Bella Meyer, the granddaughter of modern art pioneer Marc Chagall, happily skipped and smiled as she took us through a new immersive digital exhibition of his work at the Hall des Lumières in lower Manhattan. Her outlook on the show was not always so sunny. The Paris-born florist said her twin sister, Meret, had to convince her to approve the exhibition. Now she’s happy she did.
“Frankly, I was very hesitant about the project. In fact, I was conservatively against it,” Meyer said in a moment of candor. “But then I saw how the artistic director Gianfranco Iannuzzi worked on it.”
Meyer said she went to a meeting in Paris during the planning phase of the project and saw Iannuzzi’s vision. She liked his approach and, after giving it some thought, she felt that presenting her grandfather’s work in this format could be a “revelation.”
Her initial reproach was because of her ignorance of digital technologies—she feared that the show would simply take large copies of Chagall’s work “and blow them up” on the walls, she said. But she realized Iannuzzi “really wanted to tell a story” and that he was interested in the same things she was interested in as a young girl—the pigment and the materials Chagall used.
“[The show] is very moving… and it’s extremely high quality,” she said. “What is so amazing is that you can really feel the texture and the material of the paintings. And what I feel is so special about it is that grandfather was in constant search of what the material meant,” Meyer said.
Meyer said Chagall would chat with her as he worked when she was a girl. She doesn’t quite recall everything but she has a “wonderful memory” of him trying to understand the color gray as he worked on a large painting.
“What is gray? White is a very complicated color. Black is a very complicated color,” she recounted him saying. “How do you get [gray]?”
As Chagall worked, he would analyze his pigments and paints in what Meyer called a tactile way. She motioned rolling the materials in her hands and between her fingers.
“He was trying to understand this mystery of color… He was thinking about it all the time. It was a new question every day,” which, she said, “this exhibit really shows.”
Meyer said Chagall also needed to “grasp the pictorial space completely.”
“There needs to be a little more here,” Meyer recounted him saying as painted.
Chagall made several large-scale works in his lifetime. Because she was young when he made his larger works, such as murals for the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City and the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, Meyer could not recall precisely how much he toiled with them.
“As a viewer, they all seemed perfect to me,” Meyer said of his work. “But no, he had to find the real answer to how to respond to that particular place [that he had to fill] and what he really wanted to say [in his painting].”
Similarly, she was impressed by Iannuzzi’s considerations of space, noting that the New York iteration of the exhibition is organized “very, very differently than in Paris because the spaces are so different.”
At one point in the walkthrough, Meyer said, “That’s me!” She stopped before an image of two young girls, Meyer and her sister, with their grandfather at the Opéra Garnier as his grand work was unveiled. The ceiling mural had been commissioned at the request of France’s minister of culture at the time.
“It was surprising and fun to see it,” she said. “It’s a happy memory.”
As the founder of her own floral design studio, fleursBELLA, Hall des Lumières asked Meyer to create a large floral arrangement as a kind of collaboration with Chagall for display inside the entryway of the building.
“I was very happily moved that they asked me to do an arrangement but it was all the more difficult for me because answering to my grandfather’s work is an emotionally big challenge,” she said. “But, like him, what attracts me is that texture and colors.”
“As a painter, there was no way I could ever approach the magnitude of the richness of flowers’ colors,” she added. “It’s extraordinary, yet they’re very ephemeral.”
Chagall frequently used symbolism in his art, which Meyer said does not carry over as easily to floral arrangements.
“I am always interested in the history or the symbolism of flowers, though it’s not always my guiding principle when creating a floral arrangement,” she said. “But I wouldn’t put a thistle into someone’s arrangement unless I knew that person was protected.” Thistles are considered unlucky by some, she explained.
While Meyer has been involved with the installation of the exhibition, she admitted her sister was more involved in handling copyrights, approvals, and other such issues in the planning process.
She added that, though she doesn’t know for sure, the family was likely not compensated and that the artist’s estate and descendants are simply interested in “furthering his work in the best and most honorable of ways.”
She hopes that visitors to the digital exhibition will also go see Chagall’s works in museums now, too. “The show is a chance to introduce a new audience to the work of our grandfather,” she said. “We want his work to continue to inspire people. We loved him and it is very nice to see his work being loved by so many others.”
“Chagall, Paris-New York” is on view at Hall des Lumières, 49 Chambers Street, New York, from October 6.
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