About The Artwork
Produced in the Paris workshop of printmaker Fernand Mourlot when Marc Chagall was nearly ninety years old, Composition Fantastique continues the artist’s eschewal of naturalistic verisimilitude and displays his embrace of fantastical and evocative imagery. The lithograph’s lyrical complexity reflects a lifetime of artistic preoccupations, in both its subjects and its technique.
Composition Fantastique revisits themes that appeared in various guises throughout Chagall’s career. The artist includes references to dance and theater (he designed sets and costumes for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, worked in Moscow in the 1920s as stage designer for the Jewish Chamber Theater, and produced backdrops and costumes for Aleko at the Metropolitan Opera House and the American Ballet Theater’s production of Stravinsky’s Firebird); townscapes (particularly images of Vitebsk, which started appearing in his works immediately after the young artist moved from his hometown); leaping, flying, winged, and double-faced figures; fantastic creatures (including a flying fish and a rooster large enough to ride); and what appears to be a small self-portrait in the lower right corner. Composition Fantastique does not merely repeat Chagall’s main motifs. Rather, it continues a poetic practice that his friend, Guillaume Apollinaire, called the supernatural, in reference to the artist’s synthesis of everyday life and imagination. New combinations and novel relationships characterize this approach.
The lithographic studio remained an experimental arena for Chagall, who continued making prints until the year he died. These processes furnished a flexible means for exploring the possibilities and limitations of color and form. Additionally, printmaking provided an outlet for Chagall’s vast repository of emotion and memory, as he recalled:
It seems to me that something would have been lacking for me if, in addition to color, I had not, at one time in my life, worked at engraving and lithography … When I held in my hand a lithographic stone, or a copper plate, I believed I was touching a talisman. It seemed to me that I could entrust them with all my joys, all my sorrows … Everything that has crossed my path, throughout the years: births, deaths, marriages, flowers, animals, birds, poor working people, my parents, lovers at night, the prophets from the Bible, on the street, in my home, in the Temple, in the sky. And, as I grow older, the tragedy of life that is inside us and all around us.1
Given the abundance of figures, townscape elements, and background in Composition Fantastique, it is not surprising that Chagall worked through different versions of this print. The present rendering is considered its final state; the first state included additional characters and beasts in the open areas around the red dancer and near the self-portrait (Sorlier cat. no. 896).
One year before Chagall produced this lithograph, he completed a major book project, illustrating Shakespeare’s The Tempest for Editions André Sauret. Various figures in Composition Fantastique, particularly the winged figure near the center of the image, also appear in The Tempest illustrations. It is best, however, to resist the temptation to connect the angel-like figure in the lithograph to the artist’s illustrations of Ariel, Shakespeare’s air spirit. As modernist art historian Katherine Kuh explained, Chagall “tells us that his paintings are to be looked at — not interpreted.”2 The artist also depicted angels in his biblical works, and indeed portrayed flying figures of all kinds throughout his oeuvre. Thus, recurrent figures can have multiple referents or no specific intent at all.
Assistant Professor, Frederik Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University
- Marc Chagall, quoted in Jean-Louis Prat, “The Path of Poetry,” in Chagall, exh. cat. (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2012), 35.
- Katharine Kuh, “Marc Chagall,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, 40, no. 7 (December 1946), 90.
- Gauss, Ulrike. Marc Chagall, The Lithographs: La Collection Sorlier. Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1998, cat. no. 896a.