January 24, 2019

Chagall Comes to Life in ‘The Flying Lovers’

Daisy Maywood and Marc Antolin in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” at the Wallis. Photo courtesy of Stand Up With Comedy

Marc Chagall, born Moishe Zakhavovich Shagall, was a mercurial artist whose turbulent emotions in love and on canvas are reflected in the play “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.”

The title’s aerial and passionate lovers are Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld, whose marriage from 1915 to 1944 spanned the violent era of World Wars I and II, the Communist revolution, the rise of Hitler and the beginning of the Holocaust.

It is well to keep in mind that personal and global turbulence when watching “The Flying Lovers” — performed at the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills — for the scenes and emotions shift rapidly, demanding a viewer’s full attention.

The two-person play, augmented by two participating musicians, stars the talented and highly acrobatic actors Marc Antolin as Chagall and Daisy Maywood as Bella, who strut, fly and embrace passionately.

It is not easy to convey the feel of the “The Flying Lovers,” but one example is the sight of Chagall’s large canvas of a rabbi, which suddenly comes to life when Bella’s hands wiggle through holes in the portrait.

An illustration of the artist’s single-minded focus on his art comes through in a rare confrontation with Bella, who gives birth to their daughter while her husband disappears for four days to work on a new creation.

One of Chagall’s paintings, “The Fiddler” (Le Violoniste, 1912-13), has taken on a life of its own as the supposed inspiration for the title of the enormously successful musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“The play is not biographical, but it accurately reflects the relationship between Chagall and Bella.”  — Emma Rice

In any case, from Yiddish songs and dances to persecution by the czars, “The Flying Lovers” is pervaded by Jewish sounds and themes. However, both the play’s writer, Daniel Jamieson, and its director, Emma Rice, are British gentiles who “have been drawn to many things Jewish,” Rice told the Journal in a phone call from England.

In the early 1990s, the pair visited Paris and took in an exhibition of Chagall’s works. “The experience was a revelation of the magic realism of Chagall’s art,” Rice said.

Subsequently, the two not only collaborated in creating “The Flying Lovers,” but also played the two principals in the initial productions.

“The play is not biographical, but it accurately reflects the relationship between Chagall and Bella,” Rice said. “I believe the play will be around for many years.”

One hoped-for byproduct of the play, which was funded by Jewish philanthropists, will be to raise interest in Chagall’s life and works.

The artist, who lived for a turbulent 97 years, from 1887 to 1985, was born in Vitebsk, Belarus, a town of 66,000 inhabitants, where Jews made up half the population.

Throughout the artist’s life, he experimented and innovated in many styles — Naïve art, Surrealism, Cubism, Modernism, Symbolism and Fauvism. But whatever his experiments and explorations in style and material, Chagall “remained most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was a long dreaming reverie of life in his native village of Vitebsk,” wrote art critic Robert Hughes.

Another appraisal comes from Jackie Wullschlager, who, in her biography of Chagall, lauded him as “a pioneer of modern art and one of the greatest figurative painters … [who] invented a visual language that recorded the thrill and terror of the 20th century.”

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” runs 90 minutes, without intermission, and will be on stage at the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts through March 11. For information and tickets, visit www.tickets.thewallis.org.

‘Chagall-Malevich’: A tale of love and art

A story of magical realism about a great love and two competing artists is told against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution in “Chagall-Malevich.” The film highlights the opposing artistic philosophies of the Jewish painter Marc Chagall (Leonid Bichevin), a surrealist painter known for his colorful, imaginative renderings of scenes from his hometown village, and Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Beliy), who championed the abstract, geometric style of painting he called “Suprematism.” More than 140 paintings by the artists are shown in the movie.

The project marks the return of noted Russian director Alexander Mitta after a 10-year absence from filmmaking. Loosely based on Chagall’s memoirs, as well as on those of his contemporaries, the movie begins in highly dramatic fashion as Chagall’s young, Chasidic mother is having a difficult time giving birth to him in the midst of a raging fire set by arsonists in the Russian village of Vitebsk. The whole village is ablaze as the young mother labors with the help of a midwife in a burning room, also occupied by a cow and a chicken, as the father, a pickle peddler, hovers in the background.

The baby appears stillborn, but his mother cries out, “Revive him!”  After the midwife dips the infant in hot and cold water, he begins to wail. The character of Chagall, as narrator, says, “The world was so magically bright, horrifying and beautiful that I started to breathe. And ever since then, that intolerable beauty burned within me.”

Decades later, in 1914, Chagall is painting in Paris, “the art capital of the world.” In his narration, Chagall says he and his friends learned to be artists at the museums and from each other.

At one point, he returns to Vitebsk and seeks out Bella Rosenfeld (Kristina Schneidermann), his future wife and love of his life. Although her father is not happy with her choice, she and Chagall are passionately in love and eventually marry. They plan to go to Paris, but their travel plans are disrupted by the war, so they settle in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and they have a little girl. Revolution comes to Russia, and Chagall says he can’t paint with the violence all around them. They return to Vitebsk, where they reunite with Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), an old friend who is now Red Commissar of the town and who has always been in love with Bella. Chagall has a commission as Commissar of the Arts, and he establishes an academy. After being invited to join the faculty, the abstract artist Malevich challenges Chagall for leadership of the school. Through it all, Bella stands steadfastly by her husband.

Schneidermann, who is Austrian and half-Jewish on her father’s side, said she looks a lot like Bella and identified very closely with the character for several reasons: “We had quite a lot in common. The first is our languages. Bella knew a lot of languages, just like me. I know five languages and speak fluently in all of the five.” Plus, she added, “We both love theater and art. The third fact is that we love literature and writing, and everything that connects to that.”

Schneidermann also met Bella’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer Graber, whose blessing was crucial to getting the film made.

“That was an amazing experience,” she recalled, “and the most amazing thing that happened to me was that she called me her actual grandmother Bella.

“When we were sitting at a table, I sang the lullaby that I sing in the movie, and she cried and said that was the exact lullaby that her grandmother Bella used to sing to her when she was small. Meret said it was as if our souls exchanged, as if at moments she felt younger, and I in that moment, myself, felt older, like her real grandmother. So that was a very touching and amazing experience.”

As for the film itself, Schneidermann feels that, though it’s called “Chagall-Malevich,” it is more a love story about Chagall and Bella and a story about Chagall the artist.

“It’s mostly about this wonderful painter who influenced me and many people on earth, all around the world,” Schneidermann said.  “He was always in this magic world, which I think the director wanted to dive into and make the audience dive into also. It’s such a magic world of kindness. 

“If he was alive,” Schneidermann added, “I think maybe he would want people to get to know that he wanted love and peace to exist in the world, rather than bloodshed and war.  That’s mostly what I think he wanted people to see in his work, and I think that’s mostly what our director wanted to show in our film.”

“Chagall-Malevich” opens June 19 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and at Town Center 5 in Encino.