Inventive Echos: Chagall at DMA

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By Drew Davis

“Chagall, Beyond Color,” at the Dallas Museum of Art, pairs Chagall’s distinctive paintings with his art objects in other media. Chagall’s vision as a set decorator and costume designer are the focus of the first three galleries. Sculpture and collage are included in the second half of the exhibition, the highlight of which are his ceramics.

Chagall, a Russian Jew, had a knack for being just a step ahead of disaster in World War I, The Russian Revolution and in World War II.  When he finally found his way to Mexico (briefly) and the United States to escape the Holocaust, Chagall was a world famous artist.  In his multiple escapes he found a way to make his new surroundings a part of his work.  He used Hopi Indian kachina dolls as the inspiration for his costume design for The Firebird ballet and incorporated Mexican themes into the costumes for the Gypsy ballet Aleko.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the never-before-displayed original Aleko costumes from the 1942 production in Mexico City and New York City. These costumes were found in decaying condition in the 1980’s. They were purchased by the Chagall family who had them restored. The costumes are vividly painted; some of my favorites were the musician whose arm is a violin, the fish in a net, the playing cards painted on trousers. Curator Olivier Meslay admits that the costumes are in extremely delicate shape. Their condition may explain why they are only lit intermittently — in sync with a video of the Aleko ballet which plays on several monitors in the gallery.

In the second half of the exhibition, among the deeply carved marble and sculptures are the buzz-creating ceramic jugs with overlapping and embracing figures. With the color muted or even stripped away completely, the focus turns to details and absorbing the emotional punch of the images. Be patient to get a good look in the congested ceramics area and don’t be in a hurry to rush out afterwards; the small collages in the final room of the exhibition are fun and especially clever. It’s the end of the show and these small images may start to feel shopworn, but the witty collage materials offer one last chance to see Chagall’s motifs in a new way.

We generally expect a painting to tell a story or express an idea – but do you have that same expectation for a plate or a jug or even a statue? When we see the same imagery repeated on ceramics it is easier to accept that the image might be decorative. Going back to the paintings first gallery after seeing Chagall’s inventive art objects, I didn’t need to ask, why is there a black chicken in the middle of the street or why is a bird-like creature holding a baby. Instead I was ready to accept the black chicken’s despair as being a part of the announcement of World War I in the painting, Newspaper Seller (Le Marchand de journaux, 1914). In the painting, In Between Darkness and Night (Entre Chien et Loup, 1943), I was able to see the helpless, desperate way the weird bird creature clutches the baby with its talons. Ultimately each bird fits the mood of its painting, even though they seem out of place initially.

The DMA is the co-organizer and the sole US venue for Chagall: Beyond Color. It is currently open and closes on May 15.  Tickets are $16 for adults with discounts for students, military and seniors. You might also check for when the DMA has a tour coming up to get the background on Chagall’s deeply autobiographical art. At a minimum, it would be a good idea to check out his wikipedia page before heading out to the museum.

The ‘Ah-Ha Moment’ of “Chagall, Beyond Color” is in looking at the echo between the paintings, then the other art objects and then at the paintings again. Chagall has a fascinating story, is an improbable art superstar, and a true rebel. You might go through the exhibition, but you’ll only really see it, if you look.