rated higher than all but a comparative few of his paintings. All that is too ripe, too sauced and sweetened in his oils (significantly, the best of his “easel” pictures to be seen in this country lately were on unglazed squares of tile) is purged when his talent has only the etcher’s needle or lithographer’s pencil at its disposal. Nor does a virtuoso command of the etching medium seduce him into virtuoso effects. The drawing may at times go over the edge of manneredness or even of cuteness in the deliberate clumsiness of its simplifications, but in these illustrations for the Bible this does not happen often or obtrusively enough to mar the total impression of an art so genuinely inspired that it can afford to humble itself entirely to the text upon which it makes pictorial comment.

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There are many things to praise in these etchings: the velvet furriness of their blacks and grays, the dramatic patterning of contrasts, the weightless density of the masses whether dark or light, the fluid, infinitely various yet incisive line, the discrete and yet masterly mixing of techniques (for drypoint and soft-ground as well as straight needle-and-acid etching seem to have been brought into play) the mise-en-scène by which the anecdotal meaning of each illustration is emphasized and enhanced—and so on. But I would call attention particularly to the colored lithographs that in groups of four separate the four sections (“Genesis,” “Moses,” “Kings,” and “Prophets”) into which the etchings are divided, and I would point most to the last group, “Prophets.”

Lithography is the most direct and flexible of the print mediums, but ink cannot be handled as freely as oil pigment or even water color; it will not permit a similar gradualness of transition from one shade or tone to another. This very limitation purifies Chagall’s color in a way much like that in which being confined to black and white purifies his design in his etchings. If in the etchings, however, we see restored some of that vigorous crudeness and abruptness by which his paintings originally won admiration, there is in the colored lithographs a new blending of brilliance and force without precedent in anything he has done before. Here, for almost the first time, the artist exploits rather than succumbs to sophistication, and the result can stand next to anything by Matisse. Never has his color been employed so convincingly as structure, never so opulently for its own sake, and never has it had more power to move than on these folio pages. (I have, however, seen wall-picture-size lithographs Chagall has done recently that achieve a like success.)

The most important factor perhaps in this triumph is Chagall’s changed approach to pictorial space: the generalized background is no longer marked off so distinctly from figures or objects in the foreground by differences of color value, color intensity, or color warmth; now background and foreground are joined together in a more abstract, less determinate kind of space any point of which is interchangeable with any other as far as the illusion of distance from the eye is concerned. The effect is to enhance the role of the flat picture plane and its four sides, which in turn bestows a more emphatic and spectacular unity upon the picture itself. And all this is done, first and foremost, by bringing the different colors closer together in every sense except that of specific hue. As with almost every resounding victory in art, a paradox is involved: by way of the print, to which he was drawn in the first place by his conservative inclinations, Chagall’s art has reached a point of modernity not yet attained in his easel pictures.

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Meyer Schapiro’s appreciative introduction covers nearly every aspect of the Bible etchings that lends itself to words (he does not touch on the lithographs) and strikes one more as a labor of love than as something done simply to provide an appropriate text for the occasion. I am not so conscious here as in other of Professor Schapiro’s efforts at appreciation or criticism of the strain to leave nothing unsaid; it is as if Chagall’s humility toward the Biblical word had inspired in him a similar humility toward the illustrations of that word. But Jean Wahl’s longish poem in free verse, “The Word Is Graven,” which is offered as the main text of Illustrations for the Bible, is a let-down; I’m afraid its banality cannot be blamed altogether upon the transformation it has undergone in being rendered into English from French.

Lionello Venturi’s book, part of Skira’s small-format series called “The Taste of Our Time,” is valuable for the hitherto unfamiliar paintings to which its reproductions introduce us. The color in the plates, as usual in Skira books, and especially when the scale is much reduced, tends to be too brilliant, but we have all learned by this time, I hope, to expect information or reminders rather than aesthetic experience from reproductions of oil paintings. Professor Venturi’s text is, for all the unqualified admiration it lavishes upon its subject, perfunctory; Chagall is his favorite modern painter, and he has written too often upon him—but never critically enough. Nor is Professor Venturi really at ease with modern art since it stopped being Impressionist, and much of what he says, and has said, in behalf of Chagall sounds arbitrary because it lacks reference to the true context of the latter’s art.

It is simply not true, for instance, that Chagall has recognized the “need for poetry in painting to a greater extent than any of his contemporaries”; and it is still inappropriate to say that “with the passing of years he has developed into a colorist comparable to the greatest in the history of painting.” It is somehow significant in connection with the latter remark, that Professor Venturi nowhere mentions Matisse’s truly enormous influence upon Chagall: an influence that affected his design as well as his color, and whose total role in the formation of his art is equal in importance to the influence of Cubism. Perhaps if Professor Venturi had a clearer grasp of the point of Matisse’s as well as Picasso’s best work, he would be able to approach Chagall’s art less uncritically. That would certainly make his praise of it more cogent.

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