In his long and varied career, painter Marc Chagall created stained glass, fine ceramics and a massive ceiling mural for the Paris Opéra — but only one opera set. Now, if you have unlimited income and vertical space, the centerpiece of the Chagall-designed opera can be yours.
On Tuesday, Nov. 17, Bonhams is auctioning the 44-by-65-foot stage curtain the artist produced for the finale of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” a work that Chagall likened in its perfection only to the Bible. The imposing silver- and gold-leaf curtain, with a flurry of figures representing the opera’s Queen of the Night, puckish bird catcher Papageno and High Priest of the Sun, Sarastro, is expected to fetch $250,000 to $450,000.
Chagall designed the curtain for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1967 production of Mozart’s final opera at the request of the Met’s then director, Sir Rudolf Bing. The artist, then in his late 70s, spent three years dreaming up costumes, sets and backdrops for the grand spectacle with a Russian collaborator, scenic designer Volodia Odinokov, who used an “optoscope” tool to transpose Chagall’s on-paper gouaches to the linen curtains without losing the painter’s bold palette.
“The Finale curtain evokes a world of lyrical childhood memories – a ritual music scene, the figures embodying the archetypal characters seen throughout Chagall’s work,” Bonhams wrote on the curtain’s lot page, noting how the figure of Sarastro resembles biblical kings seen in Chagall’s religious-themed work.
To the right of Sarastro is a familiar figure in Chagall’s oeuvre, a floating fiddler that stands in for the archetype of the “wandering Jew.” Chagall, who was born in Belarus, emigrated to France and later settled in New York as a refugee during World War II, strongly identified with this figure.
“The violins and cellos, floating throughout, are symbolic of the role of song in synagogue, and the influence of Chagall’s family members, several of whom were musicians,” Bonhams noted. “The violin is the instrument of the exodus and was carried by the Jewish people as they fled or migrated.”
It is interesting that Chagall, despite his whirlwind rendering of the opera’s events, should choose to highlight the violin in addition to the opera’s namesake flute.
The Met sold the curtain in 2007 to Gerard L. Cafesjian, a publisher and philanthropist, who hoped to hang it at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Armenia. As The New York Times reports, the curtain was too tall for the desired spot, the reason why Cafesjian’s estate is now selling the item off.
Because the curtain is so huge, Bonhams had to rent a studio around half the size of a football field to properly photograph it. The photographs are a necessary visual aid, as the curtain will remain in its crate when it goes on the block Tuesday.
“It does take a special space,” Molly Ott Ambler, a senior vice president of Bonhams told The Times. “It’s a unique object to consider.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.