Sunday, November 18, 2018

Chagall and The Fables of La Fontaine at the Polk Museum of Art

The Raven Wishing to Imitate the Eagle
I love a good art outing. So I hit the "attend" button the second my Museums and Galleries Meetup Group posted a visit to the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland. How could I resist the opportunity to see a Chagall exhibit?  I wasn't expecting any big surprises, though. I anticipated vibrant works similar to The Birthday and I and the Village. And we got that in Chagall's 24 lithographs telling "The Story of Exodus" that were on display. But it was the black and white prints of his illustrations of La Fontaine's fables that captivated me.

In 1937, French art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard approached Chagall about bringing La Fontaine's 17th century fables to life. Chagall seemed a natural choice since both he and La Fontaine readily mixed humans and animals in a whimsical way. For Chagall, the project provided the chance to illustrate fables with which he'd long been familiar while extending his art beyond Russian and Jewish influences. His original depictions of the fables took the form of watercolor gouaches. The gouaches were used as the basis for black and white etchings that were then printed and mass produced.

Not surprisingly, La Fontaine's fables owe a debt to Aesop. But I wasn't familiar with the stories behind some of the works in the exhibit. Take, for instance, The Raven Wishing to Imitate the Eagle. In the story, the raven is envious of the eagle's ability to capture and fly away with its prey. The raven decides to try it himself and lands on the largest sheep he can find. Of course, his efforts were to no avail. The moral of the story: Know your own limits. My own response to this work was to recall the little engine saying, "I think I can, I think I can."

The Woodcutter and Mercury
The fable of The Woodcutter and Mercury rang some bells in the recesses of my mind. A hard-working woodcutter has somehow lost his axe. Distraught, he pleads with Jupiter to return the source of his livelihood to him.

Jupiter sends his son Mercury, who happens to be the god of commerce, to the Woodcutter to see if he is worthy of assistance. Mercury shows the Woodcutter three axes -- one gold, one silver and one wooden -- and asks if he can identify which implement was his. Would the Woodcutter be content with the return of his modest wooden axe or be greedy and identify a more valuable tool as his own?

Happily, our Woodcutter was a honest gent. When he told Mercury the wooden axe was the one he'd lost, he was rewarded with its return. It is this moment that Chagall chose to capture in his etching rather than subsequent events when other carpenters "lose" their own axes in hope of obtaining more valuable tools. They, of course, are punished for their dishonesty and greed.

The Charlatan
My favorite fable/print told the story of The Charlatan. The story tells of a man who travels around declaring his ability to teach donkeys to speak. A prince falls for his scam and pays the man a "tuition fee" to make one of his donkeys an orator. The charlatan clearly has great confidence in his abilities. He has, after all, sweetened the deal by offering up his own head if he can't fulfill his promise within ten years. As for the charlatan, this seemed a reasonable gamble given the likelihood the donkey, the prince or the charlatan himself would be dead and gone by then.

In his depiction of this fable, Chagall chose to portray an event which doesn't actually happen in the story -- the charlatan attempting to teach the donkey to speak. The instructor takes the form of a duck, a clever reference to the fact that charlatans are also known as quacks. He points his finger to the sky as he makes a particularly salient point.

But what I truly love is the image of the donkey dressed in a suit as he assiduously works to learn the human language. He's just too cute for words -- and a brown noser of the highest order.

Each of the 11 prints included in the exhibit made me laugh in delight. And the "collaboration" gave me a greater appreciation for Chagall's talents.

Chagall: Stories into Dreams will be on display at the Polk Museum of Art through January 6.  It's a great outing with friends and family this holiday season. If you wait until after Christmas, you can also enjoy a Degas exhibit entitled Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist. And have I mentioned that admission to the Museum is free? For more information, click here.

Stay tuned for a post about the Museum's exhibit featuring the artwork of Romaine Brooks.

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