Sunday, 5 March 2017

Marc Chagall: Colour and Music, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

It had been far too long since I'd had up my nose against a real Chagall painting, so I decided that a transfusion of his brand of colour and music would be the perfect cure for a long Newfoundland winter.  I was not disappointed.

Self-portrait with seven fingers (detail) oil on canvas 1912.
This is a mega show of 340 works that span decades of Chagall's long and prolific career and it sprawls through several galleries in the new wing of MMFA.  Chagall was born in the Russian Village of Vitebsk in 1887 and lived until 1985, dying in Saint-Paul, France (which is why he is often described as a Russian-French artist).  In between, he lived in NYC, Israel and Mexico.  Above all else, I think of Marc Chagall as a Jewish artist.  He was a dreamy and romantic man but he was determined.  His parents were not thrilled when he decided to become an artist and the Russian Empire was hostile to Jews.  Still, he continued. Chagall was born to a Hassidic family and he paid homage to that heritage throughout his career–his image of the green-faced Klezmer fiddler is an icon.

During my visit, there was a screening of a documentary that featured an interview with Chagall in French, with his wife as a translator; the setting was in the family's French garden.  Being able to hear the artist discuss his work and career, in his own words, is what persuaded me to spend a precious 180 minutes of an afternoon visit.  The closest I could get to an answer for why was the fiddler's face green (many of his figures have green faces) is Chagall's simple explanation, "I paint things the way I see them."

The exhibit held many surprises for me.  Many of the paintings were done on paper or cardboard and later backed by canvas, I imagine for conservation purposes.  The large-scale works were items like the seven panels from the Theatre of Jewish Art from Moscow or the ceiling work from the Paris Opera House.  These galleries are awash in curated music that combined with the visual elements to steep you in a complete experience.  Chagall often listened to music while he worked and with the help of colleagues still alive, these composers and selections were featured.  Special programming follows these preferences; if I couldn't have made it in to the assigned-seat screening of the documentary, I would have chosen a live concert of the Bach Cantatas.  The MMFA has its own superb concert venue, The Bourgie Hall that I can vouch for from previous experience. 

Chagall was a multi-disciplinary artist, who worked in printmaking, as well as painting, stained glass, ceramic murals, book illustration, costume design (for ballet and opera), and scenery both in paint and in tapestry.  It was rewarding to see studies, drypoint and gouache grouped together to illustrate the artist's creative process around a central theme or image.  The extensive collection of costumes is a highlight as they capture the magic and whimsy of Chagall's artistic vision.  The animals, with their near-human faces migrate seamlessly to costumes and masks
costume study by Chagall

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