Chagall’s magical curtain finds a new home

As the Bristol Old Vic announces a revival of a play about Marc Chagall, the artist's enormous stage curtain for The Magic Flute is sold at auction in New York


In the way that only the universe can, the cosmos this week conjured two seemingly unrelated events which, though they happened far away from each other, are very connected.

As Bristol Old Vic Theatre began selling tickets to its revival of Kneehigh Theatre’s gorgeous Marc Chagall show The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, bids were being prepared in New York for the auction of one of the Jewish artist’s greatest — at least in size — paintings.

The latter of these two is a stage curtain that was created for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1967 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Chagall is by no means the only artist to have worked for the stage. Picasso and Hockney designed costumes and sets for major opera and ballet productions, as have many others. However Chagall went further by painting the ceiling of the Palais Garnier, home to the Paris ballet.

The Russian (now Belarus)-born son of a Chasidic family became part of the avant-garde art revolution in Russia and then France where he settled with his wife Bella. The rise of the Nazis forced the couple to America where Bella died suddenly of a throat infection in 1944 after swimming in a lake.

Chagall had lived for nearly a century before he died in 1985, and so was a sprightly 77 when he met the New York Met’s director of the time, Rudolf Bing, in 1964 to discuss The Magic Flute.

The artist then worked on the show for three years, designing more than 120 costumes, 25 props and 13 backdrops measuring 20 metres high.

The curtain was created for the final scene. The dimensions are eye watering. At 65 feet high it is 20 feet taller than the Hollywood sign and 46 feet taller, the New York Times usefully points out, than a full-grown giraffe. It is a free-wheeling whirlwind of a painting in which the artist includes images from his childhood in Vitebsk. Against a background of deep crimson, violins, cellos, dancers and animals are seemingly held aloft by a swirling wind among trumpeting angels.

“I wanted to reflect… the dreams, the creations of actors and musicians…” he said at the unveiling of the mural created for the Paris Opera, which also well describes the curtain he later created in New York.

Unfortunately the design of Kneehigh’s production in Bristol, which focuses on the relationship between Chagall (Marc Antolin) and his wife Bella (Audrey Brisson), cannot quite accommodate the curtain, which was bought by an owner with very high ceilings for £746,651.

Still, like Chagall’s paintings , Emma Rice’s two-hander (plus musicians) production is a gravity-defying affair with Antolin’s loose-limbed Marc and Brisson’s playful Bella embodying creativity while conveying the now lost Jewish culture that drove it.

Crucially there are no Peter Pan-like harnesses to make the lovers fly. They negotiate the set of wooden beams and hanging ropes like children in a playground.

So the two works of art are destined to never meet. Yet they complement each other perfectly and with the show being streamed as part of the Old Vic’s lockdown season, those watching at home will be able to do online what could never happen in real life, and view Chagall’s art before experiencing the show, a little like those who first saw the curtain in 1964.


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