February 20, 2013

Seeing Chagall in 3D at the Dallas Museum of Art

An exhibit of ceramics, sculptures, costumes and, yes, paintings takes fans of the Russian artist beyond the usual.

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When the Dallas Museum of Art announced a spring exhibition of Marc Chagall's work, it was exciting news.

A Chagall exhibition hasn't been seen in this area since, well, since digital recordings of exhibitions have been kept. So a trip to Dallas last week to attend the press preview of "Chagall: Beyond Color" was a welcome journey, even though there was a nagging trepidation: "What do they mean, beyond color?"

Chagall (1887-1985) was a vivid colorist in paint and stained glass, so to shove the word "color" into a title of Chagall show made perfect sense, but "beyond"? Was there some new color spectrum that had been discovered in his paintings, previously seen only by raptors?

It was a puzzlement until the curtain was pulled and the museum director and curator made their obligatory remarks. This is an exhibition of Chagall works that aren't about color. Boo!

This is a collection of his ceramics and collages plus the costume designs and sets he made for a two-city production of the ballet Aleko in 1942, plus enough paintings to keep visitors such as myself from grumbling too loudly.

This is a curator's exhibition, one that delves into lesser known, rarely exhibited works that "advance our understanding of the artist's use of space ... and his previously underexplored engagement with the artistic traditions of Mexico and the American Southwest," announced Max Anderson, the DMA's director. The exhibition was organized by the DMA and the Musée La Piscine de Roubaix; Dallas is its only U.S. venue.

So Chagall's great beyond was the exploration of three-dimensional objects and staged presentations of the ballet. All have a romantic theme, and embracing couples are often seen on his ceramics and sculptures. The threads that follow the visual relationships to Mexico and the Southwest are slight, hardly a blip on the Chagall radar, where the Russian experience is primary. But following the arcane is the nature of curatorial scholarship and often the reason these shows exist at all. Without the beyond, there would be no exhibition.

Some background

Chagall was a romantic and a Russian Jew who was widely traveled, although he used Paris as his home base. He was in Russia at the outbreak of World War I and was not allowed to leave. He fled to the U.S. for World War II.

He was never associated with any of the great 20th-century art movements, preferring to go his own way, painting surreal dreamscapes or translating his vivid imaginings into colored glass for large-scale commissions such as windows for the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem (1962); a ceiling for the Paris Opéra (1964); a window for the United Nations building in New York (1964); and windows for the cathedral in Metz, France (1968).

Many of his paintings are found in major international institutions, including two museums dedicated solely to his work. They include religious and rural themes, livestock, couples in tender embrace, and ambiguous images of floating violins and violinists. These paintings could easily be used as a theater broadsheet for a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

The Bride With Two Faces (La mairée à double face), 1927, is one such. Here is a before and after of a bride -- chaste under a veil and behind a fan on the left, and on the right, smiling, no veil, an exposed breast and holding a large bouquet of flowers. Floating around the picture plane are a horse, a musical trio (with violinist) and ghostly figures of humans and animals.

The hand-painted costumes used in the 1942 production of Aleko were found packed away in a Mexico City storeroom in the mid-'80s and had to be subjected to conservation measures before they could be mounted. A selection of them is grouped as if in a curtain call on a stage in the DMA gallery. They are individually spot-lit as Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor plays. The spotlights highlight individual garments so slowly that the visitor soon loses patience and moves along, looking for more color. The beyond is often boring.

Had the exhibit been titled "Chagall's Love Themes," it might not have engendered such impatience, as every object depicts some tender gesture. Discovering Chagall's romantic inclinations was a welcome addition to his reputation as a colorist.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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