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Chagall's big picture, finally in focus

A Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, Chagall: Colour and Music, argues the painter's art was inherently musical

In addition to paintings on canvas, Marc Chagall created theatrical set pieces, such as a backdrop design for The Firebird, which was intended for a Stravinsky ballet.

Have we been missing something big about Marc Chagall? The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts thinks so – and has organized an exhibition to show there's more to the painter's work than the colourful rustic scenes that, in poster form, have decorated many a college dorm room.

Chagall's paintings of flying fiddlers, lovers and village parties have a magical feeling that touches many people directly. The main critical complaint against him focuses on one of the qualities that make his painterly "brand" so recognizable: that his imaginative universe changed little over his eight decades of activity.

The MMFA exhibition, Chagall: Colour and Music, argues that he was much more than a repetitive folk artist who scrambled into the world of fine art. The show claims that Chagall's art was inherently musical, that he was a bold explorer of multimedia and the monumental, and that he devoted himself to creating what the curators call "the total work of art."

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The exhibition features about 400 works, including paintings, sculptures and designs for theatre, and is billed as the largest display yet of the artist's work in Canada. It isn't the first in this country to try to expand our view of him: The Art Gallery of Ontario's 2011 show, Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde, argued that the painter drew more from the tumultuous aesthetics of revolutionary Russia than is usually thought.

Final model for the wall painting at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Some of the big things the MMFA wants us to see have been hiding in plain sight – on the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris and in the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Chagall's monumental works for these venues was exhaustively covered when he made them in the 1960s. The MMFA makes it easier to examine what went into them, through preparatory drawings and a large projection that pans over and zooms in on the Garnier ceiling.

Chagall's designs for ballet were also celebrated in their day, especially his 1967 sets and costumes for The Magic Flute.

Costume for The Magic Flute. New York, Metropolitan Opera

Again, the MMFA lets us see the work close up, with actual costumes from the opera and three ballets – Aleko (1942), The Firebird (1945) and Daphnis and Chloe (1958) – along with sketches for his stage designs.

The museum also planned to show several panels Chagall painted for a Yiddish theatre in Russia in 1920, but the Russian foreign ministry blocked the loan from Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery at the last minute.

The main portion of this suite of works, shown at the MMFA in full-scale reproduction, shows acrobats, dancers, musicians and painters capering over a canvas divided into geometric bands and arcs. Its echoes of cubism and Russian supremacism display the kind of impressionability that the AGO claimed for Chagall six years ago.

The large portrait Rabbi of Vitebsk (1914-22) shows Chagall flirting hard with abstraction, as the bold black and white areas of background and prayer shawl become a geometric field from which arms and face emerge. But while he would try out newfangled ways of seeing in canvases as with this one, he remained deeply suspicious of trends in art.

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Chagall had little formal art training – and regretted most of it. "I was convinced I must forget everything I had learned," he wrote in his 1925 memoir, My Life, about his student days. But he never forgot the look, sounds and feeling of his Jewish community in Vitebsk, where his uncle Neuch buzzed on his fiddle "like a fly" and where his father's coat "sometimes shone with herring brine."

Final model for the ceiling of the Opéra de Paris, 1963

Those impressions bonded early with a particular way of recalling them visually, in a picture space where things could be magnified or elevated according to their emotional resonance. Fiddlers and embracing couples float in the air or stand near other figures no larger than dolls. The colours are bold and simple, and the brushwork expresses feeling more than any standard of realism.

"I could not stand 'naturalism,'" Chagall wrote in 1925. His engagement with currents in modernist painting always went in the opposite direction, toward surrealism and the abstract. But he was also wary of anything too thought-out or rational, including cubism. He avoided artistic circles "where stylization, estheticism, [and] all sorts of worldly manners and mannerisms flourished."

His strongest connection with the art crazes of his time came through respect for what used to be called primitive art. He celebrated its "technical perfection" – its ability to match means and ends completely.

Chagall left Russia forever in 1922 and travelled widely for the next six decades. Some of his new environments – Paris, New York, Greece, Palestine – left a brief imprint on his works, but he never strayed far from his youthful conception of a simple rustic world where everything ordinary became magical.

Certain motifs recur again and again: the embracing couple, the veiled bride, the fiddler and acrobats. The archetypal Chagall canvas is a wedding scene, in which people dance, play and float across the picture space in view of the goat that symbolizes prosperity, the horse that stands for country labour and the rooster that signifies display, virility and observation. Chagall identified the bride with his own wife, Bella, and himself with the strutting cock, most directly in The Rooster (1947), in which the wide-eyed bird stands in space on the painter's palette, near a soaring bride in her reddened dress.

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Marc Chagall in 1947 with his work, I and the Village.

These visual tokens, and a fantastical way of representing them, never got old for Chagall. He was, as Primo Levi says of his own Jewish family in his memoir The Periodic Table, an inert element that did not combine readily with anything in the host environment. That may point to one reason why, in later life, he moved into sculpture, theatre and monumental painting: Exploring other media and larger scales was a way to work differently while continuing to do much the same thing.

This is not at all the argument presented by the MMFA. Its curators and catalogue essayists see something inevitable about the painter's forays into other forms of art, although how this makes him a creator of total art works is unclear.

Costume for Aleko: Gypsy with playing cards, 1942 Archives Marc et Ida Chagall

Richard Wagner, who claimed the idea for his music dramas, did everything from writing libretto and music to overseeing production and conducting the performances, as well as building his own theatre. Chagall did sets and costumes. We're told that he loved music, but not that he ever took an interest in the closest point of contact between painting and the stage: lighting. Nor did he make any moves toward the medium that in the 1920s looked like a new forum for total art: cinema.

It's claimed that Chagall collaborated closely with theatre artists, but two of the three ballets he worked on were successful only when the finished sets and costumes were taken up by subsequent choreographers. One of these, The Firebird, was based not on Stravinsky's complete ballet score but one of the composer's suites of excerpts. It's hard to see how the production of a truncated score with hand-me-down stage designs add up to proof that Chagall participated in total art.

Some of Chagall's costumes are quite imaginative. He painted directly on the fabric, built fantastic masks and headdresses, and got his wife or daughter to sew on layers of appliqué and ornament. It was more DIY, children's pageant work than the elaborate, sensual costumes Chagall's teacher Leon Bakst did for the first productions of The Firebird and Daphnis and Chloe. It would have been interesting to see a few of their contrasting efforts side by side.

Backdrop design for Daphnis and Chloe (Act II), 1958.

The show includes several works on glass, the back-lit luminosity of which was obviously attractive to a painter who loved strong colours and vibrant contrasts. A display of his sculptures shows a heavy materiality that was less suited to Chagall's gifts. A stone horse in whose side nestles an embracing couple lacks the dreamy weightlessness that such an image would have on a Chagall canvas.

The show hammers away at the idea that Chagall was a deeply musical painter, although no solid explanation of this ever emerges. Catalogue essayists claim the painter "remade himself as a composer, but of silence," and that his main Yiddish theatre panel "can be read and heard as if it were a gigantic score." This latter bit of nonsense comes from the pianist Mikhail Rudy, who should be required to hum a few bars. The show's claims about Chagall's musicality are mostly vague synesthetic plays on words, as when an architect or potter is described as poetic.

Chagall may be most musical in the very quality that weighs on his critical reputation. His endless reuse of the same motifs and mode of representation is a form of theme and variations, although no composer ever stuck to so few themes for an entire career. Chagall was a circular melody that played on for almost a century. That unavoidable big thing about Chagall is why his critical reputation will continue to lag behind his popularity.

Chagall: Colour and Music continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through June 11. An ancillary program of 12 concerts at the MMFA's Bourgie Hall continues through May 27.

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