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May 7 - June 6, 2005 at Leslie Sacks Fine Art, West Los Angeles

by Bill Lasaorw

“Disrobing her with his own hand, the
King looked upon her body and
saw it as if it were a silvern igot. . .,”
1948, color lithograph, 43 1/2 x 33 cm.

"The old woman mounted on the Ifrit's
back, taking her daughter behind her, and
the Ifrit flew off with them. . .", 1948,
color lithograph, 43 1/2 x 33 cm.

"So I came forth of the Sea and sat down on
the edge of an island in the moonshine,"
1948, color lithograph, 43 1/2 x 33 cm.

Plate 1 from "Kamar Al-Zaman and
the Jeweler's Wife," 1948, color
lithograph, 43 1/2 x 33 cm.

"Abdullah discovered before him and on his right and left mountains of water, and solaced himself by gazing thereon and on the various sort of fish. Some of them favoured buffaloes, others oxen and others dogs and yet others human beings. . .," 1948, color lithograph, 43 1/2 x 33 cm.
Iconic artists such as Marc Chagall are a double edged sword: easy to praise in the wake of all the preceding adulation, and equally tempting to debunk as dated and irrelevant. If the power to shock us with floating figures, contorted perspective, and flagrantly aggressive color have long since been absorbed by the charms of the mass market, let us never forget the deeply personal sources that kept Chagall’s art lively beyond the modernist grounding that made his unique way of seeing and communicating factors that played out at exactly the right time and place.

He was the child of a Russian Jewish ghetto who learned how to make himself happy in his life and powerful through his art. His Modernist colleagues may have been variously fired with revolutionary zeal, manic in their ambition, or personally miserable, but Chagall drew sustenance from what he loved: his family, his memories, and his art.

As the Second World War drew to its height in 1941, he and his wife Bella fled Europe for New York. Though she died in 1944, Chagall remained in the U.S. through 1948, the year he completed the portfolio of color lithographs “Four Tales from the Arabian Nights,” which both culminated a series of paintings and gouaches done over the several years following Bella’s death, and were his first immersion in the medium of color lithography. It is a dozen prints from one of these portfolios that are the subject of this exhibition.

This narrow focus does Chagall and the viewer a favor. Taken in a limited dose, all of the artist’s virtues are apparent. The loose and easygoing stylistic manner is driven by mature formal discipline. Personal expression and storytelling ability strike a precarious but confident balance. The adventursome innocence of mythical creatures set in mystical realms gives way to charged eroticism.

It’s charming yes, but equally tough and sophisticated. After several years of listening and responding to Sharhazad’s tales, then working in a technique that is hardly spontaneous, the artist managed to produce images that flow past the eye as though they were the product of a first magical encounter rather than the culmination of several years worth of practice.

The images rely on a vigorous interweaving of clearly defined formal elements--color that is keyed to one hue, one or two central figures, and that faux naive line, Chagall’s main staple, that sets off sensuous echoes throughout the graphic structure. This package serves to convey the foreign exotic, the narrow membrane between our world and that of the spirits, the rush of danger rewarded by fulfillment--all of the stuff that sells the stories evoked in the images.

The level of detail trails the rest as something of a visual surprise, but is hardly an afterthought. Indeed, it is crucial to what made Chagall exceptional. Whether in the sea in which the mermaid Julnar languidly swims/reclines, the plethora of interactive creatures occupying the foreground presided over by Abdullah the fisherman, or the bustle of courtly activity as the King greets the three wise men in “The Ebony Horse,” there is plenty to imagine and revisit--even if you never bother to read the tales.