Marc Chagall’s career spanned almost 100 years and 3 continents. Considered the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century, Chagall was a master colorist, dreamer and story teller. And for a few more days – through June 11 – three hundred and forty of his works can be seen at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Montreal.
Chagall borrowed ideas and inspiration from impressionism, cubism and favism, melding his Hassidic Jewish roots in what is now Belarus with the wild and experimental art movements between the world wars in Paris where he went to study. He painted stories and symbols, true loves and circuses, gardens of delight and painful memories of persecution in more than ten thousand paintings.
His friendships with poets, musicians, actors, dancers and publishers thrust him into costume design and sets for ballet and opera, book illustration, and ultimately monumental stained glass installations in Europe and the US.
Recently, I joined a group of travelers bound for Montreal to see the exhibition entitled Chagall: Color and Music. And immediately upon arrival, it was clear the power of color would command the day, as an installation of vivid designs on the pavement in front of the museum by Canadian landscape architect Claude Cormier set the mood of our tour with vibrant, playful, lyrical artwork.
Inside the museum, Chagall’s mastery of stained glass surprised many of us, as did a tapestry that filled an entire wall with images from one of his paintings, woven by a close collaborator. From such a vast legacy, it was hard to pick a favorite. For some, it was costumes and masks for ballet or opera like The Firebird or The Magic Flute. For others, it was lying on a bean bag chair while watching projections of his ceiling at the Paris Opera.
My personal takeaway was realizing that Chagall had achieved his monumental status despite suffering severe losses throughout his life – of homeland, a brother and a young son; of his beloved wife who guided 30 years of his career, and of vast amounts of artwork lost in the 5 wars he survived.
Through it all, color and music were his guides - making it possible for him to paint floating lovers, green cats and fiddlers - and for us to see them as he did, one hundred eventful years later.