TEL AVIV.- In the spring of 1931, Marc Chagall set sail for a visit in Eretz-Israel. He had been invited by Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff, following their acquaintance in Paris in 1930. Chagall was taken with Dizengoff's passion to establish a museum in the emerging Jewish city, and agreed to join the Paris Committee set up to promote the project. Chagall brought a gift, his series of prints illustrating Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls. The series was personally dedicated to Dizengoff, and was intended to enrich the collection of the museum, due to open in 1932.
At the center of Gogol's "Human Comedy" Dead Souls is the character of Chichikov, a charming, shrewd scoundrel, who buys from landowners dead serfs whose names have not yet been taken off the official census, that is, the "dead souls" that must be disposed of in order to avoid paying serf tax for them. Chichikov intends to present these souls as living persons, "deposit" them as collateral against a bank loan, settle in a far province and establish himself as a respectable country gentleman. Through Chichikov's journey the reader is exposed to Russia's people and social classes: the lazy, greedy landowners; the power-hungry, honor-craving bureaucrats; the destitute serfs who are nothing but their masters' chattel in life as well as after death. They are all described by Gogol and illustrated by Chagall with exaggeration, as a larger-than-life yet compassionate grotesquerie.
Gogol wrote Dead Souls, a penetrating yet affectionate novel, in 1842 while far from Russia, in Rome, and that Chagall, too, made his witty prints when he was far from Russia, in Paris. The satirical prints are characterized by an acerbity that at times verges on cruelty, and are reminiscent of the work of expressionist artist Georg Grosz, whom Chagall had known in Berlin. Distorted, diagonal scenes and a top angle view evoke a sense of movement and instability. This arrangement of form and space, so typical of Chagall, appears in this series for the first time.