Alexandra Shatskikh

Magazine issue: 
#1 2003 (01)


Since 1923 and up to the years of the Second World War Chagall engraved series of the illustrations to N. Gogol's "Dead Souls", to the selected La Fontaine fables and to the Bible. Each of the three books being a national spiritual symbol indicates the sources, stimulating creativity of the Master from Vitebsk during almost one hundred years of his lifespan.

The phenomenon named "Chagall" belongs - equally - to the Russian, French and Jewish cultures, easily melting so different cultural traditions into ONE.

Ambroise Vollard - the godfather of many a great artist of the modern era - initiated some new trends in the European artistic world. This Parisian art dealer once came to the decision that it is worthy not only to collect pieces of visual art but also to publish books illustrated by contemporary prominent painters and not by professional book-illustrators. This decision of his corresponded to the new movements marking the turn of the centuries, namely, to synthesize and bring together different kinds of art. Thus he combined visual and verbal components, creating and animating a united artistic organism, which was defined as "Livre de peintre".

The "Vollard Suites" made by Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso and Mark Chagall became - we can call them so - the "monuments" to the great French amateur of arts.

In his series of engravings to Gogol's "Dead Souls" Chagall manages to find a very intricate way to commemorate the Parisian marchand, whose initiative and activity stimulated the labours and "gave birth" to his illustrations.

Vollard gave a free hand to the painters - it was their choice what and how to illustrate. As for him... Vollard concentrated his efforts on the perfect realization of each project. He looked for the best hand-made paper with the water-signs of the title of the book. He tried to find old types. He turned to the most skillful binders, card-board folder makers and printers. The best printing house in Paris issued his "livre de peintre" in his presence and under his supervision. The number of copies was limited - no more than the form allowed to make original prints.

So, in January 1926 Marc Chagall finished his work - the whole corpus of the "Dead Souls" was ready. At that time Chagall got European and world recognition - though he was painfully aware of the fact that he was unknown and unrecognized in Russia. Bitter was the intonation of his letters to the few Russian friends: "My pictures are all over the world, and in Russia nobody is interested in my exhibition. I'm doing books for the French publishers, but the Russians are completely indifferent for my work. Years are passing by, but even the "Dead Souls" will not reach Russia. Because everything is registered" (December, 1926 - January, 1927). Chagall who was missing his Motherland could not take such an attitude to him as normal. Thus he made Vollard give him a full corpus of illustrations and donated a complete series of dry-point engravings to the Tretyakov Gallery with the following emotional words: "I donate the series of 96 engravings, made in Paris in 1923 - 1925 to Gogol's "Dead Souls" by the order of the French publisher Ambroise Vollard to the Tretyakov Gallery with all my love of the Russian painter to his homeland. Paris, 1927. Marc Chagall."

Chagall engraved not only 96 subjects but also 11 tables to the "Dead Souls". But by 1939 - the year of Vollard's death - Chagall's books were not published yet. They were published almost a decade later by Parisian publisher Eugene Teriade, who was no less enthusiastic about the "livre de peintre" than his predecessor and teacher Vollard. The special hand-made paper with the water-signs "Les Ames Mortes" was made. The text was printed by the type "Antiqua Royal", cast in the reign of Louis XIV - Vollard managed to find it in the former Royal Printing House, which now exists under the name of "Imprimerie National" - the only printing house where the "livre de peintre" were issued.

The number of copies was 368, enumerated and signed by the painter. The book was kept in the two folders - the two non bounded volumes under the cover set in one case. The printing process was completed by the "Imprimerie National" on the 28th of October, 1948.

Now just a few words on the peculiarity of Chagall's "Dead Souls" as compared to the other Vollard's printed books. Among the published and unpublished "livre de peintre" Gogol's poem is the only book by a Russian author - a complete stranger in the company of the French and antique men of letters. "Dead Souls" might be regarded as a kind of a precious present made by Chagall - his invaluable donation to the French culture, because it inspired the full translation of this classical Russian piece of literature into French.

And the more - Chagall's illustrations are marked by their absolute originality and extraordinate vitality. It should be also noted that this is the only illustrated cycle accompanying a prolonged, multidimensional crowded narration with a great number of historical facts, everyday life details, earthly remarks and trifles. And this artistic experience appeared to be unique in Chagall's creative activity. Never again would he have such work as an illustrator of the Russian classical literature.

Chagall's dry-point engravings to the "Dead Souls" first seemed to his contemporaries terribly bold, no less fantastically daring as Meyerhold's stage version of Gogol's "The Government Inspector". Both the illustrations and the performance were negatively, if not to say, highly negatively received even by the best educated, well-read public. But the attitudes later changed to the positive, as if to confirm Adrei Belyi (the "opener" of the "new Gogol") words: "We are taught to love the artist by the attitude of another artist to him".

Which Gogol does Chagall love and teach us to love? And why are "Dead Souls" so mysterious and sophisticated? Why are they so plausible and vivid for the contemporary readers?

Gogol's great and really popular - vox populi - vox dei - poem breaks all the rules and at the same time forms its own ones. The language itself becomes one of the heroes of the poem, and probably, the main one. Catharsis is reached through the harmonious combinations of the low earthly and the heavenly spiritual elements of being, through mixture of bitter and noble laughter and bitter and noble tears.

The whole of the XX century is marked by the cognition of all the complexity of the attitudes, phenomena and behavior of the people that stimulates and encourages spiritual movements and development of human beings. Falk laughter and festive culture - such are the terms introduced by Mikhail Bakhtin, the first to reveal this fundamental element of human civilization.

Bakhtin developed and based his theories on the analysis of the literature, on verbal genre. Once revealed and realized in cognitive categories, people's life impulse filled with its special carnival forms of the laws of man's life found its visual implementation in Marc Chagall's art. The artist and the scientist - both opened new spiritual horizons for the XX century - lived in one and the same medium and one and the same place in the early 1920s: Bakhtin worked as a school teacher in Vitebsk, then he taught in conservatory and was a member of the staff of the government Department of Education in Vitebsk where Chagall worked at that time too. Vitebsk - this world known little town in Belorussia - was probably the only provincial town visited by Gogol. The great Russian writer was not once criticized for not knowing the real life of the Russian province. It was "registered" that Gogol spent half a day in December 1828 in Vitebsk... This fact - though very discouraging - might explain the reason to mention two Russian peasants making remarks on the wheel of Chichikov's carriage. Usually everybody is a little embarrassed by the necessity to mention two Russian peasants, but for provincial Vitebsk being a Jewish Pale, such a remark might seem more than reasonable. Thus Vitebsk became the place for encounter of the three Russian outstanding personalities: Chagall, Gogol and Bakhtin.

Phantasmagoric vision of revolutionary Vitebsk decorated by Chagall's panels with the flying Jews and green goats, with Malevich's "Suprematic confetti" pouring from the skies - all these were only Bakhtin's everyday life. He constantly witnessed carnavalized forms of radical social changes.

To come back to Chagall it is worth mentioning that he was the first in the XX century to visualize and virtualize the hidden layers of Gogol's verbal art. Chagall's grotesque with its perfect and profound perception of life became the visual analogue to the poetics of the great poem. That is the source of Chagall's absolute freedom in his interaction with the text. That freedom which - according to Bakhtin - involves the reading observer and the observing reader into the "contact zone", making him (the reader-observer) an imaginative thinker, participating in the process of being.

Now it is time to turn to the main hero - Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His description is full of uncertainties - everything in him seems to be vague and subtle: "In the britchka sat a gentleman who was neither handsome nor yet very plain in his personal appearance, neither too stout nor too thin; it was impossible to say that he was old, nor could he be called very young. His arrival produced no commotion whatever in the town, and was not signalized by anything in particular; though two moujiks who were standing at the door of a pot-house opposite the inn, made some remarks, which had, however, more reference to the equipage than to the person seated in it. "Just look," said one of them to the other, "what a wheel that is! What do you think? Will that wheel last as far as Moscow, or not?"—"Oh! it will hold out," replied the other. "But it won't hold out as far as Kazan, I fancy?"—"It will not," returned the other."

The only peculiar characteristic of his personality was that he blew his nose too loudly, producing some specific sound resembling that of a horn.

Apropos, this part of a human face attracted Gogol to such an extent that he dedicated to the nose and its adventures a short novel "The Nose". Gogol's particular concentration on the nose might be connected with the laugh culture: this folk- grotesque concept of the human body plays a vividly polysemantic role. Chagall's Chichikov has no personal portraiture, no particular image. He is different in a great number of the illustrations. But his nose, taking all possible configurations and living his own independent - from his owner - life, makes this part of his face bear all the special to the situation characteristics of Chichikov's personality. The form of the nose indicates and marks the situation in which his owner finds himself in this or that moment of his adventurous enterprise. Thus when Chichikov makes his appearance in town N, it is his nose that arrives in town, as we see no face but a nose peeping out from under the cap. In the conversation with Sobakevich the nose - demonstrating Chichikov's nervousness - resembles a wriggling trunk (etching "Chichikov and Sobakevich talk about business"). The nose is almost absent in the profile outline when the crowd, gathered at the ball at the Governor's house, applauded Pavel Ivanovich who presented himself as a monument. His nose becomes sharp and long in the engraving "The Porter does not admit Chichikov" - a good illustration to the metaphor "to put one's nose out".

It should be mentioned here that Gogol's nose made him easily recognizable. Chagall could not miss a chance to introduce Gogol's profile in his illustrations to the "Dead Souls". In the frontispiece to the second part of his cycle of illustrations the artist "rhymes" Gogol's portrait with his own self-portrait by making their noses look alike. Such an eccentric likeness of the two profiles makes the viewer feel and realize the similarity of their life perception. As Gogol put it: "...viewing life... through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it".

The introduction of Chagall's own image into the cycle of illustrations to the "Dead Souls" is a kind of visual analogue of the author's narration in the novel rich in emotional intonations - ranging from passionate inspiration to mourning, from lyricism to sarcasm. Chagall presents himself under his own name at the end of the cycle (see Table 11): he is portraiting Ambroise Vollard in the presence of Gogol, thus commemorating the role of the late publisher who initiated this unprecedented work.

Chagall makes his appearance once again in the etching "The runaway serf and the police officer", lending his features to muzhik Popov. The latter (without a passport) ran away from Plyushkin and was caught by the police captain. This was a reminder of Chagall's own biography. In his green years Chagall lived illegally in St.-Petersburg - Jews were not allowed to leave Jewish Pale of Settlement. Once he had to spend a few endless weeks in the police lock up.

Marc Chagall applies all gained life experience in his illustrations to the poem. The author's lyrical commentaries and his
narrative intonation are paraphrased by the artist who visualizes his native town Vitebsk so recognizable through his paintings and graphics. Thus the vision of Vitebsk is merging with Gogol's town N. It is a kind of a game he is playing - he combines the past and the present, and historical epochs, wiping off chronological boundaries. For example, in his etching "The Town N" Chagall follows every word of the author: Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov himself set off on a sightseeing tour of the town with which he apparently was satisfied, "for he found that it was in no way inferior to other provincial towns:...The houses were of one, two and one and the half stories, with everlasting mezzanine which provincial architects consider to be very beautiful." Life goes on in Chagall's illustrations: some people are kissing, others are drinking or urinating; some are wearing old-fashioned clothes, others are dressed according to Chagall's time fashions.

Chapter Seven is richly illustrated by Chagall who does not miss the opportunity to depict Chichikov pondering over the list of the serfs belonging to Mrs. Korobochka, Mr. Plyushkin and Mr. Sobakevich. When afterwards he (Chichikov) looked at the sheet of paper, ". the names of the peasants who really had once been peasants, had worked, ploughed, drunk hard, driven cabs for hire, cheated their masters, or perhaps been simply good peasants, he was seized by a strange feeling, a feeling he found it hard himself to understand." ("Chichikov's imaginations. The peasants at work"). Chagall engraves the scene of hard labour of workmen on the barks on the Volga, or their merry-making ("The Volga Boatmen", and "The Gang of the Volga Boatmen"). He depicts Yelizaveta Vorobey - "Good Lord, a woman! ... That scoundrel Sobakevich has swindled me again!", and another remarkable character - Stepan Probka - the tall man of great strength, and the cobbler Maxim Telyatnikov... Together with Gogol Marc Chagall is thinking over some variants of the destiny of "Grigory-Never-Get-There". The other picturesque example is overloaded by details engraving "Mrs. Korobochka's Yard". Chagall does not only show the yard of the thrifty land-lady (".the narrow little yard was filled with all sorts of domestic animal. There were hundreds of turkeys and hens."), he gives the picture of the earthly Eden with all sorts of domestic animals and birds. Thus hyperbolization typical for Gogol's prose and folk laugh culture in general becomes the major artistic instrument visualizing this apotheosis of the vigorous lusting flesh.

And all this carnival festive picture suddenly gains absolutely surprising depth and inner dramatism due to Chagall's inscription (given in mirror reflection) - the delicately drawn words lost among the numerous dots and shades - "my tears". These phrase provokes the same salitary emotions like the immortal leaf of the maple tree transparently burning in the dark abyss of Plyushkin's large old garden.

One can come across a lot of the inscriptions in Russian - given mirror reflected - in Chagall's illustrations to the "Dead Souls". Never again will he create such an accompaniment in any of his illustrations using a mirror effect. Quite obviously the artist made them for himself or probably he wanted to play his game with the attentive viewer/reader, as one can find a lot of direct inscriptions (sign like "kabak" - inn). You are eager to know what sorcerer-Plyushkin is rummaging, aren't you? The inscription set close to the scattered on the ground "treasures" will give you a hint: "kutzkes" (shit). Here it should be noted that Chagall's Plyushkin is a real sorcerer in a ridge-roofed hat, a character from a fairy-tale, an evil-curious sorcerer who is taking life and soul from his belongings ("Plyushkin collecting the waste"). In the engraving "Plyushkin office" - a sacred place of his kingdom of the dead - Plyushkin himself seems to be a shadow pinned to the wall. To return to Chagall's inscription - another engraving - "Chichikov beaming with joy" - attracts the keen-sighted viewer. It is twice that Chagall puts in the word "ass" among inlaid patterns of Chichikov's morocco boots, "in which the town of Torzhok does a roaring trade.", and the word "fool" on the leg of the stool. The fact that Chagall uses obscene folklore expressions is not surprising. As for Gogol - he was probably the first among the educated intellectual part of the Russian society who noticed that low brutal genre connected with the grotesque laugh culture. Gogol not only noticed but mentioned in the "Dead Souls" these indecent inscriptions and drawings traditionally made with chalk and coal on the fences.

Sometimes Chagall emphasizes the emotional state of the heroes by making his inscriptions. Thus he makes an ornament decoration on the lap of the skirt of a lady from the town N: "My God, oh, oh, oh!" ("The Ladies of Town N"). Another time, in order to stress anti-Semitic character of the shop-clerk and his association with the "black-hundred" movement Chagall inserts the first words of the hymn "God save the tzar!" ciphering them in a mirror reflected way ("Manilov's agent"). Chagall's sarcasm, his inexhaustible artistic devices are equal to Gogol's genius.

Chagall changes his stylistic approach to the subject in the illustration "The civil servants in the office". This kingdom of bureaucracy is given in a form of some allegoric abstract metaphor - a large strictly geometrical round. It is worth mentioning that such an absolutely correct pure, i.e. lifeless form is not inherent to the figurativeness of Chagall's creativity. Inside this round one can see the human-like beings resembling microbes under the microscopic examination. One sees the world - unnatural, inhumane, grotesque and absurd. The so- called activity is that of the parasites depicted in the 1 D - unrecognizable crippled reptiles. The round might be a direct hint, an allegory, a parallel to the Dante's inferno. It is just in this very episode that Gogol mentions the creator of the "Divine Comedy".

Chagall reads into the multiple meaning of this allusion - he deforms the images to make Gogol's ironical analogue vivid and live, demonstrating a complete concordance of his images to those of the writer's.

Now a few words about Chagall's technical devices: dry point, etchings, aquatinta and their combinations to achieve perfect and supreme artistic results.

Marc Chahall's mastership reminds sometimes such chef- d'oeuvres of the art of engraving as Rembrandt's etchings with their fascinating lightness.

When Teriade's edition of the "Dead Souls" was published Marc Chagall got the Grand-Prix at the Venice Biennale of 1948 for the outstanding mastership of his illustrations to Nikolai V.Gogol's "Dead Souls".

In his "Dead Souls" cycle Chagall followed the text, i.e. the sequence of the described events and the development of the plot in the eleven chapters of the novel. When the large format illustrations were finished Chagall engraved eleven tables - eleven graphic "chapters" in which he schematically reproduced all the tiny-sized illustrations. In other words he made a very original tables of contents. This is something unprecedented in Vollard's editions and in the art of illustrations in general. Chagall's "table of contents" is of extreme importance, because it gives the key to Chagall's interpretation of the main idea, major pathos of the great Russian Book.

Gogol's poem begins with the theme of the road and the book ends with the theme of the road as well. The road serves the basic chronotope of the poem: it is the very place where some unpredictable events and encounters might happen. The road means movement in space and time, it becomes the symbol of development, i.e. of life.

Chagall opens his series of illustrations with the engraving "Chichikov drives through the gates of an inn of town N." in strict concordance with the beginning of the poem. The final scene with the Russian troika turns to become absolutely different from that of Gogol's. Chagall engraves this episode - the famous end of the first volume of the novel - but in his own way. "Chichikov is leaving Town N." - a quiet night scene. The three horses seem to be motionless, as if floating in the sky above the churches and huts seen through the gap in the clouds. The whole of the composition and emotional colouring of this illustration is too far from prophetic ecstasy of Gogol's text. Chagall ends his "Dead Souls" with "Chichikov's birth" - the subject so close to his heart. Thus Chagall's last illustration under the number 96 reminds numerous artist's paintings in which he depicts a newly-made mother in bed and a midwife with a newborn in her arms. This is a vivid inherent connection with the traditional iconography of Nativity.

Thus Gogol cherished his eminent dream: the road and the troika will lead to the new harmonious reality. Chagall confirms the cherished hopes, dreams and expectations embodied in a newborn as a symbol of new life, eternal, endless life - a realized harmony of spirit and matter - which itself is the greatest blessing in the Universe.

Gogol leaves the end of his poem open to questions.

The openness of the end of Chagall's series gives the answer, but his answer is ambivalent, complex and burdened with earthly wisdom. Such and only such must be the newly given life, which in its turn will end by birth.

Marc CHAGALL. Chichikov drives through the gates of an inn of the town N. 1927
Marc CHAGALL. Chichikov drives through the gates of an inn of the town N. 1927
Etching. 27,7 by 38 cm
Marc CHAGALL. The porter does not admit Chichikov. 1927
Marc CHAGALL. The porter does not admit Chichikov. 1927
Etching. 38 by 28 cm
Мarc CHAGALL. Chichikov and Sobakevich talk about business. 1927
Мarc CHAGALL. Chichikov and Sobakevich talk about business. 1927
Etching. 28 by 38 cm
Мarc CHAGALL. The runaway serf and the police officer. 1927
Мarc CHAGALL. The runaway serf and the police officer. 1927
Etching. 38,2 by 28 cm
Мarc CHAGALL. Mrs. Korobochka’s yard. 1927
Мarc CHAGALL. Mrs. Korobochka’s yard. 1927
Etching. 28 by 38 cm
Мarc CHAGALL. Yelizaveta Vorobey. 1927
Мarc CHAGALL. Yelizaveta Vorobey. 1927
Etching. 38 by 28,2 cm
Мarc CHAGALL. The ball at the Governor’s house. 1927
Мarc CHAGALL. The ball at the Governor’s house. 1927
Etching. 28 by 38 cm
Marc CHAGALL. Тable XI. The concluding table of the “List of Illustrations”. 1927
Marc CHAGALL. Тable XI. The concluding table of the “List of Illustrations”. 1927





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