Marc Chagall - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, November 24, 2018 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Collection of Madame Maurice Raynal, Paris
    Christie’s, New York, 12 November 1992, Lot 165
    Private Collection, Montreal
    Private Collection (thence by descent)
    Sotheby’s, New York, 6 May 2015, Lot 141
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    London, The Leicester Galleries, Marc Chagall, April - May 1935, no. 14

  • Catalogue Essay

    In Marc Chagall’s Le violoniste bleu, the titular musician sits while playing, utterly absorbed in his music, eyes closed in dream-like concentration. This poetic gouache is filled with the blues and purples of the twilight hours, which are present in so many of Chagall’s greatest works. It is a lyrical time of music, magic and mystery.

    This picture was formerly in the collection of the wife of the prominent French art critic Maurice Raynal, who was considered to be an important standard-bearer for Cubism.

    The work dates from 1929, when the technique of gouache was an important focus for Chagall in his artistic practice. He had just produced the etchings to accompany Les Fables by La Fontaine, which were commissioned by the legendary dealer Ambroise Vollard. They were published years later, in 1952, but the friendship of the two began much earlier through an introduction by the poet Blaise Cendrars. Vollard would become Chagall’s mentor and source of inspiration, opening new doors for him with his concepts for print projects. This allowed the artist to establish himself in Paris following his return from Vitebsk, where he had been living for five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1922. Chagall’s appointment as Fine Arts Commissioner for the Vitebsk region saw him working alongside the avant-garde artistic leaders in Moscow, Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. Le violoniste bleu is a dreamy picture filled with poetry and music. It depicts a romantic scene recalling serenades, quite afar from the rigors of Suprematist aspirations, and yet, the quintessential lesson of Suprematism can be found in the bold use of an almost monochrome colour deployed as background, that becomes the main subject, incarnated on the blue musician. To the eyes of the Soviet power, having just accused Malevich for being a “philosophical dreamer” in 1929, the same year that this work was painted, such poetic character in Le violonist bleu would have been regarded as rebellious and anti-establishment.

    Painted in the year of the Wall Street crash, Le violonist bleu still captures the atmosphere of the Happy Twenties, coinciding with a time of prosperity for Chagall and his wife Bella. Paris had opened its doors to them and they enjoyed a period of comfort. In this ever-changing shape of the economy, Chagall conceptually captures an otherwise emotional period in between countries in this present lot. The musician is heavily rooted in Russian folklore and recalls memories of his childhood, yet the turquoise box he sits on represents the new, symbolically referring to his new home, Paris, as the flourishing capital of the arts. Far from a common bench, Chagall places the musician on a deep symbol of Parisian culture, one of the “bouquinistes”, second-hand book stall boxes that flanked the banks of the River Seine. A subtle allusion to the new city in contrast with the fiddler, which evokes the “shtetl” of his childhood, the Jewish community of Vitebsk in which he had been raised and which was to impregnate his work throughout his life, Chagall explored his nostalgic longing for the home of his first youth. In the idiosyncratic and personal memoir written a few years earlier, My Life, he vividly recollects his time in Vitebsk, “Like a cobbler… Uncle (Neuch) is playing the violin. The man who spent the whole day leading the cows into the sheds, tying their legs, and dragging them around, is playing now, playing the rabbi’s song” (M. Chagall, My Life, London, 1965, p. 25.) Images of violinists of all ages would be recurrent in his work, such as The Musician (circa 1912-1913), now in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. These figures emphasise the importance of music, cultural roots, and memory to Chagall.

    Music and colour are poetically entangled in the life and work of Chagall. It is not in vain that André Malraux, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, would appoint him years later to decorate the ceiling of Palais Garnier, the main opera house in Paris. The theme of music runs through his œuvre and was an integral component of his life. Rooted in his Jewish upbringing in Russia, where religious processions, feast days, community celebrations and weddings were filled with music, Chagall himself also possessed musical skills: he liked to sing and play the violin. Recalling his childhood dreams of becoming a musician, we see his self-portrait in the fiddler, “I’ll become a violinist. I’ll enter a conservatory.” (Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrrative, Stanford, 2004, p. 112.) Although the violin would not come to be his main vocation, it did however become an emblematic motif and held a special place within his works, a symbol deeply assimilated into his artistic consciousness.

    There is yet another protagonist in this contained composition: The Moon. Crescent-shaped, towering over from the far distance, it calls to mind the Nocturnes (Musique pour la Nuit), the finest Romantic musical compositions evocative of the night mastered by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.

    The use of colour is where Chagall’s mastery truly lies. Picasso famously said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” (Jackie Wullschlager, Chagall: A Biography, New York, 2008.) The surface of the canvas comes alive with Chagall’s use of blue. Blue is at once a colour and a mood. It subsequently becomes a genre of music inextricably associated with melancholy. This feeling, however, is balanced in Le violoniste bleu by sparkles of white, bright pink, viridian green and a splash of golden reverberation: all joyful colours. They come to punctuate the overall blue composition as in a musical partition, echoing the musical theme of the violin and visually transposing the melody. This synesthetic endeavour —to orchestrate music, shape and colour— would then be much explored by his compatriot Kandinsky, who also immigrated to France.

    In 1932 Le violoniste bleu was shown at the Leicester Galleries in London, Chagall’s first exhibition in the United Kingdom, which focused on modern British and French artists. Reginald H. Wilenski, a prominent English art historian and critic, who had published The Modern Movement in Art, wrote the foreword of the exhibition catalogue. At this stage, Chagall had been worn down by a succession of hurdles in his life, from the financial crash of 1929 to the increasing health problems of his beloved Bella. It was their daughter Ida who attended the opening, hosted by Lady Clark, the wife of Sir George Clark, the British ambassador to Paris, who coincidentally had been given painting lessons from Chagall (J. Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 362.) Reviewing the exhibition, The Times would describe Chagall’s pictures as ‘fanciful and eccentric illustrations… transformed by a mysterious delicacy and charm of feeling’ (‘Art Exhibitions: The Leicester Galleries, The Times, 1 May 1935, p. 14, reproduced online.)

    Through the themes of music and colour, Chagall captures an emotional connection to his motherland and his past through the figure of the violinist and the Moon, while looking into the future ahead of him, represented by the Parisian symbol of the “bouquiniste”, an icon of his new city.

Property of a French Collector


Le violoniste bleu

signed 'Marc Chagall' lower right
gouache on paper
66 x 51.3 cm. (25 7/8 x 20 1/4 in.)
Executed in 1929, the authenticity of this work has been confirmed by the Comité Marc Chagall.

HK$3,800,000 - 4,800,000 

Sold for HK$3,940,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 25 November 2018