Chagall’s Daphnis & Chloé at the AGA: Making the Everyday Iconic

In 1956, Marc Chagall—then almost 70 years old—began a commission to illustrate Daphnis and Chloé, a famous, classical fable about a young goatherd and shepherdess on the Greek island of Lesbos, written by the second-century Greek poet, Longus. Chagall spent the next five years creating forty-two coloured plates to visually narrate the twists and turns in this tale.

The exhibition Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé is a captivating love story, a peek into Marc Chagall’s personal life, and a lithographic opus considered to be the artist’s most important graphic work.

“They are incredible works of lithography,” says Kristy Trinier, curatorial liaison at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, where the series—on loan from the National Gallery—is on view until 16 February 2014. “Each one has twenty to twenty-five different colours. They’re very vivid, so in terms of lithography, where each colour is separately pulled, that is a huge amount of technical work.”

But the story may have also struck an emotional chord with Chagall, who began the project by taking a number of field trips to Greece with his new second wife.

“He studied the story of Daphnis and Chloé very carefully, and I think he was inspired by his new marriage,” Trinier says. “Although I don’t think you can separate the imagery from his first marriage, which was his first love.”

The fable tells how Daphnis and Chloé were abandoned as infants, then found and raised by shepherding families. The two young people eventually meet and fall in love, but endure numerous challenges in their romance, including kidnappings, pirate attacks and very nearly unrequited passion. Each unfolding lesson in the different kinds of love is told through Chagall’s intricate illustrations.

“They’re light and airy, and his style for this particular series really reflects the innocent love of Daphnis and Chloé. It really captures that naiveté,” says Sonia Del Re, Assistant Curator of European, American and Asian Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery.

She adds that these lithographs highlight Chagall’s unique style and skill as a colourist, which set him apart from contemporaries such as Picasso who said, "When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour is.”

According to Del Re, these lithographs are considered his most important illustrative work, because they reflect that painterly style and replicate his rich colour palette. “He was very prolific and very versatile, so that broadens his appeal,” she says. “His works are whimsical and open to interpretation, which I think is what captures the imagination of modern viewers. His pictures are easily recognizable, but they never cease to surprise us. They appeal to us because of their unusual, idiosyncratic look, and continue to fascinate us with their expressive and emotive qualities.”

Kristy Trenier stresses that Chagall’s magic was in making the everyday, iconic. “He painted quotidian things like love and family, his neighbourhood and his community, the places he lived and was from. He made beautiful the everyday. He made it more than beautiful. He made it iconic. That’s why Chagall has such a legacy.”

Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until 16 February 2014.

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