Stage Struck: Marc Chagall’s Theatrical Designs

Chagall’s dynamic costumes and experimental sets inspire a reconsideration of his entire body of work.

Marc Chagall, “Study for Backdrop for Aleko: A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon (Scene III)” (1942), gouache, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 15 1/4 × 22 1/2 inches, Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, 1945 (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, digital image © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, the beautiful show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curated by LACMA’s Senior Curator and Head of Modern Art, Stephanie Barron, along with the Costume and Textiles department, opera director Yuval Sharon, and projection designer Jason H. Thompson, focuses on four works for stage that Chagall completed after his immigration to New York and upon his return to France after World War II: the dance production Aleko, commissioned by the Ballet Theatre of New York in 1942 and choreographed by Léonide Massine, formerly of the Ballets Russes, with dancers Alicia Markova and George Skibine in major roles; Stravinsky’s memorable ballet, The Firebird, commissioned by arts impresario Sol Hurok for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in October 1945; Maurice Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis and Chloe at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1954, choreographed by Skibine; and the Metropolitan Opera Company’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Lincoln Center in February 1967.

The show (which was adapted from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Chagall: Colour and Music earlier this year) establishes the artist’s lifelong interest in music, with a small side-room of Chagall’s music-inspired paintings, including his 1941-42 gouache, pastel, and colored pencil work, as well as “The Dance” (1950-52), his 1923-24 oil painting “Green Violinist,” and his 1912 oil painting “Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers.”

Marc Chagall, “Green Violinist” (1923–24), oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Founding Collection, by gift (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2017 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY)

But the revelation of this show is his intricate and complex achievements for the stage represented by the four famed productions. If Chagall’s oeuvre had previously impressed me less for its innovations than his lovely employment of folktale imagery, his experimental and dynamic costumes and sets helped me to rethink Chagall’s contributions to international art.

Based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Gypsies” (the music for the opera was set to Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor), Aleko became an immediate problem for the artist when New York union regulations prevented him from painting the backdrops himself. To skirt the regulations, Chagall and his wife, Bella, worked on the ballet in Mexico, taking their inspiration from Mexican styles of dress while incorporating art and textile motifs from Chagall’s native Russia. Including a carnival scene with musicians, clowns, and dancing bears, as well as nightmarish phantoms in the fourth act, the ballet is an ideal forum for Chagall’s wildly imaginative figures and sets.

Marc Chagall, Costume Design for “The Firebird: Blue-and-Yellow Monster from Koschei’s Palace Guard” (1945), watercolor, gouache, graphite, and india ink on paper, 18 5/16 × 11 7/16 inches, private collection (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2017 Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris)

Perhaps Chagall’s most impressive costumes were created for Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in which a prince is lost in an enchanted forest and a sorcerer’s evil kingdom. Among the ballet’s 80-plus costumes, many of fantastical animals and monsters, the intricately emembroidered costumes “The Blue and Yellow Monster,” “Monster with a Donkey’s Head” and “The Green Monster” are particularly beguiling. With their almost shamanistic masks, they hint at the characters’ metamorphoses under a sorcerer’s spell. A bit like the ballet The Red Shoes, these figures are trapped in their roles, forced to dance until they fall into a deathly slumber on their feet. The Firebird was revived in 1970, resurrecting Chagall’s costumes and sets, and it remains in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire today.

Although far less grand, the flowing, vibrantly colored, appliquéd costumes for Daphnis and Chloe, inspired by trips Chagall took to Greece in the 1950s, are particularly impressive.

Marc Chagall, Costume for “The Firebird: Blue-and-Yellow Monster from Koschei’s Palace Guard” (1945), wool/synthetic knit with polyurethane, wool/synthetic knit appliqués, wood beads, silk plain weave (chiffon), and animal hair, New York City Ballet, New York (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2017 Museum Associates/LACMA)

The apotheosis of the exhibition is a startling suite of 14 sets and 121 costumes that Chagall, working with the Metropolitan Opera its design and costume shops, created for his remarkable re-imaginations of Pamina, The Queen of the Night, the high priest Sarastro, Prince Tamino, and the comic bird-man, Papageno, in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The show beautifully exhibits several of these costumes on rotating platforms, which allow us to view the mannequins from all angles. One might spend long periods of time staring at these stunning creations, which are flanked by wall mountings of various set designs. Certainly, Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage is not a show that encourages viewers to rush ahead. At some points, it was difficult to know where to focus my gaze, let alone take in the music and videos that accompany the sets and costumes.

Marc Chagall, Costume for “The Firebird: Monster with Donkey’s Head,” (1945), wool/synthetic knit, painted, with polyurethane and wool/synthetic knit appliqués, New York City Ballet, New York (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2017 Museum Associates/LACMA)

Yet as Chagall’s granddaughters, Meret Meyer and Bella Meyer, suggested before we were led into the galleries, it is important to open one’s eyes and ears for this show. Their grandfather was a great admirer of music, dance, and theater, and sought to integrate them with art in ways that have been somewhat forgotten. Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage reveals new dimensions to his art, as well as the rich exchanges in the early and mid the 20th century between different genres of art.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through January 7, 2018.

comments (0)