MARC CHAGALL turned 96 this month, and the Dimock Gallery at George Washington University is offering a rare birthday salute: 47 early Chagall etchings lent from the collection of GWU trustee Howard P. Hoffman.
The show is a treat not only for Chagall fanciers, but also for those who may have tired of seeing the images of floating lovers, violin-toting roosters and teetering Eiffel towers that have been rolling off lithographic presses in such profusion since World War II.
There are no lithographs in this show. Rather it includes only rarely seen early etchings, drypoints and aquatints, all drawn on copper plates by the artist in Paris in the '20s, soon after he took up printmaking.
Though most of the plates were not actually published until the '50s, they convey a sense of the vigor, inventive imagination, good humor and originality that made Chagall such a popular figure in the first place.
This is not a comprehensive survey, but a lucky find. According to Dimock Gallery curator Lenore Miller, they are part of a larger group acquired two years ago by Hoffman "as a body of prints from the workshop of master printer Raymond Haasen," who pulled many editions for Chagall.
Clearly printer's proofs, they are marked "bon a tirer," or "good to pull," meaning that the artist had approved them for printing. Most are also initialed by Haasen, who presumably kept this set of proofs for himself, as is often the custom, though documentation provided by the gallery at this point is naggingly incomplete.
Chagall's very first etchings--for his autobiographical "Mein Leben"--are unfortunatly not part of this collection. But there are other wonderful early images, among them the "Self-Portrait with a House Mouth," from 1922/23, in which the old house Chagall was born in actually becomes part of his Cubist-style physiognomy.
There are other charming self-portraits: one with his beloved wife Bella, and another featuring episodes from his life and art in the form of a narrative band around his hat. Several prints echo paintings, with typical subjects from his personal mythology: memories of the Russian shtetl in Vitebsk, women in head scarves, men in peaked caps, a floating pendulum clock topped by a fish--possibly a symbol of his father's trade as herring-carrier. There are acrobats and anthropomorphic horses and birds; rooftops and lovers.
Since he was a mature artist when he began making prints at age 36, Chagall never appears as a novice here, though his growing mastery as a graphic artist is evident. His narrative abilities are represented in 14 fine etchings for Gogol's novel "Dead Souls," completed in 1937 on commission from legendary publisher and patron Ambroise Vollard. Raymond Haasen printed them in 1948.
This is an extraordinary collection, and, as such, deserves a far more complete and authoritative presentation. That cannot happen before the prints have been properly catalogued by a recognized scholar, with full documentation as to provenance. This show continues in the lower level at Lisner Auditorium through July 29. Hours are 10 to 5, Mondays through Fridays. Spectrum Gallery
Washington's longest-running co-op--Spectrum Gallery--customarily has rotating shows by its 26 members. But for summer variety, it issued an invitation to members of the Montgomery College Art faculty, Rockville campus. The 11 artists who responded are mostly painters and printmakers, though one jewelry designer and one ceramic artist are also included.
Robert Stuart Cohen's fool-the-eye paintings are welcome in-town visitors. At first they appear to be still-lifes focusing on an artist's studio wall covered with paintings, mats, brushes, tape and other tools of the trade. In fact, only a few items are actually anchored to the wall. The rest--including several small squares of pure color--seem to float above the surface, an illusionistic effect reinforced by complex overlaps and the casting of shadows. "Inventory" is the most interesting work. The only problem here is the inevitable comparison with the peerless illusionist, Paul Sarkisian.
Barbara Kerne's black-and-white etching titled "Solitude" evokes the light of a summer afternoon in a garden house; and Jan Maddox's handsome, modestly priced pewter pins are as much drawings as the spare, minimal abstractions made from copper wire and slate that hang on the wall.
The highlight is the introduction of a new printmaker, Zdzislaw Sikora, who came to the area last year. Though his large, oriental-looking etchings seem at first to be blown-up segments of 19th century Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts, these handsomely colored intaglios turn out to be images of Christian saints and martyrs, garbed in traditionally patterned Japanese robes and covered with tattoos.
These are also accompanied by the traditional iconographic symbols that characterize them in western art: St. Bartholomew, who was skinned alive, carries his tattooed skin.
This show continues at 1132 29th St. NW in Georgetown--Spectrum's new home--through July 28. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 to 5.