‘Chagall’s Dead Souls’ at Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Marc Chagall was one of the last century’s greatest visual artists. He’s best known for his paintings, but he also illustrated several books, including Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. All 96 of his etchings for that novel are on display at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s new exhibition, “Chagall’s Dead Souls: A Satirical Account of Imperialist Russia.”

Drawn from the UWM Art Collection/Emile H. Mathis Art Gallery, Chagall’s illustrations for the great Russian novel have seldom been exhibited. “Chagall is ubiquitous,” says the Jewish Museum’s Molly Dubin, “but this is work most people are not familiar with.” 

The 96 etchings are displayed above panels with quotations from relevant passages of Dead Souls. Familiarity with the book is helpful in contextualizing the storyline Chagall rendered (the etchings are displayed in sequence), but Chagall’s work can be appreciated on its own merits.

Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) was a satirical journey into the heart of his homeland’s darkness. The protagonist is an unscrupulous hustler, Chichikov, who devises a scheme to purchase dead serfs from their owners and mortgage them. By law, Chichikov is committing tax fraud. But morally, Gogol satirizes the “ownership” of serfs, who were considered part of the landowners’ real estate (like livestock or buildings). What does it mean to buy and sell someone’s soul?

Gogol wrote like a surreal Charles Dickens and Chagall’s painted dreamscapes were a forerunner to surrealism in the visual arts. Dubin calls the combination “an engaging blend.” Both are towering figures produced by Russian culture confronted by their country’s censors but with differences: Chagall was Jewish and Gogol was born in Ukraine. They lived a century apart with Gogol under a reactionary czar and Chagall faced with totalitarian Bolsheviks.

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“They were incredible storytellers,” Dubin says. “Gogol had an amazing ability to detail his characters and Chagall visualized them. Both shared the drive to explore the complexities of the human experience. They understood that humans have many sides and can exhibit good qualities and bad qualities.”

On the surface, those bad qualities threaten the good on nearly every page of Gogol’s novel, giving Chagall (who executed the series 1923-27) the opportunity for caricatures almost as vicious as his German contemporary, George Grosz. The ugly psychology of several characters is magnified by their distorted physical features. Chichikov’s ego is personified in one etching; he’s as bloated as an inflated balloon. One of the landlords he deals with, Sobakevich, is a bear of a man with legs like tree trunks.

The black and white etchings, devoid of Chagall’s usual color palette, brings his artistry down to basics. Many familiar elements from his visual vocabulary are present—the animals with sympathetic faces, the Eastern Orthodox churches on the horizon. Some illustrations display a cubist multiplicity of angles; some are left with simple lines lost in white space suggesting a moral void; others are crowded with boisterous goings on.

One of the most intriguing etchings, The News Upsets the Town, illustrates the passage where Chichikov’s plot is exposed. The sparse images are enclosed within an egg-like oval, with a few visible buildings, a lone lamplighter with a single streetlight casting a long shadow under a tiny full moon sending fitful rays of light. The work is “layered with symbolism, infused with mythology. Chagall’s illustrations add layers of emotion and depth and great understanding to Gogol’s work,” Dubin says.

“Chagall’s Dead Souls: A Satirical Account of Imperialist Russia” is up through Sept. 8 at Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave.

Event Listings: June 9–June 15, 2024

Boerner Botanical Gardens

  • Art in the Gardens Craft Fair
  • Sunday, June 9, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Drop-In Artmaking
  • Sunday, June 9, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Drop-In Tours: Architecture and Collection Highlights
  • Sunday, June 9, 2–3 p.m.

John Michael Kohler Art Center

  • Art Talk: Laura Bickford will discuss artist Jan Axel’s Collaboration with the Center
  • Tuesday, June 11, 12:15–12:45 p.m.

Grohmann Museum of Art

  • Kids Day: Create Your Own Stamp
  • Wednesday, June 12, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.

Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum

  • Work from Home Wednesday: coworking session at the Villa
  • Wednesday, June 12, 12–3 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Group Therapy (LGBTQIA): Black Space at MAM
  • Wednesday, June 12, 5:30–7 p.m.

Racine Art Museum

  • Racine and Vicinity Show 2024 Opening Reception and Awards Presentation
  • Wednesday, June 12, 6–8 p.m.

Cedarburg Art Museum

  • Artists’ Soiree
  • Thursday, June 13, 3–5 p.m.

David Barnett Gallery

  • “Night at the Gallery” with artist Cynthia Torroll
  • Thursday, June 13, 5–7 p.m.

Milwaukee Museum of Art

  • Lakefront Festival of Art: VIP Member First Look
  • Friday, June 14, 10 a.m.–12 p.m.

Lakefront Festival of Art (at the lakefront at MAM)

  • Friday, June 14, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 15, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
  • Sunday, June 16, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Racine Art Museum

  • Kids Day 2024: The Art of Play
  • Friday, June 14, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

The Alice Wilds

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  • Opening Reception: Danny McCullough: “At Night”
  • Friday, June 14, 5–8 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Drop-In Art Making: Kohl’s Art Studio
  • Saturday, June 15, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Milwaukee Museum of Art

  • Story Time in the Galleries
  • Saturday, June 15, 10:30-11 a.m.

Charles Allis Museum of Art

  • Discover the Allis: Guided Tour
  • Saturday, June 15, 11 a.m.–12 p.m.

Art & Hops at Cooper Park (8701 W. Chambers Street)

  • Saturday, June 15, 11a.m.– 1 p.m.

Brady Street Art Walk (Brady Street BID)

  • Saturday, June 15, 12–4 p.m.


  • Midwest Cowboy LIVE!
  • Saturday, June 15, 1–6 p.m.

Milwaukee Museum of Art

  • Drop-In Tours: Friends of Art: Highlights from the Collection
  • Saturday, June 15, 2–3 p.m.

Saint Kate, the Arts Hotel

  • AIR Time, Art & Studio Tour with AIR Anwar Floyd-Pruitt
  • Saturday, June 15, 6:30 p.m.

Jun. 07, 2024

12:34 p.m.

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