MARC CHAGALL (1887-1985) Stage curtain for Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' (Finale) 258 x 816 in (655.3 x 2072 cm) (Designed, created and painted by Marc Chagall in 1966-67; Executed and painted by Volodia Odinokov in 1967)

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Lot 6W
Stage curtain for Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' (Finale)

Sold for US$ 990,312 inc. premium

Impressionist & Modern Art

17 Nov 2020, 17:00 EST

New York

MARC CHAGALL (1887-1985)
Stage curtain for Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' (Finale)
Created with the collaboration of Volodia Odinokov
casein, aniline and gold-leaf on linen
526.5 x 780 in (1337.31 x 1981.2 cm)
Designed, created and painted by Marc Chagall in 1966-67; Executed and painted by Volodia Odinokov in 1967


  • Provenance
    The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York; and sold: Sotheby's, Isleworth, FL, Monumental, A Private Sale Offering, March 2007.​
    Acquired at the above sale.

    E. Genauer, Chagall at the "Met", New York, 1971.
    C. Sorlier, ed., Chagall by Chagall, New York, 1979, no. 155 (illustration of the present work at the Metropolitan Opera House, p. 163).
    J. Baal-Teshuva, Chagall: A Retrospective, New York, 1995, no. 75 (illustration of the present work at the Metropolitan Opera House, p. 237).
    Sotheby's at Isleworth, Monumental, A Private Sale Offering, exh. cat., Windermere, Florida, 2007 (illustration of the present work at the Metropolitan Opera House, pp. 146-147).
    A. Gauthier & M. Meyer, eds., Chagall and Music, exh. cat., Montréal, 2016 (illustration of the present work at the Metropolitan Opera House, pp. 297 & 359).

    "I painted bright walls! I painted musicians, dancers on stage! With blue, red, yellow. Play, sing, leap! / You are performing the role of the old kin / With me. You have engulfed me / We laughed 'til we cried."
    - Marc Chagall

    In September 1964, Marc Chagall met with Rudolph Bing, director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, and the stage director Günther Rennert in Paris to discuss a revival adaption of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's famous operatic masterpiece The Magic Flute. Chagall was commissioned to design the sets and costumes for the adaption. The magical vibrancy of Chagall's color palette, imbedded with spiritual symbolism and rich visual imagery, was the ideal complement to the beauty of Mozart's opera.

    The present lot was created for the final triumphant scene of The Magic Flute. The whirlwind composition radiates with the most well-known of Chagall's musical iconography: trumpeting angels, fantastical animals playing instruments, floating violins, cellos, and dancers. The Magic Flue (Finale) is a brilliant visual storybook of the artist's polymodal thinking.

    Chagall was fascinated with the world of the stage, and the conception of a total mural ensemble, what might otherwise be known as gesamtkunstwerk. His unique ability to embed his visual imagery as a holistic picture, a pictorial representation of sound, reveals itself throughout his oeuvre, although his stage work is the least examined aspect of his art.

    At 77 years of age, Chagall had just unveiled a large new ceiling painting at the Paris Opéra for Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloé. The ceiling's design was a tribute to each of the great composers who inspired Chagall's art and who had performed at the Paris Opéra; the blue compartment is linked to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Mozart's The Magic Flute. Speaking at the inauguration of the ceiling on September 23, 1964, Chagall said:

    "I wanted to reflect in a single bouquet, as in a mirror on high, the dreams, the creations of actors and musicians; and below, remember the rustling of the audience's clothes. Sing like a bird, without theory or method. Pay tribute to the great composers of opera and ballet."

    A monumental undertaking, the artist could not refuse the opportunity to contribute to The Magic Flute, a testament to the creative vigor the project inspired within him. Chagall worked on the project for three years, designing more than 120 costumes, 26 objects for the sets, and 13 backdrops measuring 20 meters high. The opera itself was complex with many scene changes. To ensure a successful execution of his sketches, Chagall discussed every detail of the costumes and scenery with the Russian scenic designer, Volodia Odinokov. Chagall's visual narrative needed to synchronize with the musical and performative techniques of the opera, which were new concepts to him. He needed to properly reflect the singer's exact motions as they danced across the stage, their poses dictated by the narrative of the play and the different stage directions.

    His pictorial compositions were therefore dependent upon how mass and volume constructed the space. To establish the basis and main color structure of each panel, Chagall used Sarastro's rigid law, resurrecting the exploration of the square, triangle, and circle. He then began to "choreograph" his thoughts, an essential step towards carrying out such a grand endeavor with numerous curtains and props. By combining collages of paper and textured fabric cut into geometrical shapes with richly painted colors and strong lines, Chagall created dynamic compositions of color, volume, density and movement for his backdrop.

    From there, the designs of 121 costumes emerged from the backdrops. In sketching the costumes, Chagall used the same preparatory process as he did for the panels. From the major starring roles down to each background figure, Chagall constructed designs for each costume with a variety of materials that reinforced each character's symbolic presence – fabrics, cutouts, and feathers, further enhanced by hand-drawings and appliqués. Chagall then took his final sketches to the new workshops of the Metropolitan Opera, where he spent a week selecting the fabrics, colors and materials to be used by Maureen Ting and Charles Caine for the final costumes.

    Volodia Odinokov then transferred Chagall's extensive designs to the immense surface of the stage curtain. Using an optoscope of his own design, Odinokov brilliantly turned Chagall's gouaches on paper into large stage curtains, without losing any of Chagall's intense colors. Chagall then applied the finishing touches to the costumes and masks himself, bringing the characters to life. Alan Rich, writing for the World Journal Tribune, described the costumes from the 1967 premier as "Chagall paintings wrapped around people" (Alan Rich, review of The Magic Flute in World Journal-Tribune, 1967).

    Raised in a devout Jewish community in the small village of Vitebsk, Chagall's religious and cultural upbringing of celebrating God through joy and happiness, music and dance, remained at the forefront of his imagination and artistic expression throughout his life. Chagall frequently returned to the same conventions to express a universal message using Judeo-Christian themes.

    The Finale curtain evokes a world of lyrical childhood memories – a ritual music scene, the figures embodying the archetypal characters seen throughout Chagall's work. The fatherly figure of Sarastro, High Priest of the Sun, stands in the center of the composition with his arms uplifted, the yellow crown atop his head reminiscent of the biblical kings David and Solomon. To Sarastro's left stands the Queen of the Night, a winged figure, part human and part bird, playing the flute. An enthusiastic bird collector and employer of the bird catcher Papageno, the aviary may be interpreted as one of the Queen's many symbols.

    To Sarastro's right one sees a floating musician playing the fiddle. This archetypal violinist is a symbol Chagall personally related to as "the image of the wandering Jew," as for most of his life Chagall was itinerant, moving to St. Petersburg to study art in 1907, then to Paris, then fleeing to the United States as a refugee during World War II. The violins and cellos, floating throughout, are symbolic of the role of song in synagogue, and the influence of Chagall's family members, several of whom were musicians. The violin is the instrument of the exodus and was carried by the Jewish people as they fled or migrated.

    While working on the designs for The Magic Flute production, Chagall also created two monumental murals for the lobby of the Lincoln Center. Painted in the Manufacture des Gobelins workshop in Paris, the panels were then sent to New York in 1966. The large architectural and decorative projects presented Chagall with the opportunity to explore new monumental scale, and in 1966 the two masterpieces, each measuring 30 feet by 36 feet, were unveiled. The Triumph of Music located on the South side of the Met and The Sources of Music, located on the North side, both hang from the top-most balcony level and extend down to the Grand Tier lobby level. The present work shares almost identical characteristics to The Triumph of Music, which one can view from the plaza outside of the Lincoln Center (see illustration pp. 18-19).

    The orchestral arrangement of The Magic Flute has the greatest variety of any musical composition from the 18th century. As described by Charles Rosen, "The very lavishness, however, is paradoxically also an economy as each effect is a concentrated one, each one – Papageno's whistle, the Queen of the Night's coloratura, the bells, Sarastro's trombones... clarinets and pizzicato strings – a single dramatic stroke" (C. Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. New York, 1997, p. 254). The artist felt the same ardent admiration for Mozart that he did for Rembrandt. Inspired by music's ability to fill boundless spaces, Chagall approached his paintings like silent compositions. The Finale curtain is the perfect reflection of the final act – a tumultuous composition of musicians, dancers, and imaginary animals - all vibrating outward in a dominating swirl of red with vivid white, yellow, blues and greens. As biographer Raymond Cogniat stated: "The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. They sculpt and animate the volume of the shapes... they indulge in flights of fancy and invention which add new perspectives and graduated, blended tones... His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms" (R. Cogniat, Marc Chagall, New York, 1965, p. 60).

    With each curtain, Chagall envisioned the atmosphere and various moments of the opera's fairy tale coming alive in a distinctive and colorful world. The production of The Magic Flute was the climax of extraordinary experience that had enabled the painter, through the fusion of color and sound, to achieve the major goals of twentieth-century stagecraft: the total spectacle.
MARC CHAGALL (1887-1985) Stage curtain for Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' (Finale) 258 x 816 in (655.3 x 2072 cm) (Designed, created and painted by Marc Chagall in 1966-67; Executed and painted by Volodia Odinokov in 1967)
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