Part III of my Mosaics in Chicago series looks at the making of Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic – a monumental 21-metre long mosaic work in Chase Tower Plaza, downtown Chicago.
Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons Mosaic_ a musical way of painting.
If you stand in front of Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic in downtown Chicago you will know exactly what Chagall meant when he said that ‘the big secret is to make it [the mosaic] both strong and restful [with] the force of Mozart and the quiet poetry of Debussy.’ The mosaic is an orchestral frolic. It’s a rollicking, skipping, thumping, breathless thing. It’s full of bucolic, reedy whimsy and just at the very moment when it dives as close as can be to the very edge of kitsch, it soars upwards, cymbals clashing, into open skies, pulsing with light and colour.
It is, in short, pure Chagall. Unveiled in 1974, when the Russian-born artist was already in his mid-80s, Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic contains everything for which Chagall is famous – a dreamy mixture of folksy fantasy and surrealist motifs wrapped up in swirls and flashes of dizzying colour. Elements of the mosaic will be familiar to followers of Chagall’s work: the fish (above, left), an oft-repeated nod of remembrance to his herring-merchant father; musicians, a common sight in the Jewish neighbourhood of Belarus where he grew up; religious references, naively drawn animals, embracing couples, circus performers, pastoral vignettes and figures that are either literally floating or look as if they are in a state of dreamy ecstasy.
But Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic is different. For a start, it is quite patently not a painting or a stained glass window or an opera house mural. Nor is it a ceramic or a tapestry or any other mediums that the artist experimented with. It is a mosaic. And it is this, from my point of view, which makes it interesting and particularly so because I wrote a blog post not so long ago called What Are Mosaics? in which I try to get to the essential nature of mosaics by defining what they are not.
One reason, I wrote, that mosaics are not like paintings is because they are not alterable:
‘You can dig out a bit of thinset, un-glue a wrongly placed tesserae or even a whole section if you are using the reverse paper method but by and large once you’ve laid a piece, you’ve laid it. The scribbling and smudging stage goes into the designing process but once you’ve commited to the design, that’s it. Balderdash. Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaics takes this theory of mine and hurls it out the window.
Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic _ the creative process.
Why? Watch the Chuck Olin’s film, The Monumental Art of Marc Chagall, and you will see what I mean. The film takes us through the process behind the making of the mosaic in the south of France where Chagall lived. You see Chagall hold his cartoons for the mosaic, pick up a paint brush and then dart at the newly laid smalti surface, applying dashes and slashes of red paint over the work.
At his side stands a smiling and remarkably taciturn (under the circumstances) mosaicist by the name of Michel Tharin. Tharin was the man who actually made Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic. Over a two year period he executed Chagall’s vision onto concrete panels which were shipped to America and assembled on site where the ‘seams’ were filled in creating a continuous whole. Using more than 250 colours, Tharin made all the mosaics which wrap around the great hulk of a monument (think almost two articulated lorries nose to tail) measuring a whopping 21 metres long by 4.8 metres high and three metres wide.
I watched Olin’s film and thought: poor man. Tharin had Chagall’s drawings to work from and spent, from what one could tell, an awful lot of his time crouched on his knees pressing tesserae into thinset. And then Chagall would turn up and wave his paint brush around and make lofty statements about art, and leave Tharin to chisel off big sections of the tesserae and do it all over again.
‘You have to respect it [the medium of mosaic],’ says Chagall in the film. ‘You must love the medium if you want it to say something different from oil and canvas.’ Yes, I quite agree, Mr Chagall, so then why treat it exactly like oil and canvas? A mosaic, as I said before, is not a painting. Mosaics set in concrete can be altered, just as pyramids can be built, tunnels bored under the sea and bridges made to span impossible widths, but that doesn’t mean that it is practical or feasible for mosaic artists to do so as a matter of course.
Chagall, at the very top of a very illustrious career, had the luxury of being able to treat tesserae like oils and concrete panels like canvas because, and only because, he had Tharin. Without him, Chagall would have had to learn the mosaicist’s art – of how to manipulate and lay tesserae with an attentiveness and respect which is unique to the medium. A tesserae once placed is there to stay. Even at the end, when the panels were erected and the unveiling ceremony has approaching, Chagall wafted in and made last minute alterations – including raising the height of the Chicago skyline because he hadn’t visited the country for thirty years and didn’t fully appreciate how much things had changed. I would have taken those buckets of tesserae and poured them over his head.
And although it might sound churlish to say so, I suspect that Chagall’s lack of a mosaicists’ understanding of the material and all that chipping off that he made Tharin do might have had something to do with the fact that three years after Chagall’s death in 1988 the work was in such bad repair that the ever patient Tharin had to come back to Chicago to help with a major restoration of the mosaic. Water damage and pollution were blamed. A permanent structure was built over Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic to protect it from the elements and Tharin, with no one there to tell him what to do, replaced about the quarter of the original mosaic.
To conclude, I will rein in that ill-suppressed churlish voice and leave you with a wonderful quotation about Chagall’s use of colour which I found via Wikipedia. It is referring to Chagall’s Jerusalem stained glass windows but could equally well apply to his Four Seasons mosaic: The essence of the Jerusalem Windows lies in color, in Chagall’s magical ability to animate material and transform it into light. Words do not have the power to describe Chagall’s color, its spirituality, its singing quality, its dazzling luminosity, its ever more subtle flow, and its sensitivity to the inflections of the soul and the transports of the imagination. It is simultaneously jewel-hard and foamy, reverberating and penetrating, radiating light from an unknown interior.’ Leymarie, Jean. The Jerusalem Windows, George Braziller (1967). Foamy – YES! – I wish I’d thought of that word.
See for yourself:
Mosaics in Chicago. Part I_Five Days at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Mosaics in Chicago. Part II_Mosaics at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sources for Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic:
Leymarie, Jean. The Jerusalem Windows, George Braziller (1967).
Love this post, Helen. I’ve watched that movie many times and have wanted to either dump the tesserae, as you said, or hide the paint brush and red paint- augh.
It drives home a quote by Gino Severini that says (and I’m grossly paraphrasing) that the artist and artisan should be one in the same, because only then can the intention and soul of the work be expressed properly. Chagall couldn’t mosaic and Theron didn’t paint the original- that chasm is the problem.
If you’re up for another facepalm, check out the sister movie about the making of the Chagall stained glass (same producer). Our stained glass colleagues faced similar challenges.
Here’s to Severini for championing mosaicists as artists. Thanks again for posting such a great article!
Thanks for this, Sue, and yes, I fully agree with Severini’s sentiments. It is so frustrating watching the film and seeing Chagall talk as though he understands the medium and in fact completely fail to adapt or respect the differences inherent in working with mosaic. I will certainly watch the sister movie – thanks for the tip off!