Marc Chagall, an artist who defies convention and whose style resists neat labels, created over 1,100 hand-signed color lithographs that are today as coveted as his paintings. Such Chagall lithographs as Carmen and The Magic Flute are symphonies in color that command hefty prices at auction. A master engraver seen as Rembrandt’s legitimate heir in that medium, Chagall also experimented with woodblock. Commissioned by French publisher Ambroise Vollard to create three monumental suites of engravings, the artist perfected the black and white image. Vollard deemed his art, “ingenuous and subtle, realistic and fantastic!” His deft draftsmanship and instinctive relationship with color led to a new mode of creation upon his discovery of lithography.
First introduced to this notoriously difficult technique in Berlin, Chagall was soon creating images of great beauty. Every color in a lithograph requires a new stone or plate, making each image a complex balancing act. The artist must have an established vision for the work before beginning to mark the blank surface. The simple fact of a colorful image on a thick sheet of Arches belies the careful planning, registering and proofing that went into its creation. Likewise, the office printer spitting out copies cheapens the love and time that artists like Chagall poured into each fine art lithograph. A printed page or poster bears no relation to an original signed lithograph, a work printed in multiples.
In 1950, decades after his stay in Berlin, the artist met Fernand Mourlot, Georges Sagourin and, most importantly, Charles Sorlier. The printmaker worked closely on the majority of Chagall lithographs, checking each impression to make sure it matched the artist’s proof.
Becoming in this time period a “master of color and…poet of form,” Chagall created lithographic masterpieces on an unprecedented scale; such illustrated books as Daphnis and Chloe and Drawings for the Bible attest to the unmatched scope and quality of his printmaking. Only a few years after the great artist’s death, scholars already recognized how his output elevated the medium’s status to that of true fine art.
Historically, prints have provided artists with a way of reaching a wider number of viewers. They exist in multiples and this augments their impact; more people view the work and learn about the artist. What is unique about Chagall’s hand-signed color lithographs is their spirituality and emotion. He describes his relation to the lithographic stone or copper plate: “It seemed to me that I could entrust them with all my joys, all my sorrows…births, death, marriages, flowers…And, as I grow older, the tragedy of life that is inside us and all about us.”
This remarkable vision comes alive in such lithographs as The Adolescents, a tribute to ardent young love, and Roses and Mimosa, one of many poems written by Chagall to the Cote d’Azur. The whole of the artist’s lithographic oeuvre compelled publishers, curators and gallery owners to halt in astonishment; this effect, if anything, is only amplified today.