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The Lovers by Marc Chagall

The great 20th-century artist Marc Chagall was so inspired by nature’s beauty that, in order to determine whether one of his works was truly complete, he would hold a flower or plant up next to it. “If the work could stand up to the beauty of the flower, he considered it completed. And if it didn’t, it was a failure,” says Dr. Carol Ockman, the Robert Sterling Clark Professor of Art at Williams College and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ new curator-at-large. “Nature was his guide.”

Ockman has curated a groundbreaking exhibit that examines the natural world’s role in the paintings and stained glass works of Chagall—the Russian-born master of color, light and memory who was displaced twice, first to France in World War I and then to New York in World War II to flee Nazi persecution, before spending the last 35 years of his life on the French Riviera, where he was inspired by the beautiful landscape and light.

The exhibit opens at Selby Gardens Feb. 12 and runs through July 31. The centerpiece will be Chagall’s 1937 masterwork, The Lovers, on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Two other late-in-life paintings from private collections, Bouquets of Lilacs at Saint-Paul, 1978, and Couple with Lilies of the Valley, 1973, will be exhibited publicly for the first time. 

Chagall’s estate has given Selby Gardens permission to reproduce transparencies of select stained glass images, which will be embedded in the conservatory’s glass walls. Ockman considers it “an incredibly inspired idea.”

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Bouquets of Lilacs at St. Paul, 1978 

And throughout the gardens visitors will see arrangements of flowers that evoke the flora of the French Riviera—a place similar to Sarasota, she says, because both have such beautiful light, and because both are fantasy-like holiday destinations.  

 About the exhibit’s subtitle, Color of Dreams, Ockman says, “Chagall is involved in a world that conjures both reality and fantasy. His motifs and his figures are always in that place between those two spaces; there’s something quite dreamlike about the pictures, something beyond what we see in the world.”

The artist was working at a time when the world was swept by war, she says, but “by choice his is an imagery of hope and joy. He has a radiant side, which is why people love him so much.” 

The curator credits Selby Gardens executive director Jennifer Rominiecki with the concept behind the exhibit, with negotiating the loan of The Lovers from the Israel Museum, and with securing the financial support to convert the Gardens’ Museum of Botany and the Arts (also known as the Payne Mansion) into “a space where blue-chip works could be shown.” (A big task, as the proper humidity controls and security measures had to be installed.) And this show will be the first in a series, as Rominiecki has retained Ockman to create an annual show that will exhibit important paintings within the context of the gardens.

Through her research, Ockman met Chagall’s granddaughter, Bella Meyer, a floral designer in New York City. “Bella told me that, for Chagall, a flower is like a tree between earth and heaven, in a way spiritual—the way he talks about flowers as a life-giving force; they themselves are conveyors of joy and light and love,” she says. “For Chagall, nature was a way to discover the meaning of life.” 

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