Marc Chagall: The Fables of La Fontaine

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Chagall, Marc
La Fontaine, Jean de
Wright, Elizur
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This is one of the most delightful and beautiful books I have found! Three things impress me particularly about the book. First, it helps to clear up the difficult history of Chagall's involvement with La Fontaine's fables. In 1995, two French museums--the Musée d'Art Moderne de Céret and the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall in Nice--jointly mounted a show displaying the forty-three available gouaches of the one hundred which Chagall created in 1926-7. They were shown in three cities (Paris, Brussels, and Berlin) in 1930 and sold thereafter to a broad spectrum of collectors. Ambroise Vollard, who had commissioned the series, failed to publish the series in color, as he had planned to, and abandoned the project in 1928. Chagall then created plates from which to make engravings. In the late 40's and early 50's, Chagall set out to recover the hundred plates he had engraved in 1929-30. In 1952 André Tériade published them in two volumes. That edition came to obscure the gouaches themselves. Some thirty of the gouaches have never been heard of again since their purchase in Berlin in 1930. Here we get the forty-three gouaches shown in the 1995 exhibit. Second, the editor has fun with the presentation of Elizur Wright's good translation of La Fontaine, curving and bending it around on the left (text) side of each two-page opening. Only MSA (110-13) violates this rule; it uses four pages. A particular tour de force offers the text as a tree on 66! Thirdly and best of all, these illustrations are just spectacular! Some of my favorites among them are: SS (45), The Old Woman and Her Two Servants (89), The Satyr and the Traveller (91), The Rat and the Elephant (97), The Lion and the Gnat (103), The Raven Wishing to Imitate the Eagle (117), and The Bear and the Amateur Gardener (123). In an introductory essay, Didier Schulmann points out that Chagall often chooses not to depict small creatures. In The Two Bulls and the Frogs (53), the frogs are not even pictured. The Cat Metamorphosed Into a Woman (57) continues to haunt me; Schulmann says of it: In a single case, the illustration shifts away from the meaning of the fable…nothing in La Fontaine's text indicates the state of profound nostalgia in which Chagall's hybrid, pensively seated with her elbows on a small table, seems to be plunged (30). At the end there is an alphabetical list tracking the gouaches to their last known site.
Distributed by W.W. Norton
The New Press
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