Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012...10:01 pm

Marc Chagall at the NCMA

Jump to Comments

One of my favorite museums is the Nassau County Museum of Art.  Situated in a Roslyn mansion originally built by Lloyd Stephens Bryce, the museum holds various temporary exhibits while also housing the well known Tee Ridder Museum of doll houses and its many outdoor sculptures of modern and more traditional art.  The museum is right off of Northern Boulevard and is also a great place to stroll around – it has nature walks and vast grassy areas for picnicking and the like.  After several decades of existence, the Nassau County Museum of Art has been able to acquire art collections of well-renowned artists such as Tiffany, Richard Avedon, and Marc Chagall.

My visit to the museum this past weekend was spurred by the need to find an inspiring piece of artwork for my Introduction to Theatre Design class.  Since I was home for the weekend, I thought this would be the most doable and accessible museum for the job.  The temporary exhibit being shown until the beginning of November is a collection of Marc Chagall paintings and drawings from various donors including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art.  Many might know Marc Chagall for his crazy color-schemes and inattention to the law of gravity.  All I knew was that my family wasn’t a big fan of his “cuckoo” style.  But I thought it was worth a try.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the exhibit was that Chagall used a lot of symbolism.  It is hard to pass one of his paintings without seeing a vase of flowers, a little town, a floating couple, a fish, a rooster, or an anamorphic figure.  Each of these symbols has a meaning.  The vase of flowers has been considered a manner of self-portraiture as well as a symbol of youth.  Many of these vases have been accompanied by images of lovers, either floating nearby or resting gently on the bed of flowers.  These couples represent youth as well as love and fertility.  The little town that is ever-present in his artwork represents the town of his youth – Vitebsk.  The fish represents fertility and is one of his Jewish symbols (as he was an Orthodox Jew from Russia).  The rooster represents the artist’s fiery spirit as well as his “masculine identity.”  I believe he used all of these symbols to represent different parts of himself.  Many times you will pass a painting that includes all of these images!  Marc Chagall also included many current events in his paintings.  Every now and then red flags are visible – representing the Soviet Union and communism.  We also see houses burning – depicting the pogroms in Russia.

Another interesting thing I encountered was his inclusion of the crucifixion.  More often than not, the crucifixion is used in a religious sense.  Using Christ in a religious sense would be very contradictory to Chagall’s own religion – so why does he include the crucifixion so frequently?  One interpretation is that Chagall tries to unify the Christian and Jewish people in their similarities – the old testament.  Another is that the figure on the cross isn’t Christ, but the artist himself.  Often enough, the image of the cross is accompanied by the rooster and the fish – symbols for masculinity and fertility, but possibly symbols for Chagall himself.

One thing I enjoyed the most were Chagall’s Bible Series.  The curator was very smart in arranging the series in order and including with them excerpts from the actual bible describing what the viewer sees in the print.  I liked these very much due to the fact that they told a story and I could relate more to them as they were more direct.  To be honest, even though I enjoyed pointing out the symbols in his paintings, they often confused me.  The concrete stories that the series told were very universal – especially to those who know the stories of the bible.

Okay, so what did I end up finding as inspiration for my class assignment?  Marc Chagall was also involved in set design.  I thought this was an amazing discovery and was a definite inspiration for me.  Because I don’t usually group designers and artists together (which is a bit strange and I know definitely the wrong way to think), I thought it was interesting to bring a more artistic and eccentric style to set design.  Usually I view set design as a literal and practical art, and though it is an art, I would never think to bring a more fantastical quality to the actual sketch.  Therefore, I chose Design for Gogol’s Play: The Marriage because it depicted the actors in costume on stage.  It is more abstract that an average set design because it is done in a slightly cubist style.

Departing quickly and briefly from Marc Chagall, the Nassau County Museum of Art usually has one separate room with a modern art exhibit. The Sydney Chastain-Chapman & Julie Tremblay exhibit was very interesting and explored the idea of the human race – are we all different or are we all pretty much the same?  They use different media – paint as well as sculpture.  The sculpture was very beautiful and eye-catching.  Tremblay uses the leftover metal from pressing bottle-caps to form organic, human forms.  It was a quick exhibit and I would definitely recommend a quick visit as a break from some of Chagall’s work.

Overall, a very worthwhile visit!

Marina B. Nebro






  1. My Name is Asher Lev – A Theatrical Adaptation | Theatre

Leave a Reply