The current exhibition of artworks by Marc Chagall at the UWM Art History Gallery grew out of the curator’s double major at the university.
“I chose the work of Marc Chagall for my thesis exhibition,” says graduate student Cassie A. Sacotte, “in part because I had worked with his ‘Dead Souls’ suite as an undergraduate.”
With a double major in Art History and Jewish Studies, she adds, “Chagall’s artwork allowed me an avenue to engage with both themes.”
The exhibition, which runs through Dec. 12, was built around the theme of “The Morals of Marc Chagall,” exploring three groups of book illustrations by the world-renowned Russian-French modernist.
Since she was already familiar with Chagall’s illustrations for Nikolai Gogol’s satiric novel, “Dead Souls,” Sacotte decided to expand on the topic of morality, a common thread in three groups of works among the 166 Chagalls in the UWM collection. In addition to the “Dead Souls” illustrations (1923-27), the 25 works in the exhibition focus on Chagall’s illustrations for the 1694 French parables, “The Fables of La Fontaine” (1927-30) and “The Story of the Exodus” (1966).
Her six months of research, reflected in the exhibition catalog she wrote, offer information on how events in Chagall’s life and background influenced his art and, in particular, the book illustrations.
Chagall was born and raised in a small town in Russia in the Jewish religion and culture. Both Russian and Jewish themes are strong influences in his works. He has been called the foremost Jewish artist of the 20th century, though he argued that many of his themes, in works like “The Story of the Exodus,” were universal.
Chagall and his family settled in France after the Russian Revolution and lived in America briefly during World War II, and Sacotte’s catalog discusses how his experiences, as an art commissar in socialist Russia and later during the Holocaust, shaped his illustrations.
For example, Sacotte writes of Chagall in the catalog: “He felt as if Gogol was describing his Russia, the initial triumph and subsequent disappointment in the years of the revolution. Gogol was satisfyingly allowing Chagall a platform to portray Russia as morally corrupt and continuously fraudulent throughout the prints of “Dead Souls.”
All three books focus on strong moral themes, but Chagall had a different view, says Sacotte. “Chagall ignored the moralizing messages and the moral punchline of the fables for pictorial impact describing the essentials of the human experience rather than trying to dictate a moral code,“ she writes of the “Fables” in the catalog.
“Chagall’s intention in depicting each text was not to dictate morality or correct immoral behavior, but simply show the moral stature of each character within the text. In the end, it was not ‘moral’ versus ‘immoral’ that Chagall was interested in depicting, but the essentials of the human experience.”
The Art History Gallery is located in Mitchel Hall, room 154. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday. All exhibits are free, open to the public and wheelchair accessible.