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Marc Chagall legacy presented in new Montreal exhibit


The vast legacy Marc Chagall bestowed on the worlds of theatre, dance, opera and the visual and decorative arts is spectacularly presented in a new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

Chagall: Colour and Music, on until June 11, is the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Russian-born Jewish artist in Canada.

It is also unparalleled in its exploration of the primordial influence music – of all kinds – had on Chagall’s creativity throughout his long and prolific career. The close to 340 works on display, including paintings, sketches, costumes, sculpture, ceramics, lithographs and stained glass, occupy the entire third-floor exhibition space of Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion.

Each room is filled with music and atmospheric effects appropriate to the period or discipline on view.

As MMFA director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil put it: “Here, astonishingly, for the first time, the soundtrack of his life forms the subject of an exhaustive exhibition.”

Born Moshe Segal near Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus, in 1887, Chagall lived to almost 100, and made art in a variety of media for eight decades, working around the globe and living in several countries.

Coming from a chassidic family, he was immersed in joyful sounds, spirituality and folklore. His adult inspirations ranged from the klezmer and Jewish liturgy of his childhood to the classical and contemporary.

One of his monumental works is the ceiling of the Opéra de Paris, completed in 1967. That massive circular work, which pays tribute to 14 of his favourite composers, is reproduced ingeniously through a revolving projection. Using Google technology, the original was digitized in ultra-high definition, and zooming renders the breathtaking detail visible to the naked eye.

Luminous colour, often unconventionally employed, clearly delighted Chagall, considered a pioneer of modernism. In fact, he may have been what’s now known as synesthete, someone whose sensual perceptions blur into one another.

The exhibition’s first room, in stunning red, is a recreation of the lobby of the Jewish Theatre in Moscow, for which Chagall, in one of his first major commissions, painted a series of murals depicting the arts. Shown with the works is vintage footage from the theatre’s early 20th-century productions.

Some 40 costumes, as well as decors that he designed but are rarely seen now by the public, speak to the importance of the stage to Chagall – whether theatre, opera or dance. These are on loan from the Opéra de Paris, the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, including those for its 1967 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Chagall: Colour and Music is also an opportunity to see up close segments of the famous stained glass windows Chagall made for the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, and the preparatory drawings for this monumental project on biblical themes.

A work emblematic of the exhibition, one that rarely travels, is the young Chagall’s 1923-24 painting Green Violinist. This picture of a green-faced, purple-garbed Jewish fiddler floating over villages is lent by New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

The nomadic klezmer musician, and his violin in particular, seem to have always been playing in the back of Chagall’s mind. He saw the violin as the symbol of Jewish dispersion and defiance, not only nostalgia.

Accompanying this theme is a mid-19th-century violin enamelled with four mother-of-pearl Stars of David, typically owned by a Belarusian family like Chagall’s. It is on loan from Amnon Weinstein, the Israeli luthier who, for 20 years, has been rescuing and restoring violins that Jews secreted in the ghettos and concentration camps on view with support from the Israeli Consulate.

Chagall’s granddaughters Meret Meyer and Bella Meyer were present for the vernissage on Jan. 24.

“It’s a great, great joy and profound honour to be able to share our love for our grandfather with you,” Bella said. “We are celebrating the freedom of expression… What is most valuable is what brings us together: love and beauty. Creating brings us hope and might bring peace… This exhibition is like a book that opens and gives the possibility of dreams. Merci, grandpapa.”

Federation CJA is the official exhibition patron of Chagall: Colour and Music, as part of its centennial activities.

Centennial co-chairs Gail Adelson-Marcovitz and Jack Hasen noted that Chagall’s art, while universal, shows a pride in Jewish culture and traditions. The federation is supporting visits to the exhibition by over 3,500 Jewish day school students and training for teachers that will enhance their appreciation. The Azrieli Foundation is the major benefactor of the exhibition.

Pianist Mikhail Rudy, the musical director of the exhibition, who knew the artist in the last years of his life, commented: “As Chagall constantly repeated, the three most essential elements in his life were the Bible, love and Mozart. His entire work is imbued with music… This event casts new light on his genius.”

Chagall: Colour and Music is complemented by concerts, films and lectures throughout its run. Adjacent to the exhibition is Chagall’s Little Box for children and their families, where they can enjoy creative and fun activities.

Les Editions Gallimard has published a 416-page art book on Chagall containing 646 illustrations, in French and English, edited by exhibition guest curator Ambre Gauthier and Meret Meyer