Saturday, February 25, 2017


Montreal Museum of Fine Arts  
 January 28 to June 11, 2017
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) presents CHAGALL: COLOUR AND MUSIC, the largest exhibition ever devoted to Marc Chagall (1887-1985) in Canada. The exhibition explores, for the first time, the omnipresence of music in the artist’s life and work, through close to 340 works and a major documentary corpus. This unusual approach demonstrates the degree to which Chagall’s aesthetic and artistic world is imbued with music, from his paintings, works on paper, costumes, sculptures, ceramics, stained glass and tapestries, to his creations for the stage and his grand decorative and architectural projects.
This major exhibition reveals some fabulous costumes rarely
seen by the public and some decors produced by the artist for the ballets Aleko (1942), The Firebird (1945) and Daphnis and Chloé (1958-59), and the opera The Magic Flute (1967), thanks to some exceptional loans granted by the Opéra de Paris, the New York City Ballet and the New York Metropolitan Opera. They are staged in such a way as to recreate the particular atmosphere of each show by means of subtle special effects.
With its fully spatialized musical accompaniment, the exhibition is accompanied by various multimedia devices: music, films, photo slides and especially an extraordinary projection of the famous ceiling of the Opéra de Paris, in the Palais Garnier. In partnership with the Opéra national de Paris, Google lab and Google Art Project in Paris digitized in ultra-high definition this 220 m2 painting completed in 1964 by Chagall. A huge technological challenge, some stunning zoom effects were used on these images to reveal the splendour of the material and the meticulous detail, which up to now have been invisible to the naked eye, of this monumental decor, Chagall’s tribute to 14 composers.
The exhibition also explains how the ceiling of the Opéra de Paris, and the decorative and architectural programme of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York (1966) embody the concept of total art dear to the artist and testify to his research into the universality of music and how it is revealed in architecture.
Following the joint presentation of the exhibition at the Cité de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris, and La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent de Roubaix in 2015-2016, the Montreal edition has been enhanced by over 100 works, including some rarely loaned masterpieces: Golgotha (1912), Self-portrait with Seven Fingers (1912-1913), the Birth (1911- 1912) and the Green Violinist (1923-1924), brought together by some major institutions, such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art (Washington), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée national d’art moderne (Paris), the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (Paris), the Musée national Marc Chagall (Nice), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Fondation Beyeler (Riehen/Bâle) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the MMFA explains: “An artist without borders, Marc Chagall orchestrated a work consisting of many forms of expression: easel painting, mural decor, book illustrations, lithographic collections, stage costumes, sculptures, ceramics, stained glass windows, mosaics... In this score, music provides all the harmony: songs from his childhood, religious prayers, fairs, readings, ballet and opera performances, and of course a broad repertoire from classical (Bach and Mozart) and contemporary (Schoenberg and Messiaen) composers. Here, astonishingly, for the first time, the soundtrack of his life forms the subject of an exhaustive exhibition.”
“This exhibition is an original exploration of all the sounds and all the colours of which the œuvre of Marc Chagall is made. Multidisciplinary and interactive, with the exceptional works, and the inclusion of music, photographs, and films along the way, it is an invitation to a sensory immersion in the work of one of the most important and remarkable artists of the 20th century,” added Ambre Gauthier, Guest Curator.
“As Chagall constantly repeated, the three most essential elements in life for him were the Bible, love and Mozart. His entire work is imbued with music. I had the great honour of knowing Marc Chagall during the last years of his life, when I realized how deep his knowledge of music was, ranging from klezmer to Stockhausen, and also of his interest in complete art, which is evident in his theatrical and monumental productions. It is a special pleasure to have had the privilege of lending my support to this event, which reveals the new light cast by this genius,” added Mikhaïl Rudy, Musical Director of the Exhibition.
“With this explosion of luminous colours and shapes, through which the visitor is invited to succumb to the enchantment, and to discover and explore the pictorial and sculptural world of Marc Chagall, among roots, rhythms and harmonies in balance, the artist consumed by his thirst for constant renewal reveals himself to be a very involved, attuned and visionary witness to the times of light and darkness that still concern us today,” stated Meret Meyer, Vice-president of the Comité Marc Chagall, and Bella Meyer, granddaughters of the artist.
The MMFA’s interest in the links uniting music and the visual arts in Chagall is consistent with the themes of its earlier exhibitions Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol’s Work (2008) and Splendore a Venezia: Art and Music from the Renaissance to Baroque in Venice (2014).
This foray into the enchanting world of this painter of music also marks the opening of the Pavilion for Peace, which is dedicated to international art and education. This fifth pavilion of the MMFA, inaugurated just in time for the 375th anniversary of Montreal, bears the name of the Jewish Holocaust-survivor couple and great donors, collectors and music-lovers, Michal and Renata Hornstein. This exhibition is dedicated to them.
This exhibition was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the LosAngeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and initiated by the Cité de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris, and La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent, Roubaix, with the support of the Chagall Estate.
The Guest Curator of the exhibition is Ambre Gauthier, who holds a PhD in art history. The curatorial committee is composed of Bruno Gaudichon, Chief Curator, La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent, Roubaix; Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator of Modern Art, LACMA; and Meret Meyer of the Comité Marc Chagall. In Montreal, the curators are Nathalie Bondil, MMFA Director and Chief Curator, and Anne Grace, Curator – Exhibitions and Education, MMFA.
The musical director is the internationally renowned pianist Mikhail Rudy.
The exhibition design is by Menkes Shooner Dagenais Letourneux Architectes, under the direction of Sandra Gagné, Head of Exhibitions Production at the MMFA.
The layout of this major exhibition is both chronological and thematic, covering all periods of the artist’s long and productive career – his years in Russia, his Parisian period, his exile in New York, his time in Mexico and his life in the South of France – and examines all his forms of expression.
Cultural and Religious Roots Music was at the heart of Chagall’s art from the very beginning. Selected drawings and paintings give us a sense of the cultural and religious context of his childhood in Vitebsk in White Russia (today Belarus), the role of song in the synagogue and the influence of his family members, several of whom were musicians. Large paintings of the archetypal violinist demonstrate the importance of this figure in his work and the ubiquity of the violin itself, the instrument of the exodus, carried by the Jewish people as they fled or migrated. Music will also be heard in the first galleries in order to give visitors a deeper, transversal experience of Chagall’s work.
The exhibition will feature a klezmer violin decorated with the Star of David, which would have belonged to a typical Belarusian family like Chagall’s. It is on loan from Amnon Weinstein, the celebrated luthier who has spent the last twenty years locating and restoring violins that were played by Jews in the concentration camps and ghettos during the Nazi era. Weinstein, many of whose relatives perished during the Holocaust, named these instruments “Violins of Hope.”

MARC CHAGALL (1987-1985) 
Music is omnipresent in the artistic trajectory of Marc Chagall, from his native city of Vitebsk, Belarus, to his arrival in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. Fostered by his family environment and Hasidic Jewish roots, Chagall’s sensitivity to music found full expression in the emblematic figures that are recognized as archetypes of his art and as part of a visual voyage by way of spoken and written language. The opera, ballets and monumental art to which the artist brought all his creativity — from The Theatre of Jewish Art (Moscow, 1919-1920), to Aleko (Mexico City, 1942), The Firebird (New York, 1945), Daphnis and Chloe (Brussels and Paris, 1958-1959) and The Magic Flute (New York, 1967) — demonstrate the connections he wove between music and the design of sets and costumes. 

Ambitious projects like the Paris Opera ceiling (1964) and the decoration in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1966) attest to a concept of total art achieved through an exploration of the universality of music and its representation in space. Chagall pursued this concept in ceramics, sculpture, collage, large paintings and even light, as he worked with stained glass to fill space with the magical colour of sound. 
Some of the manifestations of music in the art of Chagall include his drawings and paintings of musicians and musical instruments. From the start of his career in Vitebsk, Chagall would paint many portraits of women and men, often holding mandolins, who appear to be singing ballads. In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in Russia, when everyone knew the songs of Tchaikovsky and Glinka, this was the most common means of making music at home. 

Yet the musical figure perhaps most closely associated with Chagall is the violinist.
This symbolic, recurring character throughout the artist’s career expresses the whole gamut of emotions prompted by music. From the Green Violinist to wedding scenes featuring klezmer bands in which the violin plays the leading part, this king of instruments is omnipresent in Chagall’s oeuvre. These depictions, which feature scenes of local customs, tell us much about shtetl life in the early twentieth century, but it is the tenderness and compassion with which the painter regards his subjects that move us the most. 

Birth, 1911-1912, Oil on canvas, 113.4 x 159.3 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Maurice E. Culberg. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY 
Green Violinist, 1923-1924

Oil on canvas, 198 x 108.6 cm. New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY 

This iconic painting is based on earlier versions of the same subject. In the culture Chagall grew up in, the fiddler would also have been known as a klezmer. The Yiddish word klezmer is derived from the Hebrew words klay (instrument) and zemer (music). Thus the literal meaning of klezmer is “instrument of song.” Klezmers were mainly travelling musicians, living under precarious conditions and sharing in the many peregrinations of the European Jews. They were poor, moving from village to village, and hence used no heavy or expensive instruments. The readily transportable violin, which lends itself to modulations and glissandos, is unquestionably the one most played by these artists. In Chagall’s work, these nomadic musicians – more than the music itself – play a leading role. In addition to their “floating” nature, on a roof or over Vitebsk, they are quintessential in the nostalgia that prevails in the world of this Jewish painter. Indeed, klezmers are an integral part of Jewish folklore, in which traditions seem fixed for all time. 

Self-portrait with Seven Fingers, 1912-1913

Oil on canvas, 132 x 93 cm. Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, on loan from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo Banque d'images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY 

The rich iconographic and stylistic references in this painting demonstrate Chagall’s multiple allegiances during his first Parisian period. The artist has quickly absorbed the lessons of Cubism, evident in the fragmented representation of himself holding a palette, and naturalistically depicts the Eiffel Tower, visible through the window on the left, clearly placing himself in the capital of the avant-garde art world. The seven fingers on the artist’s hand relate to a Yiddish saying whereby to do something with seven fingers means to do it very well and with all one’s heart. 

However, Chagall eschews symbolism for a formal explanation of the self-portrait: “The painting was made in La Ruche. I was in top shape then. I believe I painted it in one week. It’s my painting ‘To Russia, donkeys and others’ on an easel. I was influenced by the constructions of the Cubists, but did not renounce by previous inspiration. Why seven fingers? To introduce another construction, a fantastic element alongside realist elements. Dissonance adds to psychic effect. The text in Hebrew characters, Russia-Paris, is but a visual element.” 

Chagall moved to Paris in 1911 and in 1912 rented a studio in La Ruche – the now celebrated rotunda building that housed 140 artists’ studios – where he encountered the art of Léger and Picasso and the Orphist and Futurist movements, and made friends with the writers Apollinaire and Cendrars. These influences fostered a new way of constructing pictorial space, but Chagall also sought his own form of modernism. Like other contemporary Jewish artists, he drew from past forms to find and impose his own voice, recalling the imprint of the calligraphic lettering on the parchments and sacred scrolls of his childhood: “My family belonged to the Hasidic community. Music and religion played a major part in the world of my childhood and left a deep impression on my work, as did everything that belonged to that world.” 

The musicality of colour, through compositions of coloured scales and scores, is omnipresent in Chagall’s oeuvre, contained in his early works and fully liberated during his first period in Paris. By the early 1920s, the theories of Arnold Schoenberg and the twelve-tone movement were developing the notion of the Klangfarbenmelodie (melody of tone colours), which explores timbre based on the paradigm of tone colour. While Alexander Scriabin and later Olivier Messiaen experimented by associating colours with specific notes, Chagall’s chromatic and plastic investigations arose more from his interest in composing his own personal world of sound. As both a symbolic and compositional element, colour contained and transmitted the essence of the universal and humanist message he wished to convey through its visual, emotional and metaphysical power. 

Half-past Three (The Poet), 1911

Oil on canvas, 195.9 x 144.8 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ® 

Executed shortly after Chagall’s arrival in Paris, this painting is a testimony to the stimulating art world in which he found himself. It portrays the Russian poet Mazin, likely a regular visitor to the artist’s studio in the early hours of the morning. Stylistically demonstrating Chagall’s assimilation of different avant-garde movements, the picture’s representation of the poet’s head, turned upside down, relates to a Yiddish idiom: translated literally, the popular phrase “fardreiter kop” means a “turned head,” expressing a state of confusion or giddiness that borders on madness. Chagall adopted the pictorial devices of Cubism and Futurism in the fragmentation of the body and background into faceted planes and diagonal shafts of colour. 

The isolated, easily legible parts of the image (such as the cat, book and flowers) combined with abstract form, as well as emphasis on colour, reveal Chagall’s strong affinity with the painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Their paintings, termed “Orphism” by the poet Apollinaire, were structured with vibrant and luminous colour, and perhaps reminded Chagall of the folk art of his native Russia. An additional reference to the artist’s homeland can be seen in the fragments in Cyrillic script of a love poem by the contemporary Russian poet Aleksandr Blok on the figure’s lap. 

The Blue Circus, 1950-1952

Oil on canvas, 232.5 × 175.8 cm. Nice, Musée national Marc Chagall, on deposit from the Musée national d’art moderne – Centre Pompidou, Paris. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2016, Chagall ®. © CNAC / MNAM / Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo Gérard Blot 

Commissioned along with The Dance (1950-1952) to decorate the new auditorium of the Watergate Theatre in London, The Blue Circus is an emblematic work in Chagall’s oeuvre. The theme of the circus, metaphor of the world, is associated with the Mediterranean, in terms of atmosphere and colour, as well as its mermaid iconography, in this composition in which a trapeze artist balances above a green horse with human eyes, the artist’s double in animal form. A fish, similar to the one found on the designs for the scenery for Daphnis and Chloe and on the ceramics that date from the same time, offers a bouquet to the trapeze artist. The colour blue, in navy and indigo tones, imposes its nocturnal presence on the whole surface of the painting lit up by a violinist-moon. 



In 1942, Chagall was commissioned by the Ballet Theater to design the sets and costumes for the ballet Aleko. The ballet was planned for New York, but the cost of mounting it there proved too onerous, and the production was moved to Mexico, where qualified labour could be had for far less. Chagall, his wife Bella, Massine and the Ballet Theatre troupe all travelled to Mexico City to complete work on the production and begin rehearsing in the great theatre of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Chagall quickly fell under the charm of the city’s colourful atmosphere and the kindness and gaiety of its inhabitants. He also encountered for the first time the mystical vibration with which the Mexican light instills colour. The mythologies of Mexico and Russia seemed to fuse at this time for

Backdrop design for Aleko: “A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon,” 1942, gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper, 38.5 x 57.2 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art, acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licenced by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.
the painter, and he drew upon his most precious memories, imbuing them with new life. Chagall executed the four backdrops for Aleko in Mexico – monumental compositions that set the poetic and chromatic tone for each episode of the story as portrayed in the ballet’s four scenes.
The story of Aleko has the simplicity of a melodrama or an ancient tragedy. Aleko, a young Russian aristocrat, weary of his frivolous life, has joined a band of gypsies. He then falls in love with Zemphira, the daughter of the tribe’s chief, but surprises her in the arms of another man. Mad with jealousy, he kills the gypsy girl and her lover. Devastated by the death of his daughter, the gypsy chief banishes Aleko from the community forever. The narrative, based on one of Pushkin’s most famous poems, touched Chagall deeply, for it evoked exile, the nomadic life and the lost aroma of Russia.

Costume for Aleko: Gypsy with playing cards, 1942. Private collection. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris 

When The Firebird premiered on October 24, 1945, at the Ballet Theater in New York, this ballet was already legendary. Diaghilev had staged a first version in 1910 for the second season of the Ballets Russes. The premiere, which took place later that year at the Opéra de Paris, was a triumph. Sol Hurok, impresario of the Ballet Theatre in New York, had the idea of restaging the famous ballet. Scheduling it for the company’s 1945–46 season, he invited Adolph Bolm to create a new choreography and Chagall to design the sets and costumes. As Hurok wanted the new version to be slightly shorter, Stravinsky, who had been living in the United States since 1939, was asked to rework his score. 

In 1944, Chagall suffered the terrible blow of his beloved Bella’s death. Working on the preparatory sketches for the sets and costumes for The Firebird, he rediscovered in painting something of the paradise he had lost. Inspired by a Russian tale, The Firebird tells the story of a young prince, Ivan Tsarevitch, who frees a captive princess from a spell by means of a magnificent bird with feathers of fire. The old Russian tale the ballet is based on corresponded perfectly to his fantastic imaginary world. The painting he did for the project triggered a renaissance, for it allowed him to manifest via form and colour the hope he believed in so deeply and the message at the heart of The Firebird – the life-affirming power of love. 

Backdrop design for The Firebird: “The Enchanted Palace” (Act II), 1945, gouache, graphite and gold paper collage on paper, 37.5 x 62 cm. Private collection. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris 

Costume for The Firebird: the sorcerer Koschei, 1949, jacket, bodice, pants, spats, gloves, mask, headdress. New York City Ballet. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA 


The French publisher Tériade was eager to produce an illustrated edition of the ancient Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe, written by Longus, and asked Chagall to produce illustrations for the book, inciting the artist to make his first trip to Greece in 1952. The visit was a revelation that had a profound impact. Chagall rediscovered the light of Greece and was struck by its penetrating clarity. He felt he was encountering the very spirit of the Greek writer’s narrative and sensed the shades of ancient gods emerging from the blue undulations of the Mediterranean. 

Over the course of the next few years, Chagall would interpret the story of Daphnis and Chloe in lithographs, on ceramics, as well as in costumes and sets for the ballet, for which the musical score was written by the French composer Maurice Ravel. Commissioned by the Opéra de Paris ballet, Chagall’s version of Daphnis and Chloe was first staged with a new choreography by Serge Lifar, on July 8, 1958, at the Brussels World’s Fair. A year later, George Skibine created a new version of the ballet, which was performed in Paris. 

As always, Chagall worked closely with the choreographer – first Lifar, then Skibine – and with the dancers. His understanding of bodily movement and gesture was acute, and his belief in the importance of the dynamism of line was such that for some costumes he painted directly on the dancers’ leotards. He achieved the kind of fusion of painting and movement first envisaged in 1911. 

Backdrop design for Daphnis and Chloe, 1958, gouache, graphite, coloured pencil and tempera on paper, 56 x 79.5 cm. Private collection. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris 

Costumes for Daphnis and Chloe:
A Shepherdess, 1959. Paris, Opéra national. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA 

Chagall’s ultimate stage experience would focus on Mozart’s Magic Flute. The idea for the production came from Rudolph Bing, director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, who was planning a revival of The Magic Flute as part of the inaugural season of the new “Met.” Chagall, who felt the same ardent admiration for Mozart as he did for Rembrandt, embraced the project enthusiastically. The Magic Flute was for him not only a musical masterpiece but also a philosophical source comparable to the Bible. He saw the work as a form of religious ritual, illustrating the opposing forces that are part of creation and that battle for power over the human soul. 

It took Chagall three years to design the sets and costumes, and the huge number of sketches, drawings and models he executed, on display here, testify to the creative excitement it inspired in the artist. Working on the complex staging, it was vital to take full account of the singers – their precise position on the stage and their poses as dictated by the narrative, vocal technique and stage directions. It required a scenographic approach that was less balletic and closer to the strategies employed for theatre and the mass spectacles of Russia’s revolutionary period. 

Chagall paid attention to the smallest detail of scenery and costumes: every rock, flat, column and statue, every accessory was infused with meaning. But the greatest care was devoted to the fantastic beings that seemed to spring from a realm imagined jointly by Mozart and Chagall. The luminous world of Chagall’s Magic Flute, combining enchantment, farce and drama, is at once a fairy tale and an initiation story. The Magic Flute had its premiere on February 19, 1967, during the new Metropolitan Opera’s inaugural season. Greeting the audience as they entered the lobby were two monumental compositions by Chagall, The Sources of Music and The Triumph of Music. The opening night was a triumph. 

Variation on the theme of The Magic Flute, 1966-1967, gouache, coloured pencil and collage on Japan paper, 50.5 x 62 cm. Private collection. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA 

Costume for The Magic Flute: Green Face Costume (Queen of the Night), 1967 (mask reconstruction: 2016), costume, mask, shoes, tights, gloves. New York, Metropolitan Opera. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA. 


Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Final model for the wall painting at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York: The Triumph of Music (detail), 1966, tempera, gouache and collage on paper mounted on Korean paper, 109 × 91.5 cm. Private collection.

© SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris
Marc Chagall working on the panels for New York’s Metropolitan Opera: The Triumph of Music, 1966. Paris, Atelier des Gobelins. © SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. Photo © Izis-Manuel Bidermanas

The Sources of Music and The Triumph of Music – two panels created by Chagall for Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera – form a diptych on the theme of musical creation. The vertical panels, each measuring approximately 11 by 9 metres, become part of the architecture of the building designed by Wallace Harrison and welcome the audience into the auditorium. 

The Sources of Music, the predominantly yellow right panel, depicts a theatrical King David in double
profile, playing the harp in the centre of a serene composition populated with musicians, animals
and angels that recalls the sets Chagall created about that time for the opera
The Magic Flute

Orpheus occupies the lower part of the composition, counterbalancing David’s movement and initiating a leftward thrust that symbolizes transition and metamorphosis. 

The explosively forceful Triumph of Music, the predominantly red left panel, shows a victorious hybrid angel blowing a trumpet in the middle of a whirlwind that sweeps along musicians, dancers and fantastic animals. The centrifugal motion is accentuated by the circles drawn in the centre of the composition and the rays emanating from a solar prism to the right of the angel. Both panels include fragments of the skyline of New York, the city where the artist lived in 1941 during his exile. The skyscrapers – formal elements reinforcing the verticality of the composition – are also an homage to the metropolis for which this decoration was intended. 


 Marc Chagall, Final model for the ceiling of the Opéra de Paris, 1963, gouache on cloth-backed paper, 140 x 140 cm. Private collection.© SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris 

Perhaps the most outstanding example of Chagall’s love of music, this magnificent circular painting is a symphony of colours and shapes. As viewers gazing upon it, we are caught up in a continuous movement: dancers, angels, swans, couples and roosters swirl as though dancing a waltz or a farandole. Nothing is static; all is rhythmically organized by the arrangement of the panels of colour. The compelling movement is the essence of the painting. Chagall chose to depict key works by his fourteen favourite composers, and conceived of the circular decoration as a flower with five petals, each of a different colour. Each petal is associated with two composers: white for Rameau and Debussy, red for Ravel and Stravinsky, yellow for Tchaikovsky and Adam, blue for Mussorgsky and Mozart, and green for Wagner and Berlioz. 

The centre of the flower, painted later, is a sun celebrating Beethoven, Gluck, Bizet and Verdi. Chagall reinterpreted the pieces he knew so well by allowing his own poetry free rein. For Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, the absent Orpheus is represented by his lyre, and it is an angel out of a Quattrocento Annunciation that comes to meet Eurydice, its arms full of flowers, to the music of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” The subject of love, found all over the ceiling, culminates in the Tristan and Isolde panel, a variation on the theme of the couple, which, as if by way of Wagnerian modulations, takes us to Romeo and Juliet and the dreamlike depiction of an antique medallion.