A Touch of Serendipity: Chagall & Winnipeg

Marc Chagall, Ferdinand Eckhardt, Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, and Valentina (“Vava”) Brodsky Chagall in Vence, France, 1959. Photo: Courtesy of The Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation

Winnipeg would never have known of the relationship between famed 20th-century artist Marc Chagall and Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt, a former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), had it not been for a complicated series of coincidences, fascinating friendships and a touch of serendipity. When the Chagall & Winnipeg mini-exhibition opened to the public at the WAG this spring, a trunk filled with memories, letters, photographs, and works of art was thrown wide open.

Chagall & Winnipeg, on view until September 11, 2016, complements two other shows also on view: Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé and Esther Warkov: Paintings, 1960s-80s. Daphnis & Chloé, a touring exhibition from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), features all 42 lithographs in Chagall’s recounting of the Classical tale — a magnificent series that is often considered the crowning achievement in Chagall’s printmaking career. 

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Marc Chagall, Flower Still Life, c. 1935, watercolour, gouache on paperboard on canvas, 76.4 x 57.5 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Gift of Mr. Joseph Harris, G-54-9. Photo: Ernest Mayer

In addition to letters and photographs, the exhibition includes one of Walter Gramatté’s oil portraits of Vava (1927), a gift of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation to the WAG. Chagall’s gouache painting, The Crow and the Fox (1926), on loan from the NGC, was originally painted for French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, and was the model for an etching Chagall created as part of a larger suite of prints illustrating Aesop’s Fables. From the WAG collection, Chagall’s luminous watercolour, Flower Still Life (1935), features a diaphanous bouquet of brilliant blue and pink flowers, along with a large bird and two embracing lovers in the lower right hand corner.

Russian-born artist Marc Chagall was a prolific Modernist whose work revolved around the central theme of love — whether romantic, or a broader love of family, community or homeland. Andrew Kear, the WAG’s curator of Historical Canadian Art says the lithographs in Daphnis & Chloé represent one of the most significant print projects that Chagall ever created. “When I think of European Modernism, I think of analytical Cubism, Fauvism, grand universal statements and about form and expression,” said Kear in an interview with NGC Magazine. “However, the kind of personal details that Chagall introduced, the personal stories he incorporated, and the memories, those are quite unique.”

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Marc Chagall, The Poet and the Birds, 1911, oil on canvas, 72.7 x 99.5 cm. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan. Photo © Minneapolis Institute of Arts

While conducting research for the Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé exhibition, the Winnipeg Art Gallery unearthed some of those memories, including a fascinating connection between Chagall and the former WAG Director. The complicated path leading to the Chagall & Winnipeg exhibition starts when Valentina “Vava” Brodsky married Chagall in July 1952. Vava, whose portraits had been painted in the 1920s by German Expressionist Walter Gramatté, became good friends with Gramatté’s wife, Sophie-Carmen (“Sonia”), a German composer. After Gramatté’s premature death in 1929, Sonia met Austrian art historian Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt, and they were soon married. Dr. Eckhardt, who served as Director of the WAG from 1953 until 1974, became acquainted with Vava Brodsky through his marriage. Unwittingly, a future connection between Chagall and Winnipeg was thus sealed. 

The Eckhardts and Vava lost touch amidst the upheaval of the Second World War. In 1958, an opportunity for Sonia Gramatté-Eckhardt to reconnect with Vava presented itself. “In his unpublished memoirs,” says Kear, “Dr. Eckhardt describes overhearing a pair of pianists from Quebec mention the name ‘Vava’ one evening at a Winnipeg concert. When he inquired as to the identity of ‘Vava,’ the pianists said that they were indeed referring to Valentina Brodsky, a mutual friend who had in 1952 married artist Marc Chagall.” 

Esther Warkov, Dreams of a Distant Summer, 1982–83, oil on canvas, 183 x 229 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with funds from The Winnipeg Foundation, G-83-63. Photo: Leif Norman

The Eckhardts obtained Chagall’s address, and sent a letter of introduction. When the reply came, it included an invitation to join Chagall and Vava at their home in Vence, in southern France. During the summers of 1959 and 1961, the Eckhardts stayed with the artist and his wife. When Chagall died in 1985, letters of sympathy were exchanged between Dr. Eckhardt and Vava, attesting to the close friendship they shared. Those letters can be seen in the Chagall & Winnipeg exhibition.

Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of European, American and Asian Prints and Drawings at the NGC, takes up the tale. “The Eckhardts visited Chagall and Vava right around the years that Chagall was working on the lithographs for Daphnis & Chloé,” she told the NGC Magazine. Chagall began working on the 42 semi-erotic prints in 1957 to illustrate a tale written by the Greek poet, Longus. The work was completed in 1960 and published in 1961. “If you compare this timeline to the dates of the Eckhardts’ visits with Chagall,” said Del Re, “they should overlap,” suggesting that the Eckhardts would have both seen the work and witnessed Chagall’s process.

The Chagall & Winnipeg exhibition weaves together a story of friendship between two prominent art-world families and the Peg. It not only gives viewers a fascinating look into Chagall’s personal life, but also into his unexpected connection to Canada through his friendship with the WAG’s former Director. In its exploration of the genesis of an enduring friendship and the often serendipitous connections people make across time and space, the revelations in Chagall & Winnipeg add poignancy and depth to this summer’s Chagall art extravaganza at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.


Chagall & Winnipeg and Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé are on view at the WAG until September 11, 2016. Esther Warkov: Paintings, 1960s–1980s, featuring art that owes much to Chagall’s own aesthetic and preoccupations, is on view at the WAG until October 16, 2016.  

Share this article: 

About the Author