Chagall Exhibition Transforms Selby Gardens

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BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY FEB 10, 2017

Opening this Sunday, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens unveils an exhibition years in the making, uniting the fine art of master modernist Marc Chagall with the horticultural art created and cultivated in the gardens themselves in Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams. Running through July 31, the exhibition incorporates nearly the entirety of the grounds, so visitors can revel in the natural world that inspired Chagall, experience vistas reminiscent of his home on the French Riviera and explore the life and work of the artist through archival photos and three Chagall paintings on loan, including two never before publicly shown. “If he had been able to see this,” says Dr. Carol Ockman, curator-at-large for Selby Gardens and Robert Sterling Clark professor of art history at Williams College, “Chagall would have gone mad with ecstasy.”

The journey begins in the Conservatory, where the Gardens’ ever-dazzling collection of bromeliads takes on an extra gleam with the installation of stained glass windows throughout, reproductions of Chagall’s work from churches and synagogues across Europe and Israel. Placards give notice of not only the building and country of origin, but the exact location of the original within the edifice. Arranged artfully around the stained glass, flowers flanking achieve an almost architectural quality.

But it’s the aerial installations—epiphyte chandeliers covered in moss dangling from the rafters, whirling tillandsia floating like stars—that capture Ockman’s eye, alongside an installation of three terracotta vases seemingly suspended in mid-air as flowers cascade from their tilted rims into a colorful pool below. “That floating quality, they’ve captured beautifully,” she says. “They really understood the way figures float [in Chagall’s work]. There’s the element of paradox and almost a surreal quality.”

The exhibit expands across the grounds, from the food at Michael’s On East On the Bay taking on a decidedly French twist to various locations around the campus transformed into a Sarasota approximation of the French Riviera, with local flora standing in for their French relatives. In one area, neat rows of freshly planted salvia—a purple sage that grows well in Sarasota—takes the place of lavender, which will not grow in Sarasota climes. Potted bougainvillea compete the scene.

Continuing into Payne Mansion after delving into the colorful world that inspired the artist (known for always keeping flowers in his studio), the South Gallery contains a series of archival photographs allowing a glimpse into the life of the man who, despite displacement and hardship, allowed an eternal optimism to shine through. Farther on in the North Gallery, Chagall’s famous painting, The Lovers, hangs on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. On opposite walls depend two smaller pieces, these on loan from a private collection and making their public debut. Flanking one sit four vases that Chagall himself used. Panels authored by Ockman guide the viewer, providing context and history.

On display at Selby Gardens through July 31, Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera rewards multiple viewings, with the natural changes of the season—or even the day—affecting lighting and presentation. And ongoing events such as Chagall Nights bring musical performers to the gardens after dark for a whole new experience. The first Chagall Night on February 15 brings musicians from the Perlman Music Program/Suncoast. Tickets cost $40 for members and $50 for guests.

Pictured: Stained glass installation in the Selby Gardens Conservatory. Photo by Matthew Holler.

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