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Review: Chagall Like You’ve Never Seen Him – at the DMA

The Enchanted Forest: Marc Chagall’s model for the curtain in the first act of The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky, 1945, collage on paper.

The Dallas Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Chagall: Beyond Color, might be more effectively titled The Chagall You Didn’t Know. The exhibition’s argument, made by DMA senior curator Olivier Meslay, is that most people have already slotted (and either celebrated or dismissed) the painter. Think deep pigments, Russian-Jewish nostalgia, easy sentiment and whimsy, fiddler on the roof. Then Picasso’s quote about Chagall’s understanding what color truly is gets trotted out, and we’re done.

Chagall became widely popular partly because he’s unconventionally modern but safely so. He synthesized a half-dozen streams from the early 20th-century avant-garde in a richly-colored, folk-art manner that’s easy to swallow. His surrealism is surrealism without the psychological ickiness, without the nightmares. His use of color is Matisse without the radical simplicity. A magazine layout or an album jacket or set design can feature an image of floating lovers above a somewhat abstract, picturesque shtetl, and audiences don’t even have to recognize the quoted source to sense the mood of dreaminess and affection that’s being conjured. Been there, done that, bought the children’s book.

So what Meslay and the Musee de La Piscine in Roubaix, France (where this show originated) have set out to do is demonstrate Chagall’s modern-art credentials in something harder-edged and less decorative — in something other than just vivid colors and child-like symbols with anti-gravity powers. Chagall is a more inventive, more varied artist than the cliches he’s been reduced to by his fans and poster makers. Perhaps we’ve been blinded by all those blazing crimsons and midnight blues.

The Art Gallery of Ontario, for example, had a show last year putting Chagall in the context of the Russian avant-garde. For another, there’s a sense of humor that often bubbles up in unexpected ways. This was pointed out by Chagall’s granddaughter, Bella Meyer, who traveled from her New York florist shop for last week’s press preview. She indicated an early painting, Newspaper Seller, from 1914, and noted that as somber as the painting looks (in response to the news of the outbreak of war), the headline on one of the papers was a hand-wringing, Yiddish expression similar to Oy vey.


But Beyond Color is about volume, it’s about space, said Meslay at the preview and was echoed by Meyer. The most persuasive case for this argument is the centerpiece of the exhibition, the collection of hand-made costumes Chagall created in 1942 in Mexico City for the ballet, Aleko. It was during his six-year exile from Europe over the course of World War II. Characteristically, Aleko was a way for the lonely emigrant to connect to his Russian roots while drawing on his new surroundings, notably the ‘hard sun’ of Mexico that dominates one scenic backdrop, Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon. The ballet is based on a poem by Pushkin to music by Tchaikovsky, all of it choreographed by the Moscow-born Leonide Massine. One could hardly get much more Russian in the way of material: According to Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager, Massine and Chagall could not have been more different (the one cold and demanding, the other shy and naive), yet they bonded deeply over the project.

It’s not news that Chagall loved the theater. In 1964, he finished his most important commission, re-painting the ceiling of the Palais Garnier or Paris Opera House (designs for which are included here). But Aleko was his first ballet, and a huge success in Mexico (nineteen encores) and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where it was presented by what would become the American Ballet Theater). But after a world tour in 1955, it was dropped from the repertoire and soon forgotten. The four, big backdrops Chagall painted (48 feet wide by 30 feet tall) were sold in 1977 to address an ABT financial crisis (all four designs are also represented in the exhibition). As for the costumes, Meyer explained, they were stored outside of Washington, D.C., — and pretty much no one saw them again until they were restored in the 1990s.

On first look, one might well take such outfits (above) as Picasso designs (recall his collaborations with the Ballets Russes). But the Mexican folk touches (Day of the Dead skulls on one skirt, for instance) betray their New World influences, even though Aleko is actually a tragic, romantic fantasy about Old World gypsies (hence, the violin).

To showcase the enchanting costumes, Meslay and the exhibition’s designers have built an entire proscenium stage inside the exhibition, complete with red curtains. After all, Wullschlager writes, Aleko granted Chagall an opportunity for monumentality — something that France hadn’t offered for 20 years (and wouldn’t until the Paris Opera commission). At the DMA, video monitors even run taped footage of the original ballet itself, albeit in black and white, while Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor plays.

But the additional idea at the DMA to spotlight individual costumes is a step too clever. (They’re illuminated as their scenes occur during the ballet, while the rest are kept in darkness.) We can see most of the mannequins without the spotlights. Still, to examine them in clear light, we have to wait. This makes us actually contemplate the display for longer than the 30 seconds we know people typically spend looking at museum artworks, but there are several pas de deux in the ballet in which only two costumes are lit. So we wait. Yet several costumes at the back are never fully visible. So we wait … and are not fully rewarded for our patience.

Regardless, this ‘staging’ is the highlight of the show: It’s a chance to see something of the overall visual effect Chagall was originally after, having dictated the lighting and hand-painted the costumes and the bold backdrops. New York dance critic Edwin Denby said at the time that the scenery was the real purpose and achievement of the ballet, and critic John Martin agreed: The backdrops were “so exciting in their own right that more than once one wishes all those people would quit getting in front of them.”

Even so, the case that this display and the exhibition itself intend to make regarding Chagall’s use of ‘space’ is not convincing. The two costumes above, for instance, are practically two-dimensional as it is. Other costumes are fuller — primarily the wide skirts for female dancers — but many look as though they could have been snipped from a Chagall painting. This doesn’t detract from their charm — they almost seem like giant paper-doll cutouts — but it doesn’t make a strong case for volume.

As for the show’s various ceramics and sculptures, it’s true they have dimension, but often only of necessity — as in Chagall’s figurative pitchers. They wouldn’t hold water, otherwise. Several stone pieces are more like medallions, they’re profiles in relief (Deux tetes a la main, 1964, above). They’re rarely fully rounded.

In fact, one of the few examples in Beyond Color that does convey weight and physical presence is Chagall’s 1933 painting, Nude over Vitebsk. A female backside, more-realistic-than-usual-for Chagall, hovers over a more-realistic-than-usual townscape. That same year, the Nazis had burned three of Chagall’s paintings; hence, what biographer Jonathan Wilson calls the ‘bleak and austere’ nature of this painting. Yet the nude feels as fleshy and dimensional as any classic ‘odalisque,’ and the fusing of Chagall’s melancholy, his erotic longing and his nostalgia for his picturesque Belarusian hometown is quite palpable.

There are also occasions when Chagall does use the sheer force of color to make figures and details ‘pop’ out of even his dreamiest paintings, lending them an almost tactile dimension. One thinks, for instance, of The Bride with Two Faces from 1927 (left). Frankly, one wishes there’d been more such; Beyond Color might have made its case.

Otherwise, what we most often encounter throughout the 140 items packed into the DMA gallery is the somewhat flattened space typical of Chagall’s works: figures in the foreground with a landscape in the distant background, and little additional depth or anything in the middle ground linking the two separate fields.

If there is any dimension at all, that is, and not simply the flat, floating foreground of fantasy characters that appears in many of the later works. This isn’t a criticism: The merging of space, against the conventions of perspective, was a modernist breakthrough. But it does cut against the stated objective here, trying to have us see beyond the jewel-like colors. What we have, instead, is mostly just a  jam-packed and – yes – sumptuously-colored overview of Chagall’s career, the first Chagall exhibition the DMA has hosted.

 

 

  • Kymberlaine Banks

    hoping to visit again this Thursday with your review in mind!