Chagall Fantasies on Stage at LACMA

LACMAThe Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) exhibit, “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage,” is the first U.S. exhibition to focus on the influential role that music and dance played in Marc Chagall’s artistic career. From his early days in Belarus to later life in France and the U.S., Chagall’s artistic legacy reflects his involvement with stage productions and musical imagery.

Many works created by Chagall (1887–1985) depict musicians, brought stage shows to life, and show how performing arts influenced his other art ventures. The LACMA exhibit concentrates on his involvement in the west with three ballet productions and an opera, as well as iconic paintings featuring musicians created over a quarter century. “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” incorporates 145 objects, including 41 lively costumes on mannequins, approximately 100 preparative sketches and videos, accompanied by the accompanying musical selections.

Opera and Ballet Works

Chagall collaborated on set and production designs for the Ballet Russes and the Moscow State Jewish Theater before immigrating to France. This LACMA exhibition concentrates on four stage productions Chagall worked on after that time:

  • “Aleko,” a ballet set to music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1942),
  • “The Firebird” ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky (1945),
  • A ballet to Maurice Ravel (1958) music, “Daphnis and Chloé,”  and
  • A staging of the opera “The Magic Flute” (1967) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In 1941, Chagall and his family fled the Nazis in France for the U.S. The following year, the Ballet Theatre of New York (precursor of the American Ballet Theatre) commissioned the artist to design the costumers and scenery for ‘Aleko.” It was based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin about gypsies and carnival performers. The piece may not be familiar to museum visitors, but the costume and sketches are eye-catching and imaginative. Union rules in NY had prevented Chagall from working on the backdrops there. So, he temporarily relocated to Mexico. The south of the border influences on the Russian ballet are apparent in the vivid colors, textile motifs, and fabrics.

“The Firebird” work was done after Chagall’s wife died and he had ceased making art for a period. Ballet Theatre of New York gave him a second commission to develop the ballet’s fantastical creatures and animals. From fanciful sketches, he incorporated richly colored and intricately embroidered fabrics. The production was later sold to the New York City Ballet. In 1970, they reconstructed Chagall’s work and it remains in their repertoire.

Onstage Art

Chagall is not the only famous artist who created ballet costumes in the 20th Century. Artists have expanded their practices with compelling collaborations in the stage arts. Russian dance impresario Serge Diaghilev hired such renowned artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Georges Braque. He also recruited designer Coco Chanel to design costumes.

LACMA“Many famous artists design for ballet,” Karl Lagerfeld, told The Independent. He indicated, “If I have the chance to do it, it is exciting. It’s flattering to be asked.” Lagerfeld was asked and created costumes for the English National Ballet.

As seen at LACMA, Chagall was at the forefront of such interdisciplinary efforts. Besides the pieces shown, he worked with theatrical companies and opera houses in Russia, Mexico, New York, and Paris during his long career.

Fiddler on Roofs

In addition to Chagall’s stage designs, the exhibition includes a selection of iconic paintings on loan from museums around the world. Many reflect how Chagall’s Judaism influenced his art in the form of folk imagery. His “Fiddler on the Roof,” for example, uses a folksy village with the fiddler to show the Jewish love of music.

Chagall incorporated violinists and musical imagery in several pieces integrated here. They include “Green Violinist” (1923–24) from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, “The Violinist” (1911–14) from the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany, and “Violinist on a Bench” (1920) from LACMA’s collection.

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” will be on display at LACMA through January 7, 2018. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, the museum is on Wilshire Boulevard, near the La Brea Tar Pits.

By Dyanne Weiss

Exhibition Visit
LACMA: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage
Tyranny of Style: Costumes of The Ballets Russes
The Independent: Karl Lagerfield: Designs for Ballet

Photos by Dyanne Weiss of some ballet costumes from “Aleko” and Chagall’s “Green Violinist”