Reviewing Chagall: Beyond Color at the DMA: It Really Ties the Room Together
In the diverse exhibition Chagall: Beyond Color, the Dallas Museum of Art offers enticing works of art among less noted pieces by one of the 20th century's most famous artists. Marc Chagall, like the Coen brothers today, proudly deployed his Jewishness in his art. As with the Coen brothers' body of work, I sometimes do not get the inside jokes and references, leaving me alienated from the work. That happens in this show, albeit sporadically and without detriment to the experience as a whole.
The Nude Above Vitebsk (Le nu au-dessus de Vitebsk), 1933 Marc Chagall
Like shopping for produce at Central Market, Chagall: Beyond Color plays out through narrow spaces that shut down the possibility of running amok in the exhibit. You go where led. In that spirit of guidance, I'm going to write this review using the very specific metaphor of a Coen brothers movie marathon.
The exhibition opens with paintings, drawings and other studies on beige paper, created for Chagall's work in the Jewish Art Theater. Beige paper does not excite me, nor do studies, so while all the work in this first space is competent, none of it is great. However, we should consider it the warm-up to better things ahead, like watching Barton Fink right before watching Oh Brother Where Art Thou. That film is based on Homer's Odyssey and its action is amplified by a phenomenal soundtrack, including the song "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow." Likewise, the second room of this exhibition holds the staging of Chagall's costumes for "Aleko," a ballet with music by Tchaikovsky. The display is charming and adventurous and, best of all, it resists using humanoid mannequins. The costumes for each act of the ballet are highlighted through full lighting design corresponding to the music. It's an ideally intimate hybrid of art, fashion design and theater, including bizarre pieces of charming animal costumes.
Costume for a Fish (Aleko Scene IV) (Costume pour un poisson [Aleko Scène IV]), 1942 Marc Chagall
Sharing the space with these costumes are paintings influenced by Mexican culture. They reminded me a lot of the Leonora Carrington exhibition at the DMA in 2008, my all-time favorite DMA show, and showcase Chagall's diverse inclinations and fearlessness in experimentation. There's a quote on the wall from Chagall referencing his preference for the macabre, and a section immediately following these Mexico paintings of little Hopi dolls. Our Coen equivalent is No Country For Old Men, of course, but you saw that coming.
Between Darkness and Night (Entre chien et loup), 1943 Marc Chagall
In the middle of the show is a section with ceramics. There is good work, like a self-protrait in marble using exclusively circular forms, and a slew of bulbous ceramics that Ken Price (across the way at the Nasher) would have liked. There is fun but meh work, where Chagall clearly had a good time making bulbous forms, and did a little comedy writing on the side in titling these pieces; one work is called "The Fantastic Beast or The Donkey or The Fantastic Horse" (1952). Really, why choose one name when three extremely similar ones will do? It's fun but it's not on par with the paintings by a longshot, so we are now watching Intolerable Cruelty. Fun but meh.
The Fantastic Beast or The Donkey or The Fantastic Horse (La bête fantastique ou L'âne ou Cheval fantastique), 1952 Marc Chagall
Contained in Chagall's ceramics era is a weird little grouping of works employing Christian imagery with all the technique of an East Texas Sunday school craft circle. Either I'm missing something or this is bad art. "The Madonna with the Donkey or Mother and Child" seems to be some sort of pieta, but with a donkey head hovering OVER the heads of Mary and the Baby Jesus. There is no reverence at all, so I could take it as intentionally critical of Christianity, but that does not seem in sync with the rest of his work. I don't get it, so I don't like it.
I didn't get A Serious Man either, and I think that is a bad movie, so there you have it from an Atheist-or-Methodist-when-scared. (I'm sorry I don't have images to illustrate this.)
Throughout the show are Chagall's rich and intriguing paintings, illuminating the artist's penetrating painterly insight and skill with crazy surrealist elements in the bold colors that became his calling card. I thought first of Carrington (obscure art referent alert), then of The Master and Margarita (book nerd referent), then back to Joel and Ethan. Here's The Big Lebowski metaphor with a touch of Fargo. These paintings carry us through the exhibition, ending with an awesome collage series from Chagall's senior years during the 60s and 70s. My favorite work is "Paris Between Two Banks or Two Rivers" (1953-56). It is anything and everything that lovers of painting and romance could ask for, full of lush symbolism that deserves its own course syllabus. Chagall abides.
Final study for the ceiling of the Opera Garnier (Maquette définitive pour le plafond de l'opéra Garnier), 1963 Marc Chagall
Chagall: Beyond Color runs through May 26th at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Sculpted Vase (Vase sculpté), 1952 Marc Chagall