Mark Haslett's Blog
8:06 pm
Tue February 19, 2013

Chagall at DMA: Sublimity from the stage

Chagall: Beyond Color, on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through May 26, opened Feb. 17.

Olivier Meslay of The Dallas Museum of Art discusses the enduring appeal of Marc Chagall at the opening of Chagall: Beyond Color at the museum on Feb. 17. Music is from Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor, which was used in the ballet Aleko. The exhibition features costumes and other elements Chagall designed for the 1942 production of Aleko, choreographed by Leonide Massine and based on The Gypsies, a narrative poem by Aleksandr Pushkin.

The exhibition presents works infused with such mastery of image, form and theme that the effect is a continual astonishment. And, characteristic of Marc Chagall, the art calls the viewer back to the center of one’s own spirit and heart.

A major figure in 20th century art, Chagall was born in 1887 near Vitebsk, then in the Russian empire, today a city in Belarus. Chagall’s work is celebrated for its soft radiance, its tenderness, gravitas evocative of myth and sacred text – all expressed in joyous color.

Chagall enjoyed the golden age of Modernism in Paris and the creative foment of post-revolutionary Russia before a lengthy stay with other wartime exiles in North America and an eventual return to France.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a display of costumes and other items designed by Chagall in 1942 for a production of the ballet Aleko. The project united Chagall with choreographer Leonide Massine. The ballet was set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor. The story of Aleko comes from The Gypsies, a narrative poem by Aleksandr Pushkin.

“A lot of people know the name Chagall and have an idea about Chagall. The idea is that Chagall is painting and he is dealing mainly with color,” said Olivier Meslay, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, at the beginning of one of the tours offered Sunday. “What we wanted to do with this exhibition was to look through the career of Chagall … through another lens … the idea of volume, many sorts of volume.”

In addition to the pieces from Aleko, the exhibition presents ceramics, sculpture and collages – as well as paintings and drawings.

All of Chagall’s creative periods are present: The early years dominated by Jewish and Russian themes, the artist’s exuberant first years in France, his sojourn in the Soviet avant-garde, exile in the United States and finally, Chagall’s later years in Provence.

The 1942 production of Aleko premiered in Mexico City and was then performed in New York. The costumes had not been seen in the United States since until now.

Pushkin’s tale is set in the Russian southern frontier, which historically occupies a space in Russian culture much like the western frontier in the United States. Russians have viewed the steppes and mountains of the south as a wild, lawless landscape of freedom and danger. For centuries, young Russian men went south to find their fortune – or doom.

Aleko, the main character, is within this tradition. A typically disaffected young man from the city, Aleko journeys to the south and finds love, then betrayal, with a young gypsy woman. Tchaikovsky’s piano trio provides an appropriate narrative soundtrack of brooding, triumph, tragedy and pathos.

The Dallas exhibition includes, in addition to the costumes designed by Chagall, video from the 1942 production, as well studies for various other production elements. Particularly noteworthy are the beautiful studies for the four huge backdrops used in the ballet’s four scenes, including Fantasy of St. Petersburg.

The costumes, like Chagall’s other work, suggest playfulness and movement. Many of the colors are pale or bright, typical of the Scythian-influenced style Russians associated with the south, as well as the indigenous traditions of the Mexican interior where Chagall was working. Chagall borrowed a little from indigenous Mexican graphic style as well.

Other sections of the exhibition include studies for Russian Jewish theatre productions, paintings from Chagall’s much-celebrated 1930s in Paris and costume designs for a 1945 production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

Of all the pieces on display, the most familiar to casual observers would probably be the oil painting Between Darkness and Night, an expression of war-related foreboding begun in France in 1938 and completed in the United States in 1943. Another widely-known work present is also an oil painting, The Nude Above Vitebsk.

The exhibition also features a generous representation of ceramics and sculpture made by Chagall during the period when - after years of travel, exile and the nightmare of his first wife’s unexpected death – Chagall cultivated a grounded and centered sensibility in Provence.

The sculpture and ceramics offer a magnificent gift – Chagall’s familiar themes and styles manifested in unfamiliar media.

Viewers end their experience of the exhibition with a look at studies Chagall made for his painting of the Paris Opera ceiling, as well as collages from the 1960s.

Chagall: Beyond Color is co-organized by La Piscine Museum, Roubaix, France, and the Dallas Museum of Art and will be on view exclusively in Paris and Dallas.