I’ve spent a lot of time at Lincoln Center and wondered about the beautiful Marc Chagall tapestries that adorn the sides of the Metropolitan Opera House. The history awaited me on a vacation to Montreal in a wonderful exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that focuses on the impact of music on his art.
The exhibit features about 400 of Chagall’s works combined with documentary works such as films, photos, and musical excerpts. According to the museum website “…the exhibition demonstrates how all of Chagall’s work, from his paintings, works on paper, costumes, sculptures, ceramics, stained glass and tapestries to his creations for the stage and his large-scale decorative and architectural projects, were imbued with musicality.”
The exhibit starts by examining Chagall’s religious roots and the impact on his art. One room shows a large screen documentary (in French) on Jewish theater in Russia followed by paintings that were influenced by his childhood (he was born Moishe Segal) in Vitebsk in White Russia, now Belarus. One can see the influence of songs and the synagogue on his work. It was no coincidence that several in his family were musicians.
Three galleries are devoted to ballets that Chagall designed sets and costumes: Aleko (1942); The Firebird (1945); and Daphnis and Chloe (1958-1959); and the opera The Magic Flute (1966-1967). The exhibit presents the wild and fantastic costumes and scenery sketches for the Ballet Theatre Firebird production, choreographed by Adolph Bolm. During this time in 1944, Chagall was in profound despair at the death of his wife Bella Lewinsky. Working on the preparatory sketches for the sets and costumes lifted his spirits. “The painting he did for the project triggered a renaissance, for it allowed him to manifest via form and colour the hope he believed in so deeply and the message at the heart of The Firebird-the life-affirming power of love,” according to the exhibit. The NYCB Balanchine version premiered in 1948 with costumes by Madame Karinska from Chagall’s original design with Balanchine using Chagall’s original scenery.
The exhibit has preparatory sketches of his two paintings The Sound of Music and The Triumph of Music, both at Lincoln Center. In 1964, the Met commissioned him to paint two murals to be hung at the sides of the lobby of the opera house, with both paintings measuring 30 feet by 36 feet. The yellow Sources of Music…
depicts a theatrical King David in double profile, playing the harp in the center of a serene composition populated with musicians, animals and angels that recalls the sets Chagall created about that time for the opera The Magic Flute. Orpheus occupies the lower part of the composition, counterbalancing David’s movement and initiating a leftward thrust that symbolizes transition and metamorphosis. The explosively forceful Triumph of Music, the predominately red left panel, shows a victorious hybrid angel blowing a trumpet in the middle of a whirlwind that sweeps along musicians, dancers and fantastic animals. The centrifugal motion is accentuated by the circles drawn in the centre of the composition and the rays emanating from a solar prism to the right of the angel. Both panels include fragments of the skyline of New York, the city where the artist lived in 1941 during his exile. The skyscrapers-formal elements reinforcing the verticality of the composition-are also an homage to the metropolis for which this decoration was intended.
The exhibit runs through June 11. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.