The Art Of Marc Chagall In Bloom At Selby Gardens

Jun 21, 2017

Best known as a pioneer of modernist painting, Marc Chagall also worked with stained glass, tapestries and ceramics.

The world's most important museums display the artist's work, but it’s never been shown quite like the way it is right now at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

Along the garden's view of Sarasota Bay, rows of purple sage have been planted to mimic a field of lavender. In the greenhouse, a cottage door is draped with orchids that stand in for bougainvillea vines.

These horticultural vignettes, inspired by the artwork of Marc Chagall, are meant to evoke the French Riviera where the artist spent the last years of his life.

Selby spokesperson Mischa Kirby says the exhibit is part of the garden's effort to introduce the 15-acre bayfront property to a wider audience.

"I think what we're trying to create overall is a way for people to engage with nature, and maybe their way of coming at it is by coming to view artwork,” she said. “Or maybe they come for the nature and then they get exposed to the other cultural elements. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship."

"The Lovers" (1937) courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Kirby says the show, titled "Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams," is the first to explore the role of flowers in the artist’s work.

The exhibit features one of his most famous paintings, "The Lovers," on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Chagall was displaced twice in his lifetime because of his faith - first from his native Russia, and again from France during the Nazi occupation of World War II.

Woven among the plants in Selby's conservatory are large scale color replicas of Chagall’s stained glass, which feature both religious and botanical imagery.

Kirby says the unique pairing is the first in a series that’s been years in the making.

"We thought, let's create living art out of plants but base it off of an artist,” she said. “In this case it’s Marc Chagall, and once you start looking for these themes within an artist's book of work, it really starts to pop out."

The exhibit has also given the gardening staff at Selby Gardens a chance to boost their creativity. A lot of Chagall's paintings feature floating figures, so in the greenhouse, many of the plants hang from the ceiling, are elevated, or float on water.

Angel Lara, a director of horticulture at Selby Gardens, says when it came to creating the outdoor vignettes, the biggest challenge was adaptation.

"The issue in our area is that it is very humid when it's hot here,” he said. “We can intervene horticulturally sometimes, but for the most part we lose control of water and light.  We realized that since this exhibit lasts six months, what would work in the winter might not work in the summertime."

The Chagall show has been a huge hit for Selby Gardens. Attendance is up 40 percent from this time last year and there's also been an increase in membership.

A contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall is best known for his use of bold colors and themes of Jewish folklore. But the floral work on display at Selby Gardens was also something he came back to throughout his 75-year career.

Curator Carol Ockman says the immersive exhibit is a new way of examining artwork, and beginning the series with Marc Chagall made a lot of sense.

It was not until Chagall was in his 70’s that he began to create artwork of stained glass.
Credit Selby Gardens

"When he thought he might have finished a painting, he would hold a flower or a rock next to it,” she said. “So that nature was ultimately the judge for what constituted beauty."

It wasn't until late in his career that Chagall began creating stained glass windows. The reproductions on display in Selby's greenhouse are showcased next to lush botanical arrangements.

"Having the Floridian light go through those reproductions and fall directly on the flowers and plants in the conservatory with that kind of enormous fusion of color and light; I just think he would have loved it,” said Ockman.

It's a likely conclusion given the artist's own words. "Great art,” he once said, “takes up where nature ends."

"Marc Chagall, Flowers, and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams" runs through July 31 at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.