J.E. sends me a lithograph in colors by Marc Chagall entitled “L’Accordeoniste” exhibiting some fundamental themes: his childlike style, dream-like figurative images (some of which are chimerical), and wonderful colors. Note the red bird with the human head and the outsized chicken on which the accordionist rests: the chicken beams a string of eyes above its head as if watching the music float up. Chagall’s images of Russian villagers appear in the bottom right corner, springing from Chagall’s childhood in the Jewish shtetl of Vitebsk.
This lithograph was created in 1957 when Chagall had left Russia for France (he lived in Paris 1941-48), and ended up in New York as he was fleeing Nazi rule with his sickly wife and young daughter.
Much of Chagall’s history, he said, was “an unsettling and a profound circus.” How Chagall came to be a master printmaker is characteristically a tale of making lemonade out of lemons.
He began as an oil painter in Paris at the Ecole de Paris, with the great modernists, experimenting with cubism, surrealism and fauvism. Then World War I broke out. (A mention about the creative climate of Paris: Chagall’s strength was his devotion to the figure as opposed to the more difficult to understand abstractions: his work was so beloved that Chagall was one of few living painters to be given a show at the Louvre.) Returning to his Berlin gallery in which he had hung during World War I, Chagall discovered his canvases GONE. Chagall was crestfallen.
The director offered to help by publishing Chagall’s autobiography, but suggested Chagall should illustrate it. Chagall had been a painter in oils. Now, introduced to printmaking via dry point, Chagall would capture a new style in which he was drawn to succeed: a linear innocent childlike “playing” at drawing, facilitated by the medium, which could contain his collective streams of diaphanous imager.
The next stage in making lemonade was Chagall’s fortuitous meeting with art aficionado and book editor, Ambrose Vollard, who had faith in Chagall to commission illustrations for Gogol’s “The Dead Souls,” in 107 plates. Also for Vollard, he etched the illustrations for La Fontaine’s “Fables.”
Vollard had an uncanny knack of knowing just what would fuel Chagall’s creativity and the two became devoted friends. Proving Vollard’s prescience, he commissioned Chagall to illustrate the Bible, 100 images for which Chagall toured Israel. As he returned to Europe, he found a world threatened by the Nazis and his friend Vollard dead in a freak accident. He turned to Jewish myths in his imagery.
Before I tell you more about where J.E.’s image lies in the oeuvre of this artist, a word about VALUE. At auction sales for “The Accordionist,” prices vary from $250 to $6,000; there are good reasons for this variation. I give you a universal truth: prints can be reproduced. However, the artist will have ONE or perhaps TWO special collaborators, and only works produced in THAT collaboration are valuable. The MORE of one image, the lesser the chances are for value; the artist will create a certain number. I have hope for J.E.’s “The Accordionist” as not many were printed (or, not many were struck in this edition).
Back to the Chagall oeuvre time line: J.E.’s image was created in 1957; Chagall had undertaken another commission by the heir of Vollard, the editor – printer Teriade; illustrating the myth of Daphnis and Chloe. Thus, Chagall executed 42-lithographs between 1957-60 in collaboration with his favorite printer, Charles Sorlier, on his favorite presses, at the House of Mourlot.
Since I have not seen J.E.’s image in person, what will determine its value is the quality, the artist’s signature, and the paper. This is true for lithographs in general, and Chagall was taken by the medium from the age of 65 until he died in his mid 90’s. I think this is because he could paint directly on the lithostone, in both colors and line.
More lemonade: at the end of his life, Chagall’s print house said they had received some of the largest lithostones ever at 38” x 24”: the clarity and precision of the images would be an artistic challenge. Chagall was intrigued, and undertook 13 unwieldy lithographs featuring his beloved imagery: lovers, chickens, floating animals, musicians, flowers, villagers and swirls of color.
When your kids tell you that you cannot understand the new modern technology, tell them Chagall mastered lithography, beginning to study at age 65, and finished his masterpiece in this modern medium at the age of 94. That will shut them up.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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