Contemporary Art Foundation (purchased at the above sale)
Heinz Berggruen, Paris (acquired in 1967)
Galerie Benador, Geneva
Acquired by the present owner circa 1973
Geneva, Musée Rath & Cabinet des Estampes, Art du 20e siècle - Collections genevoises, 1973, no. 17, illustrated in the catalogue (titled La maison brûle and as dating from circa 1913)
The image of a horse leaping into the unknown has been compared to that of a sun god rising in his chariot, a subject that ‘was brought to the fore by the publication of a new Russian language journal in Paris in November 1913, named Gelios, the Russian orthography for ‘Helios’ (the Greek sun god). On the cover was a neo-primitive design by I. Lebedev, showing a charioteer with his steeds inside a flaming sun’ (Susan Compton in Chagall (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1985, p. 181).
Another interpretation of the image points to ‘a similarity between the motif of the flying carriage and Byzantine or medieval representations of Elijah’s Ascension into Heaven. When Chagall was asked about this in 1974, he “responded positively”. It may be added that the theme was a favourite among ikon painters’ (ibid., p. 181). Whatever source he may have used as a starting point when creating this image, Chagall gave it his unique and highly personal significance, effortlessly combining an everyday episode from life in rural Russia with elements of a phantasmagorical vision.
Both the present work and the version now in The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum have been known and exhibited under alternative titles La calèche volante and La maison brûle. In his 1961 monograph on Chagall, his biographer Franz Meyer illustrated the Guggenheim painting with the latter title, describing ‘the cool and flaming zones [as] emblems of night and day’. He wrote: ‘The astral powers, sun and moon, appear in opposition, as in Romanesque representations of the Crucifixion. Between them stands the house of man, forever burning yet never consumed’ (F. Meyer, Marc Chagall, Life and Work, New York, 1961, p. 204).
Writing about the Guggenheim version of this picture in 1985, however, Susan Compton observed: ‘Although this is the title by which the painting is now known, it was reproduced in Sturm Bilderbücher no. 1 as Landschaft (Landscape) and has subsequently been named The Burning House. When Angelica Rudenstine was preparing her exhaustive catalogue of oil paintings at the Guggenheim Museum, she invited her colleague Margit Rowell to visit Chagall to discuss his paintings. He “identified the scene as a peaceful one, in which the predominant emotion is ecstasy, not panic or fear: C’est calme, mon tableau, rien ne brûle”’ (S. Compton, op. cit., p. 180).
The 1913 Guggenheim Museum version of La calèche volante belongs to a group of works Chagall painted between 1911 and 1914, which were included in his first one-man exhibition, organised by Herwarth Walden at his celebrated Berlin gallery Der Sturm. The exhibition, which played the most important role in establishing Chagall's reputation in Europe, opened in June 1914, and two weeks later the artist left Berlin for Vitebsk. Although he planned to return to Paris after a short stay in Russia, the outbreak of the war prevented him from returning to France and Chagall stayed in Russia until 1922. That same year the artist travelled to Berlin in order to look for the canvases he had left at Herwarth Walden’s gallery shortly before the outbreak of the war. While Walden had championed Chagall’s work in Germany, where he was arguably more famous than in France, the artist was shocked to find out that by 1922 Walden had sold all of his works, including La calèche volante.
Dismayed by this loss, over the next few years Chagall painted new versions of the paintings with Russian motifs that he had lost in Berlin, including the present work. Discussing this group of works, Jackie Wullschlager wrote: ‘It was as if he were reclaiming his property from Walden, as well as drawing up an inventory of what defined his artistic identity.’ Most of the compositions were recreated from memory and ‘they turned out more like variants: the compositional rhythm is freer and less intense, the form more open, the colour more nuanced and fluid. These reconstructions […] became the typical Chagall transitional works, pointing the way to a new French style that now announced itself decisively in the paintings focusing on fresh motifs from 1924-25’ (J. Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, London, 2008, p. 313).
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