It might reasonably be assumed that a tale as often told as the pastoral, diaphanous story of Daphnis & Chloe by 2nd century Greek fabulist, Longus, might, by now, have exhausted itself.
But no. I suppose it’s the story’s sweet admixture of innocence and eros that keeps it afloat. Everybody has taken a crack at interpreting the pastel story of these two Edenic innocents. There have been many translations of it from the original Greek. There have been novels based on it (Collette’s Le Blé en herbe from 1923, for example) and films (The Princess Bride from 1987) and ballets (notably Ravel’s sumptuous 1912 score for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes). And there have been exquisite illustrated books of it (lithographs by Pierre Bonnard, for example, published by Ambroise Vollard in 1902, and woodcuts by Aristide Maillol in 1937).
And of course there are the famous lithographs by Marc Chagall.
Chagall’s Daphnis & Chloe was at the National Gallery of Canada all this summer. Organized by Sonia Del Re, the National’s Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, the exhibition offered all forty-two of the lithographs making up the suite.
The project was apparently in gestation a long time. The Greek fine-art publisher who called himself Tériade (Stratis Eleftheriades, 1887-1983) had first broached the idea to Chagall in 1939. It seems that Chagall wanted to wait until Bonard’s passing— in 1952—before attempting a Daphnis & Chloe of his own. Even when he did begin, the work proceeded slowly (even after two atmosphere-gathering trips to Greece, funded by Tériade). Finally, in 1961, Chagall produced fifty-eight lithographs for the limited (and now priceless) Tériade edition, printed in Paris by the famous Atelier Mourlot. The less desirable but still handsome edition sitting next to my keyboard is from Les Editions Verve Paris from 1977. It is printed in seven colours per litho, rather than the more lavish Tériade production, with up to 25 colours per lithograph. So, obviously, much of Chagall’s subtlety is lost in my volume. The Longus translation in my edition is by the mellifluous Irish writer George Moore.
My eagerness to see the Chagall D & C prints was temporarily dampened a week before travelling to Ottawa by a quite ungenerous—and I think wrong-headed—discussion of them by Jackie Wullschlager, in her massive 2008 biography of Chagall: “Eventually published in 1961, it [the Daphnis & Chloe] turned out to be among the weakest of his book illustrations: a cloying, sentimental almost parodic version of the idylls of lovers…[her thesis revolves around Chagall’s tension- filled travels in Greece with Valentina Brodsky (“Vava”), his second wife]. Wullschlager sees the D & C lithos as cliché-ridden, and “drenched in a new, intense Mediterranean colour scheme: gaudily bright blues, shiny yellows, pale purples…”
Two minutes into the National Gallery rooms where the prints hung and my wife and I found ourselves utterly seduced by, overjoyed by, the deep beauty of the works. Each of the prints was radiant with the aforementioned “intense Mediterranean colour scheme,” but there was none of the gaudiness of which Wullschlager had complained. Nor was there anything “cloying” about them. And we found the Daphnis & Chloe images remarkably cliché-free.
Sentimental? Yes of course, but in a good, life- enhancing way. I can’t think of any tale of innocent, awakening love that isn’t sentimental to some degree. It’s only because of the relentless, unyielding, iron-clad, bottom-line, emotionally-shrunken, passionless, money-driven cynicism and wall-to-wall irony within which we mostly live our lives now that any sustained deviation into delicacy of feeling and subtlety of procedure is inevitably going to be labelled sentimental.
We all know what Chagall looks like in general, and if I start describing the D & C images in any detail now, I’ll be scuppered by adjectives. Suffice it to say there are moth-like, white angels, softy exploding bouquets, yellow moons, flocks of pastel sheep, luminous fish, white boats afloat on indigo seas, green, sub-aqueous cows, and the pink, rolling fleshiness of two young, beginning lovers caught up in a new, eternity-tinctured immediacy they could never have imagined or dreamed about. It’s really quite thrilling.
CHAGALL DAPHNIS & CHLOÉ. The National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). May 18 — September 13, 2015.