I have always liked Marc Chagall. There was a print that hung in our old farmhouse that incorporated his classic cubist technique, and included one of his trademark weird, blue goats looking at us sideways. I grew to appreciate the Russian-born artist when I did a report on him in college.
But it wasn’t until this month that I truly appreciated his genius. I had been missing something.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts filled in those gaps. It has organized an exhibition to show there’s much more to the painter’s work than the colorful, rustic scenes like the one that hung in our home. Much more.
Chagall is best known for paintings of flying fiddlers, lovers and village parties that have a magical feeling that touches people directly. Art critics complain his painterly “brand” is entirely recognizable, that his imaginative universe changed little over his eight decades of work.
But that’s what makes “Chagall: Colour and Music” so amazing — and impressive. It shows how Chagall used his brand across various media, including in costumes, sculpture, stained glass, mosaics and more.
The exhibition features about 400 works, including paintings, sculptures and designs for theater, and is billed as the largest display yet of the artist’s work — at least in North America at this time.
The museum also brought Chagall from the ceilings of Paris and New York by recreating — via a massive video presentation on a circular screen — the Palais Garnier in Paris and the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Chagall’s monumental works for these venues were exhaustively covered when he made them in the 1960s. The video presentation lets you get up close and personal with this unique kind of storytelling.
But what is most intriguing (and seemingly unknown to most exhibit visitors) is how Chagall played an integral role in the theater and music.
His designs for ballet were also celebrated in their day, especially his 1967 sets and costumes for “The Magic Flute.” The MMFA lets us see those works close up, with actual costumes from the opera and three ballets — “Aleko” (1942), “The Firebird” (1945) and “Daphnis and Chloe” (1958) — along with many sketches for his stage designs. Some of Chagall’s costumes are quite imaginative. He painted directly on fabric, built masks and headdresses, and even got his wife or daughter to sew on layers of applique and ornament. (Many of the wilder costumes often show up as selfies on Facebook these days.) Because of the costumes, video and variety, the show seems quite family-friendly. (The Sunday afternoon we attended, there were many children in attendance.) Chagall had little formal art training — and regretted most of it. According to a note in the show, “I was convinced I must forget everything I had learned.” But he never forgot the look, sounds and feeling of his Jewish community in Vitebsk. That is very evident in almost every room of the massive, third-floor show, but very much so in the earliest rooms, which are filled with tall panels and sketches filled with Russian imagery.
We see the development of his technique, and his growth as an artist, as we go deeper into the exhibit. There are portraits showing Chagall flirting with abstraction. At times he goes bold with color; other times, he goes simple with a hint of realism.
“I could not stand ‘naturalism,’” Chagall wrote. His engagement with currents in modernist painting always went in the opposite direction, toward surrealism and the abstract. But he was also wary of anything too thought-out or rational, including cubism. Those deviations from traditional artists’ circles show up in almost every incarnation of his oeuvre in the exhibit.
Those critics who always seemed to pound on him often accused Chagall of being primitive — or at least not precise. But it is those trademarks that have come to define him — the embracing couple, the veiled bride, the fiddler and acrobats.
“The archetypal Chagall canvas is a wedding scene, in which people dance, play and float across the picture space in view of the goat that symbolizes prosperity, the horse that stands for country labour, and the rooster that signifies display, virility and observation,” the show notes indicate. “These visual tokens, and a fantastical way of representing them, never got old for Chagall.”
The show includes several works on glass, the luminosity further demonstrating the painter’s love of strong colors and contrasts. A display of his various sculptures shows he could be rather primitive and clunky. But they, too, are still beautiful. All of them, across all media.
The exhibit continues until June 11. Go see the Chagall. You only thought you knew him.