Ethereal and Earthy: Polk Museum Unveils Exhibitions by Chagall and Brooks

Chagall sigFamous works by Marc Chagall, one of the world’s most beloved artists, will be part of two new and very different exhibitions opening this weekend that promise to enchant and provoke viewers with visions of the ethereal and the earthy. The exhibitions will be on display at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.

“Chagall: Stories into Dreams” exhibits two sets of works, including his illustrations of “The Story of Exodus,” and officially opens at 10 a.m. Saturday, although the museum is already allowing visitors in the gallery. It continues on display through January 6.

The second exhibition, opening at 10 a.m. Friday, is “The Art of Romaine Brooks,” featuring works by the pioneering 20th-century female artist that use a traditional style to present daring subjects.

Admission to the museum is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Chagall (1887-1985) was born in a village in what is now Belarus to a devout Jewish family and studied in Russia and France. Although influenced by modernist movements such as cubism, he developed a unique, recognizable style that stressed narrative and humanist themes portrayed in simple but fantastical ways, said Alex Rich, curator and director of galleries and exhibitions at the museum and assistant professor of art history at Florida Southern College.

Alex Rich in a gallery displaying art by Marc Chagall at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College Cary McMullen

“He took nostalgia for his village, Jewish folklore and memories and fused them with narrative. His work seems retrograde or naïve, but because he is mixing the past and the present, he makes it modern,” Rich said. “People could recognize his subjects, whereas many modernists focus on form and style. … Chagall is one of the most popular artists of the 20th century because he’s relatable. Not many people dislike Chagall.”

The Chagall exhibition contains almost 40 illustrations, plus two additional works. One set of 15 etchings, among a set of 100 created in the 1920s and 1930s for the publisher Ambroise Vollard, illustrated “The Fables of La Fontaine,” a book of moral tales by the 17th-century French author Jean La Fontaine.

“It’s a fun series,” Rich said. “What Chagall does is not to take the stories at face value. He illustrates what is representative of the moral itself. The stories are weird and figuring out the moral is difficult, but that’s appropriate, because Chagall himself is enigmatic.”

Chagall is one of the most popular artists of the 20th century because he’s relatable. Not many people dislike Chagall.
– Alex Rich, Florida Southern College

Chagall was well known for portraying religious subjects, and also on display in the exhibition is “The Story of Exodus,” a complete suite of 24 lithographs published in 1966. A previous set about Exodus was part of a commission by Vollard in 1932, but Chagall returned to the subject in his later years, Rich said.

“He focuses on the Exodus because so much had changed in the world. He reflected on the plight of the Jewish people, which was never more pertinent then. The Jewish people were rising up and finding their identity,” he said. “It’s a very complex suite. The illustrations don’t always align with the text. For example, Moses is portrayed flying above the people.”

Like almost all of Chagall’s works, the Exodus lithographs are colorful and imaginative, although a New York Times critic noted when they were exhibited almost 30 years ago that Chagall treated the subject somewhat more conservatively than with his usual abandon. However, Rich said, they are well worth seeing.

“I’m thrilled to see these. They’re gorgeous,” he said.

At the same time Chagall was working in Paris in the early 20th century, an American expatriate, Romaine Brooks (1874-1970), lived and moved in the city’s bohemian circles, painting portraits of some of her friends and lovers, especially women who were becoming more independent.

“Ida Rubenstein” (1917) by Romaine Brooks.

“The Art of Romaine Brooks,” which consists of 18 paintings and 32 drawings, was assembled by the Smithsonian Institution and displayed in a successful show in Washington in 2016. It is now on loan to the Polk Museum, just the second stop on a tour of the exhibition. Rich said Brooks’ style, which is traditional and formal, was influenced by fellow American painter James McNeill Whistler and uses muted colors, primarily black, white and gray, with occasional touches of brighter color.

Among the paintings is a portrait of Russian dancer Ida Rubenstein, who was Brooks’ partner, and a portrayal of France – personified as a woman – which Brooks painted as a symbol of her opposition to World War I.

“It looks traditional, yet the women and the way they dress is not. They look androgynous. They’re no longer defining themselves against men,” he said. “These are beautiful paintings.”

Rich said these two major exhibitions of the Polk Museum’s fall season are part of its renewed mission to bring in higher-quality shows featuring well-known artists.

“We’re giving access to art that people in the community haven’t seen before,” he said. “I’m excited about this pairing.”