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Marc Chagall reveals his theatrical side in LACMA’s ‘Fantasies for the Stage’

Marc Chagall, The Magic Flute, February 1967, Metropolitan Opera, New York, © 2017 Artists Rights So
Marc Chagall’s costumes and designs featured in “The Magic Flute,” February 1967, Metropolitan Opera, New York.
(Frank Dunand / Metropolitan Opera Archives)

As a child growing up in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Vitebsk, Russia, Marc Chagall aspired to be a singer, dancer, violinist and poet. Reflecting the desires of his youth, the artist often depicted musicians and performers in his paintings.

His set designs and costumes from four theatrical productions — the ballets “Aleko,” “The Firebird” and “Daphnis and Chloé,” and the opera “The Magic Flute” — are the subject of the upcoming exhibition “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show was adapted from a presentation at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by LACMA’s Stephanie Barron and the costume and textiles department.

Marc Chagall working on panels for a set for New York’s Metropolitan Opera in his Paris studio, 1966
Marc Chagall working on the panels for New York’s Metropolitan Opera: The Triumph of Music, Atelier de Gobelins, Paris, 1966.
(Isiz-Manuel Bidermanas)

“I was really struck with the designs and costumes he did starting in the early 1940s,” Barron, senior curator of modern art, said of these lesser-known aspects of Chagall’s oeuvre.

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After fleeing Nazi-occupied France with his family, Chagall received a commission from the Ballet Theatre of New York (now American Ballet Theatre) to create the scenery and costumes for “Aleko.” Based on an 1824 poem by Alexander Pushkin, the ballet premiered in Mexico City and later at the Hollywood Bowl in summer 1943.

“At this point he was actually hand-painting on the fabric for the costumes,” Barron said. His designs for “Aleko” mixed traditional Mexican styles with Russian folklore.

For the 1945 production of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., Chagall envisioned more experimental and avant-garde designs, opting for heavy, richly colored fabric and intricate embroidering.

Installation photo of “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage,” at LACMA.
Installation photo of “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage,” at LACMA.
(Fredrik Nilsen)

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The LACMA exhibition encompasses 145 objects including 41 costumes, more than 100 sketches, reproductions of original backdrops and projections, and rare 1942 film footage of “Aleko.” Yuval Sharon of the experimental L.A. opera company the Industry and Jason H. Thompson designed the exhibition.

“The designs we’ve done come out of Yuval’s desire to activate the costumes so that people have the sense of what it’s like to see them in the theater,” Barron said.

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” will be on view July 31 through Jan. 7.

Detail of Marc Chagall’s A Fantasy of St. Petersburg. Study for backdrop for Scene IV of the ballet
Detail of Marc Chagall’s A Fantasy of St. Petersburg. Study for backdrop for Scene IV of the ballet “Aleko” from 1942.
(The Museum of Modern Art)

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