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Two LACMA Shows that Wow:  Marc Chagall:  “Fantasies for the Stage,” and a Carlos Almaraz retrospect

Although housed in separate buildings, these two shows benefit from being seen together. I would not have immediately thought of them in the same breath, but after seeing the shows I felt this Jewish émigré who escaped Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941 and this groundbreaking L.A. Chicano artist have a lot in common. Both go to dizzying, imaginative, and fanciful heights to retell personal stories — for Chagall, shtetl life, or for this show, his love of opera; or, in Almaraz’s case to lay bare his L.A. experience; and later a highly charged narrative of his evolving sexuality. Both artists draw on personal iconography, the extraordinary use of color and confident, dreamlike expression.

(Detail from Almaraz's famed Echo Park Series)

In Almaraz’s work, the furious brushstrokes and hot range of clashing color can hardly be contained by the canvas – he defies the very notion that some colors should be submissive, others dominant. The paint strokes can feel like raving voices, finally released from a bottled-up tube. He draws widely from urban LA, Echo Park lake, Hawaiian legends (where he later lived) and his haunting fantasies.

Chagall, Costumes for The Magic Flute

The Chagall show involves irresistible color too – but we respond to the work differently, in part because of the more limited focus of the show. It showcases exquisite costumes Chagall designed for four operas and some related videos. There are also lovely drawings, mainly gouache, simple studies that convey a dancer’s sense of movement in amusing ways. The costumes are wonderfully inventive and take flight. One can understand perfectly why Chagall said: “I adore the theatre and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love.”

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