SARASOTA, Florida — The name Marc Chagall conjures images of floating figures and Jewish folklore. But the early modernist was also a prolific painter of a much more grounded subject — flowers.
His fascination with flora is the focus of “Marc Chagall, Flowers, and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams” at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. The show, which runs through July 31, is the first to pair Chagall’s work with live plants. Its curator, Dr. Carol Ockman of Williams College, said it was this original take on Chagall, who has been studied through many lenses, which attracted her to the project.
“I’d never seen any work on Chagall and flowers, and it captivated me,” she said. “I thought, we have the opportunity to do something new here.”
In her research for the exhibit, Ockman, who has spent much of her career working with Jewish art, interviewed Chagall’s granddaughter, Bella Meyer, who is an acclaimed floral designer in her own right. Meyer said Chagall viewed flowers as trees between earth and heaven.
Chagall’s appreciation for flowers is on full display at Selby, where three of his floral paintings currently hang. The most celebrated piece in the show, “The Lovers,” is on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The other two, “Bouquets of Lilacs at Saint-Paul” and “Couple with Lilies of the Valley,” are both in private collections and on display publicly for the first time.
Vases from Chagall’s own home sit near the paintings. Flowers, it turns out, played a large role in his life and his work. When Chagall thought he was almost finished with a painting, Ockman said, he would hold it up next to a “God-made” object, like a rock or flower.
“If a painting stood up beside the item that man did not make, he considered it authentic,” she said. “If not, it’s bad art.”
For Chagall, the value of flowers went beyond their aesthetics. The son of a Jewish pickle salesman, Chagall was born in 1887 in the now-Belarussian town of Vitebsk. He lived through two world wars and witnessed the atrocities the Jewish people suffered across Europe.
Despite these experiences, Chagall’s work shows that he never lost hope. His iconic weightless figures are not tied down by the terrible events he observed. Ockman contends that flowers held a similar meaning for the artist.
“I feel Chagall has a very special spirit that enabled him to always see the hopeful, life-affirming side and I think flowers really symbolize that for him,” she said.
In addition to the floral paintings on display at Selby, reproductions of several of Chagall’s stained glass windows are hanging in its conservatory. The lush botanical arrangements surrounding them make it easy to see why Chagall held flowers in such esteem.
It was not until late in his career that Chagall began creating stained glass windows. They proved, however, to be an excellent medium for his art, which is known for its use of color and light. The reproductions on display at Selby, hung among Chagall’s beloved flowers, are truly exquisite. Perhaps the most striking is a reproduction of four panels from Chagall’s “Twelve Tribes of Israel.” Chagall himself was present when the original panels were dedicated at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
“This is my modest gift to the Jewish people who have always dreamed of biblical love, friendship and of peace among all peoples,” he said at the dedication.
‘This is my modest gift to the Jewish people’
Though he visited Israel, Chagall’s heart was in France. For the show, Selby’s grounds were made to evoke the French Riviera, where Chagall spent his final 35 years. He also lived there in the years leading up to World War II. In fact, he may not have escaped Europe had it not been for Alfred Barr, the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, and his contacts at the Guggenheim who helped bring him to the United States.
The Jewish themes in Chagall’s work have been widely studied, but at Selby, the artist has been painted in a refreshing new light: as a naturalist with his work on display alongside the flowers he measured it against.
“For Chagall, I do think that nature was a counterweight to Diaspora and to loss, both personal loss and the loss of millions of Jews,” Ockman said.