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Costume Change

Chagall exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art reveals the artist's obsessions

Chagall, ceiling of the opera
The final study for the ceiling of the Paris Opera, gouache on paper.  Photo courtesy of James French Photography
Chagall Costume
Chagall created Costume for a Fish for the opera Aleka (scene five). It is made from nylon, cotton and painted organza.  Photo courtesy of James French Photography
Chagall Costume
Chagall's Costume for a Clown was created for the opera Aleka (scene two). It's made from painted cotton and taffeta silk.  Photo courtesy of James French Photography
Chagall, curtain of the opera
The model for the curtain in the first act of "The Firebird" by Stravinsky: The Enchanted Forest is made of a collage with paper, water color, gouache, and pencil.  Photo courtesy of James French Photography
Chagall, ceiling of the opera
Chagall Costume
Chagall Costume
Chagall, curtain of the opera

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the Russian-born French artist, is probably best known for his stained glass windows and whimsical paintings with poignant, humorous and religious undertones. But Chagall was also commissioned to create costumes and backdrops for theatrical performances throughout the world.

"From the very beginning, Chagall was interested in volume, space and theater," says Olivier Meslay, associate director of curatorial affairs for the Dallas Museum of Art.

Chagall's costumes and set designs are the centerpieces of "Chagall: Beyond Color" at the DMA, which runs February 17-May 26. The costumes were made for Léonide Massine's ballet Aleko, which first premiered in Mexico City and later in New York in 1942. This is the first time in more than 70 years that these treasures have been unearthed in the United States.

Other important works in the show include costume sketches from Igor Stravinsky's 1949 New York ballet The Firebird and sketches of the ceiling for the Paris Opera, which André Malraux requested in 1962. In addition, the exhibition includes Chagall's more familiar paintings, ceramics and sculptures.

Chagall's granddaughter Bella Meyer, who is visiting Dallas for the opening of the exhibit, says that her grandfather met with Massine in 1942 and together they "built the ballet." She says to understand the ballet, "[Chagall's wife] Bella read the plays over and over, and he was always listening to Tchaikovsky."  

Unlike most costume designers, Chagall did the bulk of the work himself. His wife and the stage manager went to the markets in Mexico City and brought back the fabric to Chagall. From there, he went to the Mexican dressmakers to help bring his designs to life.

"Chagall painted the costumes himself," Meyer says. She points to one of the dresses in the exhibit and says, "This is similar to how my grandmother dressed," alluding to the fact that Chagall's wife added a personal touch to the work. Mexican motifs are also evident in some of the patterns. 

Chagall was known as much for his diligence as for his collaboration. "Chagall sometimes stopped the dancers to add more paint," Mesley says.

Meyer remembers her grandfather often asking for approval — that he was insecure about his work until someone he loved admired it.

"He was obsessed by love," Mesley says.

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