MARC CHAGALL (1887-1985) Scène de cirque

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Lot 16* AR
Scène de cirque

Sold for £ 224,750 (US$ 281,624) inc. premium
MARC CHAGALL (1887-1985)
Scène de cirque
pen, brush, ink, wash, pastel and coloured crayon on paper
76 x 57cm (29 15/16 x 22 7/16in).


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Comité Marc Chagall.

    The artist's estate.
    Anon. sale, Sotheby's, Tel Aviv, 26 March 1988, lot 12.
    Private collection (acquired at the above sale); their sale, Sotheby's, New York, 5 November 2014, lot 174.
    Private collection, Europe.

    The circus is undoubtedly one of Marc Chagall's most celebrated subjects. Already from a young age, the artist would visit the circus in his Belarusian hometown, Vitebsk. Many years later in 1910, after having moved to Paris, Chagall's fascination with the spectacle would culminate during his visits to the Cirque d'Hiver, where he was frequently seen in Ambroise Vollard's season box, making sketches and drawings of the live performances. At the time, the circus was a popular destination for the mondaine Parisienne.

    Chagall's time in Paris was crucial for the artist's development, as his practice underwent a radical change. Inspired by the brightly-hued paintings of the Fauves and the revolutionary theoretical approaches of modern movements such as Cubism, he set himself free from the colourless and academic tradition as had been taught in Russia. However, Chagall refused to simply adhere to any single doctrine, and in 1924 he started to create his own unprecedented pictorial universe and visual lexicon. Whilst the Cubists moved away from representational structures towards a new artistic idea based on abstract geometric principles, Chagall's figurative paintings were replete with poetic and phantasmagorical elements. They referred to cherished memories from his childhood, emerging from his boundless imagination and personal feelings. The subject of the circus provided a plentiful resource and stood as a metaphor for events that took place in his own life.

    Chagall was enticed by the circus' theatrical grandeur, its idiosyncratic acts of performance and cheering audience, as he explained: 'it's a magic world, the circus, an age-old game that is danced, and which tears and smiles, the play of the arms and legs take the form of great art. The circus is the performance that seems to me the most tragic. Throughout the centuries, it has been man's most piercing cry in his search for entertainment and joy. It often takes the form of lofty poetry. I seem to see a Don Quixote in search of an ideal, like that marvellous clown who wept and dreamed of love' (Marc Chagall quoted in Marc Chagall, Le Cirque, exh. cat., New York, 1981, n.p.).

    The circus had long been a favoured subject within the context of French modern painting. Chagall embedded himself into an artistic tradition alongside painters such as Edgar Degas and Georges Seurat, and formed a parallel to his peers Fernand Léger, Kees van Dongen and Georges Rouault. It was his dealer Vollard who encouraged Chagall in the mid-1920s to execute an array of joyous and bold circus-themed illustrations which preceded his critically acclaimed series of La Fontaine's Fables. Chagall would revisit this genre obsessively over the course of the next fifty years. The present work Scène du cirque is a later example, executed with a swirling brush and ink technique and subtle hints of bright coloured crayons. The work depicts the different stages of the circus performance, brought together in a whimsical and lively display.

    As in many of Chagall's circuses, the horseback rider in Scène du cirque forms the primary figure in the composition, surrounded by an exuberant cacophony of musicians, trapeze artists, clowns and acrobats. The spectators are spread behind the performers in the background, aligned in crescent-shaped rows. The horseback rider has the guise of a boyish clown and holds a bouquet of flowers: the flower bouquet being a reoccurring motif in Chagall's work, used often as a symbol for love and the joy of life. In Scène du cirque the artist also celebrates his heritage and childhood memories of Vitebsk. Folk art was of fundamental importance to Chagall and was inherent to the Jewish-Russian culture that he held so dear. The tumbling acrobats in the present work commemorate the tradition of the yearly folklore dance during the Purim feast in Vitebsk, as well as the festivals that were often held there.

    Scène du cirque illustrates Chagall's extraordinary artistic vision. With a career that spanned most of the 20th century, he created his own fantastical visual language, as the artist explained: 'for me the picture is a surface covered with representations of things (objects, animals, human beings) in certain order in which logic and illustration have no importance. The visual effect of the composition is what is paramount' (Marc Chagall quoted in S. Compton, Chagall, exh. cat., London, 1985, p. 212).
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