Something I’ve come to love about my growing up in Montreal is the city’s quasi-European, “Paris, but not quite” culture. Many of the books I read as a kid had richly coloured geometric figures with sketchy outlines, and their motions across the pages were illustrated by blurs of smudged oil paint or pastel. These illustrations were the norm for picture books, my workbooks in school, and even the covers of some novels I read, and so this Fauvist, Modernist aesthetic became the visual culture of my childhood and its literature.
Fast forward to about three or four months ago and I’m on my laptop checking out the MMFA’s website for upcoming exhibitions, where “Chagall: Colour and Music” is being featured. I honestly didn’t take him to be that much of a blockbuster, as the winter exhibitions tend to be because holy crap it’s cold why would you even want to leave the house right now? His style was one that I had come to associate with childhood and kitsch and occasionally some bad office art – so what was the big deal?
Well, unbeknownst to my ignorant self, the big deal was that this man was the very creator of this visual culture of my off-brand European childhood. He was the one that all of these book illustrators, post-card makers, and office art painters were attempting to imitate. Being one to give credit where credit is due, I made a day to brave the “oh my god why does the air hurt my face” levels of cold and pay a visit to the Eastern European Jewish Immigrant Renaissance man that had created the visual tradition of my youth.
First things first: this is a huge exhibition, so pace yourself. I counted around a dozen individual galleries, and they all have sufficient material to keep you fascinated for hours on end. Chagall was an artist in every sense of the word, engaging in almost every medium available to him, and this exhibition makes a point to explore so much of it. Take the time to get to know him – make a date with my boy Chagall.
The focus of this exhibition, as its title suggests, is the relationship between music and art that was so central to Chagall personally as a violinist himself, but also his Russian Jewish culture that finds itself in almost all of his work. Many of the galleries play traditional Klezmer music to accompany your visit, and frankly it’s instrumental (pun very much intended) to the understanding of the works. These depictions of everyday Ashkenazi culture in Chagall’s shtetl, as well as those of dreamlike scenes and classical subjects, come to life with the sounds of violins and accordions.
Part and parcel with this relationship to music is Chagall’s relationship to ballet and opera. Having grown up a dancer and also having visited the initial Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibit at the MMFA years ago as a kid, I wound up developing a love for costume history. So, I especially loved the integration of Chagall’s costume work into the exhibition. These galleries are also accompanied by music and even some video clips, and so letting your imagination take hold and envisioning the performers is easily done. During my most recent visit, I got to watch some kids sit around these costumes and try to sketch them as part of a museum-run art class and frankly, I wanted to crash their field trip. The graceful flow of movement is a recurring theme in Chagall’s work and the mannequins used to display these costumes do their best to imitate dancers in action- I only wish I had my sketchbook with me to better grasp it myself.
This blending of artistic media was something that certainly struck me while getting to know Chagall’s oeuvre better, and every room seemed to have some new side of the artist to discover. There are displays of his stained-glass works, his costumes from Aleko, Daphnis and Chloe, and The Magic Flute, and his works painted on the ceiling of the Paris Opera House and on the walls of Lincoln Center, along with many working drafts of all of them. What was the most salient to me as a student of Art History was seeing his blending of folk culture with high art, two realms that rarely seem to cross one another with this much international success or even artistic recognition. Chagall certainly proved himself to be an artist crossing a variety of boundaries, and this is especially evident in this exhibition; the two-dimensionality of a canvas is made alive by the all-encompassing environment of music, the high-brow culture of European Modernism is coupled with the low-brow culture of the European Jewish community, and the bright colours and geometry of childhood blend into the established authority of the Classical and Renaissance tradition, all at the hands of an immigrant who crossed the Atlantic and brought his cultural roots with him to flourish in America.
The whimsy and colourful nature of childhood is certainly not lost anywhere in this exhibition, but instead ever-present and encouraged. Within the exhibition is a section on Chagall’s illustrations of Les Fables de la Fontaine, and the gallery dedicated to his painting of the Paris Opera ceiling has many a bean bag and comfy pillow for kiddos to play on. But most obviously, right as you exit the elevators is a smaller section called “La Petite Boîte à Chagall” where there are brightly-coloured musical instruments mounted on the walls and scattered on tables for little ones to play with. There are books to read and papers to draw on, and plenty of space for all that young energy to work itself out.
I had decided to get a peek into La Petite Boîte just as I was on my way out, and I was unsurprisingly hit with a huge pang of nostalgia. I took a peek at some of the books on the shelf and they looked just like the ones I used to read almost 15 years ago. It warmed my heart to think that kids who got to see this exhibition and get to know Chagall would have him become part of the visual cultures of their childhoods too.
Chagall: Colour and Music is on display at the MMFA until June 11th.