Le Cirque, a rare, complete portfolio of 38 lithographs by the Russian/French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) leads Bonhams Prints and Multiple Sale in London on 27 June. It is estimated at £120,000-180,000.
Cirque was printed in an edition of 250 in 1967, but the idea for the series had first been proposed in the mid-1930s by Chagall’s art dealer Ambrose Vollard, (whose name is immortalised in the Vollard Suite, the 100 lithographs which he commissioned from Picasso). Vollard shared Chagall’s passion for the circus, and often invited the painter to share his box at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris.
Chagall’s fascination with the circus and its performers dates from his childhood in pre-revolutionary Vitebsk (then part of the Russian Empire; now in Belarus). He saw a destitute man and his young children perform a handful of clumsy, acrobatic stunts. The public walked by unimpressed, and in later life Chagall always remembered the sad scene of the family trudging away, unappreciated and empty-handed. "It seemed as if I’d been the one bowing up there", he said, identifying himself with the father, while also connecting artists and circus performers as kindred spirits on the edge of society.
The 38 lithographs that make up Cirque are, however, joyous and exuberant. The scenes feature familiar circus characters, from acrobats to bareback riders – as well as some less familiar ones, including two-headed beasts and a female performer in a red dress sleeping on top of a lion.
Bonhams Director of Prints, Lucia Tro Santafe, said, “Cirque is one of the peaks of Chagall’s printmaking achievements. With its outlandish costumes and feats, the circus provided an ideal setting for Chagall to create the dreamlike compositions for which he’s famous. As he put it himself in the text accompanying Cirque, “for me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears… [In it], I can move towards new horizons”.