The first works reveal Chahine’s skill in describing the sufferings of a humanity living from hand to mouth. With a cast of itinerant vendors and street performers, these powerful depictions of the world of the underprivileged would win Chahine his first professional contract, earning the plaudits that gained him admission to the Parisian beau monde.
Once there, the artist would turn his acute talents as an observer on that beau monde itself, portraying various aspects of it in works that reveal his enormous skill as a draughtsman and incomparable deftness of touch. Here again, what characterises the work is his sharp eye; his ability to observe and empathise at one and the same time.
Though the ‘register’ changes, Chahine’s art continues to be imbued with psychological insight, rendered with a fluency that reveals his mastery of all the various techniques of engraving – from etching and dry point to aquatint and ceramolle. Used individually or together, these were the means which enabled Chahine to achieve soft fields of black, fine vibrant lines, and a whole range of greys in contrasting chiaroscuro.
The results can be seen in the frothy lightness of his can-can dancers; in the elegance of the fashionable ladies he glimpses at the opera or in a street café; in his vivid vignettes of Parisian life; and in the sense of personality that emerges in portraits of such friends as the painter Alfred Stevens, the actor W. Lèrand and the writer Anatole France (a man who shared Chahine’s sense of social commitment).
The exhibition also includes two works of sculpture – by the Russian Paul Troubetzkoy (Intra 1866 – Suna 1938) and the Englishman George James Frampton (London 1860 – 1928) – which are similar in theme to Chahine’s engravings.