Now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage is the first U.S. exhibition to spotlight the principal role that music and dance played in Marc Chagall’s artistic career.
Organized chronologically, Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage features the artist’s four theatrical productions: the ballets Aleko (1942), The Firebird (1945), and Daphnis and Chloe (1959), and the opera The Magic Flute (1967). In each, Chagall achieved a remarkable fusion between the boldly colorful scenography and original costumes he created.
Presented in five main sections, the exhibition comprises 145 objects, including 41 vibrant costumes; nearly 100 preparatory sketches; rare 1942 film footage of the original performance of Aleko; musical accompaniments for each section; and a selection of paintings depicting musicians and theatrical scenes.
Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage is organized by Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art, together with the museum’s costume and textiles curators. Opera director Yuval Sharon and projection designer Jason H. Thompson have created the exhibition design.
“By focusing on these four productions created during and after his wartime exile in New York, this exhibition brings to the public's awareness a lesser known but riveting aspect of Chagall's career, which began in pre-Revolutionary Russia and traversed the breadth of the 20th century,” said Barron. “Chagall's work for the stage is an important early chapter in the history of visual artists who have engaged in similar interdisciplinary collaborations that have immeasurably enriched the history of modern art.”
The exhibition opens with 11 costumes and 18 preparatory studies from Chagall’s production of Aleko, from 1942. Chagall and his family, who were Jewish, emigrated to New York in 1941 fleeing persecution from Nazi-occupied France. The following year, the Ballet Theatre of New York (now the American Ballet Theatre) commissioned him to design the scenery and costumes for Aleko, a new ballet based on an 1824 poem by Alexander Pushkin and set to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor. Chagall’s work premiered at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on Sept. 8, 1942, before opening at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York a month later. Chagall came to Los Angeles in the summer of 1943, when the ballet was performed at the Hollywood Bowl.
More than 70 years later, Chagall's hand-painted costumes and backdrops have retained their vivid colors. Costumes for Zemphira, the Fortune Teller, and a Candle Bearer were inspired by Mexican styles of dress and traditional textile motifs, as well as the music, folklore, and poetry of Chagall's native Russia. His use of abstract shapes and patterns reflects the modernist influence of artists such as Henri Matisse, whose work Chagall had encountered in New York.
Chagall received his second commission from the Ballet Theatre when the performing arts impresario Sol Hurok restaged Igor Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Firebird. Chagall re-envisioned the stage curtain, sets, and costumes for the ballet, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on Oct. 24, 1945. Chagall’s designs received great critical acclaim, and his production of The Firebird is still performed today - most recently during the New York City Ballet's 2016 season. This section of the exhibition presents eight costumes and 32 works on paper.
Chagall's 80+ costumes were his most experimental and avant-garde to date, particularly those for the ballet's fantastical animals and monsters. Working with his daughter, Ida, Chagall employed new materials and fabrication techniques, including a combination of diaphanous and heavy, richly colored fabrics, collage-like appliqués, and intricate embroidery that resulted in voluminous, sculptural forms.
Eight years after Chagall returned to Paris in 1948, the Paris Opera Ballet commissioned him to design new sets and costumes for Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe, which was based on a story attributed to the Greek poet Longus. The motifs and color palette of Chagall’s stage designs were inspired by two trips he took to Greece, which is the setting for the ballet’s narrative. Chagall’s production of Daphnis and Chloe premiered at the Paris Opera in May 1959. The artist’s work on this ballet is represented by eight costumes and 28 drawings.
Chagall worked closely with the choreographer, George Skibine and the other Paris Opera Ballet dancers to harmonize his costumes with their movements and gestures. His designs incorporated shimmering layered appliqués on sheer fabric, and he painted bold swaths of color onto the costumes while the dancers were wearing them to emphasize the fluid lines and dynamism of the dance. Chagall envisioned the dancers as mobile elements of his paintings, mirroring the figures he depicted in flight across his backdrops.
LACMA features 14 costumes and 16 sketches from Chagall’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera House for its inaugural season at New York's Lincoln Center in February 1967. Widely praised, this was Chagall’s only work for opera - he spent three years designing the 14 sets and dozens of costumes. Challenged by the complexity of the opera’s numerous scene changes, stage machinery, and the large number of singers, Chagall conceived aesthetic solutions that emphasized strong color contrasts and striking geometric forms to construct scenic space and communicate The Magic Flute’s dramatic narrative.
Whimsical and highly imaginative animals similar to those Chagall created for Aleko and The Firebird—and that populate paintings throughout his oeuvre—played an important role in the artist’s production of The Magic Flute. He sculpted each costume by layering richly dyed textiles with colorful fabrics and embroidered lines to emphasize movement.
In addition to Chagall’s stage designs, the exhibition includes a small selection of his iconic paintings, many of which are on loan from museums around the world. The works on view include Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912) from the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Green Violinist (1923–24) from the Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Violinist (1911–14) from the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf; and Violinist on a Bench (1920) from LACMA’s permanent collection.
The exhibition is augmented by a series of video interviews featuring contemporary artists, costume designers, and opera professionals; selected reviews of Chagall’s productions; and a reading room.
Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage is on view in the Resnick Pavilion from July 31, 2017 to Jan. 7, 2018. For more information about the exhibition, related programming and to purchase tickets, visit the LACMA website.