To simply say that The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibition, Chagall: Colour and Music is the largest of its kind ever to be held in Canada does not do it justice. To list such a thing as its shining feature is to reduce it to a spectacle rather than an experience.

This exhibition, with its grandiose size, is akin to a marathon that you would be much happier running than walking. In studying art history, I could say that I have, in a way, been training for this day for quite a long time now. Yet when I entered this exhibition, my knowledge of Chagall’s birthplace, hobbies, and social background felt an unnecessary accessory for appreciating this exhibition. Anyone, young or old, art history aficionado or not, can walk into this space and feel the passion of Chagall, the music that stemmed from his art-making tools and imbued his works, before they finish walking through the first room.

The subject of this exhibition, the artist Marc Chagall, was influenced by music from a young age, immersed in Hebrew culture in his home country of Belarus. This immersion later found its form as the Yiddish avant-garde, in Paris during what would be referred to as modernism’s golden age, where artists, writers, and musicians alike gathered to promote creative growth. Chagall soon showed his colourful, unique style, which drew from multiple modernist periods, especially cubism and fauvism. As his granddaughter, Bella Meyer, put it, his work channelled the idea that “love, beauty, artistic expression, and creativity might bring peace.” The artist was revered for his seemingly superior understanding of colour to invoke emotions as well as play into important artistic themes.

In this exhibition the soundtrack to his mind complements every brushstroke, every painting easily re-imagined as a musical composition. In many of his paintings, there are actual instruments being played by his subjects, whether they may be a single person standing for a portrait or a moon in the background of an already busy scene. In his works, which incorporate the theme of the circus as a metaphor for life, the jovial colour and implied movement create a painterly rhythm that flows like the music playing overhead, even in those that lack depictions of instruments.

The MMFA offers a special treat in an innovative display which incorporates Chagall’s famous ceiling painted for the Opéra de Paris. The ceiling is a tribute to 14 composers, swimming with interplaying colours that guide the eye in constant rotation around the circle of figures, each and every one seemingly caught in motion. For this exhibition exclusively, the MMFA has partnered with Google Earth to reproduce Chagall’s magnificent artistic feat like it has never been seen before. With zoomed-in elements of the ceiling painting projected onto a large circular screen, this room offers an elite trip to Paris without having to leave Montreal, or even the bean-bag chairs the room holds.

An additional unique element embodies the influence of music in Chagall’s life and art in a perhaps unanticipated way. Every couple of rooms are lined with what look like regular paintings, but are in reality set designs. In the centre of these rooms, restored costumes that Chagall designed rest on perfectly posed mannequins. In total, there are 40 costumes on display. On a wall in each of these rooms is a television screen that displays a recording of each ballet the costumes were designed for.

Among all of these diverse arrangements of musically inspired works, one final piece stands out. This is Chagall’s Self-portrait with seven fingers (1912-13). It is one of the few works in the exhibition that reveals no explicit tie to music, but it is nonetheless important in regard to this theme and to Chagall wholly as an artist. His colour-rich, fragmented reflection stands in front of an easel, this subject matter alone initiating the work as rather common self-portraiture. Confidently, his two-dimensional double stretches one leg as if lunging towards the easel, but Chagall complicates reality as his subject paints To Russia, donkeys and others (1911), a piece that he had finished a year prior to beginning this one. Reality is once again confused as he depicts a naturalistic Eiffel Tower in the background, but depicts himself with the quite unnatural element of seven fingers. While the inclusion of the Eiffel Tower refers to his involvement with the Parisian avant-garde, his seven fingers call upon his Yiddish roots, referencing the saying whereby to do something with seven fingers is to do it very well and with all one’s heart. The mixture of realities and cultures in the painting create a feeling of eclecticism which represent Chagall more than simply a self-portrait ever could. Without any instruments, this painting still inspires the theme of music, for it represents all that is Chagall, and Chagall himself embodied music.

In the words of his granddaughter, who so passionately supported the creation of this installation and was present at the opening, the colourful exhibition is “like a book which opens and gives the possibility of dreams.”

Chagall: Colour and Music
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 
January 28—June 11, 2017