Costumes for “Aleko” designed by Marc Chagall on exhibit at LACMA’s “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” | Photos by Susie Goodman

Picasso once said that when Matisse died, the only artist who would know about color would be Marc Chagall.

LACMA’s new show Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage is a delight to behold—it brings together color, movement, and music to spotlight set designs and costumes created by Chagall for several ballets and an opera.

Chagall was born in Russia in 1887 and moved to Paris at age 23 during the height of Cubism, but Chagall didn’t want his work to be associated with any particular school or movement and set out to create his own artistic language, full of color, sentiment, humor, and images from Russian folklore.

In 1941, Chagall, who was Jewish, fled Nazi-occupied France for America. Stephanie Barron, LACMA senior curator and department head for Modern art, says that’s where Fantasies for the Stage starts its look at his three-dimensional work.


LACMA senior curator and department head for Modern art Stephanie Barron

“The exhibition begins with the very first ballet that Chagall designed once he was in the United States,” said Barron. “When you first walk in, you’re struck, because this doesn’t look like a normal museum exhibition. The platforms on which these costumes are displayed are raised, there’re footlights, a stage curtain, and backdrops. And then there’s music that pulsates throughout the entire exhibition.”

The first costumes (for Aleko choreographed by Leonid Massine using music by Tchaikovsky and a story based on Pushkin’s The Gypsies) were hand-painted by Chagall in 1942 in Mexico City, even though they were for Ballet Theatre of New York (now American Ballet Theatre)—Chagall wasn’t a union member in New York, so he couldn’t do work there.

“We have two reproductions of backdrops, these original hand-painted costumes and wonderful, very rare, film footage from the original production in 1942,” says Barron. “On the wall, we have his sketches for the costumes and for the backdrop. His sketches show the costumes in movement. He was very much aware that these were to be worn and to be danced in.”

Violinists were a recurring theme for Chagall going back to his earliest days in Russia. And LACMA has set aside a small room in the exhibition for some of his paintings on this theme.

Barron says, “we have some really knock out paintings that remind us not only of his lifelong commitment to this theme but also what a stunning colorist he was.”


Costumes for “The Firebird”

Then there are more costumes, this time for The Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1945.

“You’ll hear Stravinsky and see a beautiful blue backdrop behind these costumes that are fanciful animals with wonderful headdresses,” says Barron. “Some of the costumes move. That was our exhibition designer, Yuval Sharon’s, idea to give us a theatrical setting. Not all of them can sustain movement from a conservation point of view, but at least three of them can. Their movement reminds us once again that this was the theater. That things are not static.”

In an adjoining room are costumes and sketches that Chagall made for a Parisian ballet company’s production of Daphnis and Chloe with music by Ravel. Barron says you can see in these costumes influences Chagall picks up on his trips to Greece. “They’re more delicate,” she says, “more intimate.”

The largest production featured in Fantasies for the Stage is the only opera for which Chagall ever designed sets and costumes: Mozart’s The Magic Flute presented by the Met Opera in 1967.


Costumes for “The Magic Flute”

“When you hear the Queen of the Night singing, suddenly the lights enhance and there’s more attention called to that costume,” says Barron. “We ended with Magic Flute because it’s the last production he did. He also did two large murals for Lincoln Center which are still quite thrilling when we see them today.”

For some of these costumes, it’s not their first visit to LA. Aleko came to the Hollywood Bowl during the summer of 1943 and in 1945 Firebird came to the Shrine Auditorium. But this time, you can get up close to the costumes and take in every vibrant color. The entire spectacle is on view at LACMA until January. Learn more about Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, running July 31, 2017 – January 7, 2018.

Check back for our interview with exhibit designer (and founder of LA-based experimental opera company The Industry) Yuval Sharon, coming soon to the Arts Alive blog.

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