Modernist painter Marc Chagall frequently drew on the performing arts for inspiration; many of his paintings depict musicians and dancers, and he famously created murals for the Moscow State Jewish Theater, the Opera Garnier in Paris and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Born in Russia, in modern-day Belarus, in 1887, he was a student of Léon Bakst, who designed the opulent sets and exotic costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s groundbreaking Ballets Russes. Chagall moved to Paris in 1910, just after the Ballets Russes had become the toast of the town.
But Chagall’s own four productions for the stage are relatively unknown: the ballets “Aleko” (1942),“The Firebird” (1945) and “Daphnis and Chloé” (1958), and one opera, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (1967). “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—a more focused version of a larger exhibition on Chagall and music seen in Paris and Montreal—puts Chagall’s theatrical costumes and scenic designs in the spotlight.
Rather than revealing a new side of Chagall, the theater amplified and, one senses, fully realized his vision, transforming the stage into a Chagall painting come to life. A lyrical blend of Cubism, Fauvism and Symbolism, his artwork is dreamlike without ever being cloying or creepy—a description equally applicable to his theatrical endeavors. As one early reviewer wrote, “He creates a naive and irresponsible world without gravity or function, in which the subconscious reigns with such unquestioning authority as to achieve an appearance of sweet reasonableness.”
All four productions used very few props, relying on the costumes and painted backdrops to tell the story. Like Chagall’s canvases, they were populated with anthropomorphized animals and whimsically distorted human figures, rendered in faceted planes and vibrant rainbow hues. Instead of luxurious materials, Chagall’s costumes employed a Pinterest-worthy plethora of superficial decorative techniques: paint, beadwork, appliqué, faux fur, feathers, collage, and patchwork.
It is tempting to call these pieces sculpture, but you cannot dance in a piece of sculpture, and you cannot wear it over and over again, performance after performance. Chagall’s shabby-chic approach to stage spectacle was not only consistent with his aesthetic—he often used collage in his artwork—but camouflaged natural wear and tear, as well as facilitating repairs. His attention to wearability is evident even in his larger-than-life costumes, with masks made of lightweight papier-mâché and anchored to the body by visible suspenders.
In 1941, Chagall—who was Jewish—fled Nazi-occupied France with his family, settling in the United States. It was there that the Ballet Theater of New York commissioned him to design a new ballet, “Aleko”, set to the music of Tchaikovsky and based on a Pushkin poem. Chagall’s paintings often drew upon the Russian fairy tales and Yiddish folklore he had known since childhood, making him a natural choice for the production. Much of his scenic work was inspired by lubki, the Russian woodblock prints that often illustrated such stories.
Amazingly, “Aleko” was almost derailed because American stage union regulations would have prevented Chagall from painting the backdrops himself; instead, he finished it in Mexico City, where it premiered before traveling to New York. As a result, the costumes reflect Mexican dress and textile traditions as much as Russian ones, complete with circle skirts and puffed sleeves. (Only eleven of the original sixty costumes survive.)
Perhaps because he was unused to working in three dimensions, Chagall painted both the costumes and the backdrops, using fabric that looks like raw canvas. The New York Times was duly impressed: “It is Chagall who emerges as the hero of the occasion. He has designed and painted with his own hand four superb backdrops, which are not actually good stage settings at all, but are wonderful works of art… So exciting are they in their own right that more than once one wishes all those people would quit getting in front of them.” Another critic agreed that “no ballet can stand up to his designs.”
Thanks to the success of “Aleko”, the Ballet Theater commissioned Chagall to create a new production of “The Firebird” in 1945. Igor Stravinsky had written the ballet—based on a Russian fairy tale—for the Ballets Russes in 1910. Chagall had given up on painting after the death of his wife, Bella, the previous year, but the ballet lured him back. His famous stage curtain depicts the titular half-bird, half-woman; her face bears a striking resemblance to Bella’s. The production was so successful that it remains in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire today, the sets and costumes re-created from Chagall’s designs.
At the end of World War II, Chagall returned to France, where he would live until his death in 1985. For his next production—Maurice Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis and Chloé” at the Paris Opera—Chagall worked with the choreographer George Skibine to ensure harmony of scene and movement, even going so far as to paint the costumes while the dancers were wearing them in order to guarantee that they complemented their bodies and gestures. The results may look fantastical—Pan is seven and a half feet tall and a trio of shepherdesses wear candy-colored dresses—but Chagall’s palette and motifs were, in fact, inspired by his recent travels in Greece.
Chagall once said: “I believe in God, Mozart and color. Without them I could not live.”
Naturally, he jumped at the chance to design a new production of “The Magic Flute” for the Metropolitan Opera. The production required three years of work for fourteen sets and two hundred and twelve costumes. The Met kept Chagall’s designs in a purpose-built safe while the production crew worked. The massive undertaking displays the full range of Chagall’s powers; his Papagena is impossibly chic in a feathered dress that would make Balenciaga proud, but her animal companions look like battered stuffed toys, patched and leaking their filling.
As beguiling as the forty-one costumes assembled here might be, the highlight of the LACMA show is an array of one hundred of Chagall’s gouache costume sketches and backdrop designs, almost all drawn from private collections. They are not static maquettes but highly finished, fresh and dynamic depictions of bodies in motion, an effect the installation attempts to capture by placing some mannequins on rotating platforms and others posed in theatrical attitudes. Music from the four shows plays in the background, and Chagall’s backdrops are digitally recreated within proscenium arches.
Chagall’s work paved the way for future collaborations between visual artists and the performing arts. The show brings to mind the subsequent stagecraft of Salvador Dalí, David Hockney and, especially, Maurice Sendak, who shares Chagall’s playful yet slightly sinister imagination. This is where the wild things are.
“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
through January 7, 2018.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, and a frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. In this issue, she explores modernist artist Marc Chagall’s costumes for the stage. His fantastical designs, on display in an exhibition currently showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, evoke a wild dream-like realm of imagination. Chrisman-Campbell sums it up: “This is where the wild things are.”