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Nassau County Museum Of Art Celebrates The Opening Of ‘Marc Chagall’

“World class” exhibition features the largest collection of the artist’s works ever assembled on LI

On a rainy Friday evening at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Ambassador Arnold Saltzman, founding president of the museum, spoke of a very different time. A time when people lived in tents, or perhaps even caves, and though life was hard, they could always look up at the stars and find beauty and serenity. Nowadays, many are too busy to look up at the sky, and with the city lights blocking our view, the stars don’t seem to shine quite as brightly.

 “I thought, how could we resurrect some of that peace and quiet, and bring man back to nature?” remembered Saltzman. “And there is one man, one artist, who I knew could do that, and his name was Marc Chagall.”

“Marc Chagall”, featuring works never before shown on Long Island and running through Nov. 4 at NCMA, is the fruit of several years of work on the part of Saltzman and guest curator Constance Schwartz. According to Saltzman, he and Schwartz “called in their IOUs” by requesting as many Chagall paintings as possible from other museums as well as private collectors, and fortunately, most of those requests were granted. As a result, show organizers stated that “Marc Chagall” is an exhibit worthy of a “world-class” museum.

“Isn’t it wonderful that we’ve come to celebrate in this museum — a suburban museum that doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be a suburban museum — this remarkable achievement,” Schwartz said proudly at the exhibit’s Friday, July 20 opening reception.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), born Moissey Chagall, was often associated with the Surrealists, but disagreed with some of their ideology. Though his Jewish background, particularly his childhood in the small Russian town of Vitebsk, played a major role in his art, he did not wish to be seen as a “Jewish” painter, tackling themes like the crucifixion that were once considered taboo for Jewish artists. The show displays the artist as an original thinker who refused to be pigeonholed.

However, despite the large number of Chagall’s works on display, including 50 of the 101 hand-colored etchings that make up the artist’s 1957 sequence of evocative illustrations based on the Old Testament (The Bible Series), the show does not aim to be an exhaustive catalogue of Chagall’s work. The opening placard notes, “It is incumbent to add that this exhibition is not meant to be a retrospective, but provide a means of revealing Chagall’s storytelling abilities within his art.” Rather than document the details of his life, the show provides a guide to the symbolic vocabulary that the Russian-born artist used to express his thoughts.

Some of the symbols that Chagall used throughout his career were views of the village of Vitebsk and its inhabitants, musicians, acrobats, domestic animals like donkeys, and couples in loving embraces. Some paintings, like “Lovers Among the Lilacs”, 1930, are romantic through and through, while couples (and sometimes mothers holding children) appear in lesser roles in many of his other works as general symbols of fertility, family and optimism. The loving couples tucked into corners of compositions, smiling multicolored donkeys, and occasional disregard for gravity could make the paintings appear haphazard to an uninformed observer, but taken as a whole, “Marc Chagall” makes it clear that the artist used his symbols deliberately.

“He put himself into each and every one of the paintings that he expressed. He was the acrobat; he was the painter; he was in the flowers. He was everything, because it was his life that he was expressing, and he was expressing the best of all of us: the love that we feel for a mate, or for each other,” said Schwartz.

Sometimes that love is almost palpable. In “Le peintre et la grande nue” (1984), one of the artist’s last paintings, Chagall created a poignant tribute to his first wife, Bella. In other works, like “L’acrobate à cheval” (1927-1928), the brightly colored circus figures seem to communicate pure joy. However, Schwartz believes that even in Chagall’s happiest paintings there is a sense of longing: for the artist’s childhood in Vitebsk, and perhaps for a simpler time.

“He was forever the Wandering Jew, the exile in somebody else’s land, and you feel that in his expression of his passion for life,” said Schwartz.

For Saltzman, the show represents not just a cultural achievement, but an investment in the spiritual health of Nassau County; during his July 20 speech, he referred to the museum as a kind of hospital for the soul.

“We have a great physician, Marc Chagall, in charge at the moment of this hospital, the Nassau County Museum of Art, to preserve the health, serenity, spirit and soul of the people of our county,” said Saltzman.

“Marc Chagall” is sponsored by the Saltzman Family Foundation, the David Berg Foundation and Astoria Federal Savings Bank. The exhibit was also created with support from Bella Mayer, Chagall’s granddaughter, who attended the opening ceremony. A 50-minute film, Artists of the 20th Century: Marc Chagall will be screened several times a day for the duration of the exhibition. In addition, NCMA will host several special programs about the artist, including “Talking About Chagall” with Constance Schwartz on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 3 p.m.

Nassau County Museum of Art is located at One Museum Drive (just off Northern Boulevard, Route 25A, two traffic lights west of Glen Cove Road) in Roslyn Harbor. Admission to the main building, the Arnold and Joan Saltzman Fine Art Building, is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors (62+) and $4 for children ages 4-12. Members are always admitted free of charge. Hours for the main building are 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Call 484-9337 for more information or log onto nassaumuseum.org.