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by Margarita Nieto

(Bakersfield Art Museum, Bakersfield) Like his contemporaries, Picasso, Braque, Miro, and Klee, Marc Chagall's contributions to the history of art in this century are unquestioned. And yet, this assent in and of itself poses a problem in that our perception of what Chagall accomplished and how he did it, becomes blurred. Examination is no longer necessary.

For that reason, this thoughtful and meticulous exhibition, organized by guest curator Charlotte Sherman, the Associate Director of the Heritage Gallery, offers an opportunity to revisit Chagall's unique and profound visual language. And by focusing the exhibition exclusively on works on paper, we again become aware of another shared aspect with Picasso, for like him, Chagall had a lifelong romance with paper, most particularly with the technical demands of etchings and lithography.

Beyond that the proof of the artist's hand is best exposed in the line on paper. By organizing this exhibition chronologically Sherman allows the viewer to absorb the development of the mastery of line so synonymous with Chagall beginning with the suite Mein Leben (My Life) [1922], which Chagall executed in Berlin for the publisher, Paul Cassirir. In it, Chagall recalls images drawn from his birthplace, Vitebsk (today, Belarus), Russia, where he was born in 1887 and where he married his wife, Bella in 1914.

Poignant memories, both conscious and unconscious are evoked. First, his birth, in Birth [1922/1923] in which his mother lies naked on a bed. The midwife bathes the newborn Marc in a wooden

“Le Dimanche (Sunday),” color
lithograph, 13 1/4 x 11”, 1954.
Photo courtesy Los Angeles
County Museum of Art.

"L'Offrande (The Offering)," hand
colored etching, 9 7/8 x 7 3/8",
1944/45. Photo courtesy Los
Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Lamon and Dryas Dream," color
lithograph, 16 3/4 x 12 5/8", 1960-61.
Photo courtesy Grunwald Center
for the Graphic Arts, UCLA.

"La Torte et les Deux Canards (The
Tortoise and the Two Ducks)," etching
and aquatint, 11 5/8 x 9 1/2", 1952.
Photo courtesy of the Grunwald
Center for the Graphic Arts, UCLA.

washtub. It is all executed with a masterful economy of line (isn't this one of the first images of a birth without the Nativity archetype?). In Der Vater (The Father) [1922] three images appear, all of which illuminate his father's life. He holds the Torah, a symbol of one of the most important currents in Chagall's work, his Jewish faith, and a barrel lies at his side, a reference to his livelihood as a herring packer. A goat, probably the source of milk for the family is also depicted.

In Die Liebenden (The Lovers) [1922] a theme concomitant with Chagall's entire oeuvre and probably inspired by his love for Bella, the union between the two figures is intensified in that the male (Chagall) is upside down either as a compositional solution (the two bodies share the same lines) or as an indication of a comical abandon. This lover is head over heels in love.

Chagall steadfastly maintained that the sources of his art emerged from these early memories. Russia, Judaism, love, all combine throughout his long career to imbue his work with vigorous emotions that emerge from an open honesty. Even as he moves toward a more marked contrast between the severity of the line utilized in the image itself and the subtle and ever-changing background--for example in Dead Souls [1923-25], The Fables of La Fontaine [1927-1930, completed in 1952, and commissioned by Vollard], and The Bible Suite [begun in 1930; published in 1957]--and even as the images become more painterly and imbued with colorin the decades of the forties, fifties and sixties, the imagination of this artist never loses its wellspring: the plastic innocence of these early works.

L'Offrande (The Offering) [1944/945] is simultaneously color blocks of green, purple, violet and shades of yellow, with a series of curving arcs. The flowing, suspended figures reveal the artist seated at his easel, almost enclosed within the body-arc of an acrobat offering a bouquet of flowers. Below and also enclosed in a half circle, lies the village of memory, a crescent moon shining over it and two lovers caught for eternity within their embrace and within the painter's eye. A single dove takes flight. A signature piece, it is indeed an offering of warmth and affection, a memory of the playful, imaginative spirit of one of the masters of this century.