28 Apr 2020

Karl Im Obersteg was one of the most important early collectors of Chagall’s art in the West and established a strong bond between Basel and the artist that was to last many years. This is one of the stories told in the exhibition catalogue "Picasso, Chagall, Jawlensky", which is available in our Online Shop.

On October 23, 1935 Karl Im Obersteg turned to Marc Chagall with an astonishing request: “Dear Friend, I am just changing the way I’ve hung my paintings a little and most of all I would very much like a typical Chagall opposite the Picasso in my living room. At the time of my buying the Wedding I believed the painting would fit there; but it is, alas, too large. It now appears conceivable to me that you may possibly also take pleasure in swapping your painting, the Wedding, for a different, earlier painting of yours. I was thinking perhaps of the yellowish-green figure, which in terms of size and also most certainly in terms of color would fit very well in my lounge, and I would like to now ask you to let me know, in all frankness, what you think of my proposition.”

Im Obersteg had purchased Wedding (1911) in 1927 from Parisian art dealer Léopold Zborowski. The composition created in the artist’s early years in Paris features an impressive, multi-facetted wedding party arranged as a frieze of sorts, in the midst of which the bride and groom appear emphasized through a duo-tone triangular plane on the ground. The theme of the procession stems from Jewish everyday life. In terms of style, Chagall borrowed here from contemporary Cubism, Fauvism as well as the colorist Robert Delaunay. With the Jew in Green Im Obersteg chose a considerably smaller individual figure, which however suited the dimensions of his private rooms better and in terms of content and mood fitted perfectly with the rest of his collection, in particular Pablo Picasso’s seated figures of the Absinthe Drinker and the Seated Harlequin. At first glance the
painting appears rather unspectacular, but on closer inspection complex contents and references to current political events, to the artist’s origins, and his artistic development can be discerned. The fact that just under a year later, in 1936, Im Obersteg had the opportunity to buy five more paintings created by Chagall in 1914 from Russian collector Kagan-Chabchay, and in particular the duo of paintings Jew in Red and Jew in Black and White, was to prove a stroke of luck.

In this way the Basel collector had n his possession six paintings from the painter’s most important creative phase. He parted from two paintings by Chagall in his collection, the landscape Over Vitebsk and the somewhat outlandish seeming Feast Day, in 1951. Im Obersteg placed his focus on the three monumental portraits of the Jews, which as a coherent group and with their unique aura from that point onwards formed the artistic and intellectual heart of his collection.