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To Install Chagall. Major exhibition opens at Philadelphia Museum of Art this week

By Theodore F. Wolff / May 16, 1985



Philadelphia

MOUNTING a major art exhibition and waging a successful military campaign have a great deal in common. Both require a clearly defined objective and a strategy capable of achieving it, sufficient manpower and supplies, and incisive and dedicated leadership. ``Marc Chagall,'' the large and very important exhibition of that late artist's work now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art here, is a good case in point. The idea of assembling more than 200 paintings, works on paper, examples of stained glass, and theater designs by this leading modernist was excellent and extremely well timed. No Chagall retrospective had been seen in the United States in almost 40 years, an oversight that needed to be rectified as soon as possible before the artist reached his 100th birthday. The strategy was also shrewdly on target: Gain Chagall's approval, then organize the exhibition with the help of the artist's friends, European and American dealers, galleries and museums, and the advice of Chagall specialists. Equally important, use the full resources of the two sponsoring institutions, the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and give full publicity to the event when the exhibition opens, first in London and then in Philadelphia.

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For its commanding general, Dr. Susan Compton, a leading specialist in Russian 20th-century art and theater design, was chosen. To her fell the enormous task of shaping the exhibition, choosing what was to be included (a monumental undertaking, considering the immensity of Chagall's lifetime production), and writing the text for the catalog. Her campaign was ably assisted by the directors of various museums and galleries in Europe and America.

Armies and the organizers of major exhibitions need supplies and financial support, and for the latter, government and corporate funding is becoming increasingly important. Receiving it, however, is not so simple, for it requires numerous initial inquiries, statements of intent, and occasionally even guarantees before financing is forthcoming. In this instance -- probably because of the prestige of everyone concerned -- all such obstacles were overcome, and several corporations, the two governments, various trusts, and a handful of private individuals helped to underwrite the project.

While funds were being raised, the owners of Chagall's works were contacted and asked for the loan of one or more of their prized possessions. Here again, questions had to be answered, guarantees made, and promises extended. Insurance coverage and shipping became a vital concern, as was the length of time a favorite oil or gouache would be away in London and Philadelphia. Fifty-two public and private collectors agreed to lend their Chagalls to the show, in most instances for its full run.

Just the crating itself was a stupendous operation. Canvases are fragile and need special handling, and stained glass is particularly vulnerable. The two huge theatrical backdrops for the ballet ``Aleko'' -- one 50 feet wide and the other only a few inches narrower -- had to be protected and shipped intact. And the numerous prints and other more fragile works on paper had to be carefully protected against moisture and dramatic changes in humidity.

After the exhibition's London viewing, every piece destined to travel to America was once again carefully packed -- then uncrated in Philadelphia and prepared for those who would supervise the final hanging. Since exhibitions do not spring full blown onto museum walls, someone had to be in charge of arranging everything in proper sequence -- especially as the curator's intention was to detail the artist's evolution from art student to world-renowned master. Placement was not the only concern, however. There was also the matter of lighting and labeling so that viewers would see the works under the best of circumstances -- and could get some idea of a particular painting's place in Chagall's iconography and development.

Mark Rosenthal, in his capacity as curator of 20th-century art for the museum, was responsible for seeing that all went smoothly and according to plan, while Tara Robinson, acting as installation designer, made certain that every painting, print, and piece of stained glass was in its proper place and received the best possible illumination.

But even then, the preparatory work was not completed. Posters had to be designed and printed, the sale of tickets planned, the press alerted and invited to a special preview, and several advance showings scheduled for patrons and members of the museum.

It was, in all, a massive undertaking -- but, judging from the response of those who have seen the final results, it was also a resounding success. Not only is it a beautiful and important show, it was put together in about one-half to one-third of the time exhibitions of this magnitude are usually assembled.