A Hypnotic Shade of Blue

Chagall Windows

I alighted from the 6 bus yesterday, the first snowy day of the year, to start a last round of profligate spending that began during Thanksgiving with the goal of leaving my walls and wardrobe less bare. The stores lay on a convenient south-north route along State and Michigan, and I got off at Jackson. With the Art Institute directly in my line of sight, I decided to delay my brief foray into Christmas consumerism and take advantage of the university’s Arts Pass to see the Chagall windows.

Earlier in the year, a friend and I had the opportunity to take a conservation tour at the Art Institute as part of the Evening Associates program. A highlight was a look into the painstaking, multi-year process of restoring the Chagall windows, which had been removed five years ago to protect them from the vibrations caused by the construction of Piano’s Modern Wing. There was a fair amount of wear and tear from exposure to the elements and pollution, and I remember the conservator remarking that most of the restorative work was accomplished with a squirt bottle of mild cleanser and Q-tips (the above link has a good video). In the hygienic surroundings and subject to a bright, white, cold backlight, one could certainly appreciate the details and craftsmanship of the stained glass, but there was no sense of its raw, visceral, emotional power.

Some information on Chagall’s history with stained glass can be found at Wikipedia. Apparently, his fascination with colour naturally led him to explore stained glass as a medium later in his career. His most famous creations in glass are located in the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, the St. Stephen’s Cathedrals in Metz, France, and Mainz, Germany (the latter windows receiving 200,000 visits a year), and the UN Building. Like most public projects in Chicago, the America Windows have their genesis in one Mayor Daley (J., not M.) Chagall completed the Four Seasons Mural at the Chase Plaza in the early 1970’s during a time of increased support for public art in the city. He was informed by the Art Institute that a gallery in its expansion was to be dedicated to his work. Moved, he decided to create a set of stained-glass windows for the AIC. They were unveiled in 1977 to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States and dedicated to none other than the mayor himself.

The windows were created by Charles Marq using medieval techniques for flashing glass, and they feature representative watercolour images of the arts – literature, music, dance, theatre, architecture – with the Chicago skyline along the bottom of the windows. I’m not familiar with Chagall’s oeuvres or his place in twentieth-century art, but the windows have an immediate appeal. For lack of a better adjective, the images are … charming. There is a sense of exuberance, as if the artist painted a snapshot of a child’s imagination. The abstract ideas are rendered in bright colours and demarcated by fluid arcs against a sea of blue with a colour gradient that has enormous richness in itself. However, it’s not the minute details of the painted figures that struck me.

I was surrounded by stained glass in my youth, having spent a fair amount of time in churches. It must have been during some boring sermon that I first put some effort into studying the main Chancel window of the cathedral at which I sang. I remember being struck by the uniform blue background of the stained glass. It is a deep shade, closer to the indigo side of the spectrum, but it is absorbing and warm, not depressing. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen another blue like it.

Most Gothic-style churches with elaborate, tall windows are flooded with light during the day. The window design is more regular and serves whatever religious image is the subject of the painting. On such a grand scale, the dynamic nature of stained glass can produce moments of transcendence when the light on all sides of the building aligns. In contrast, the exhibition of the Chagall windows in the Art Institute is on a smaller scale and allows for a more focussed viewing experience. This is key. There are no high ceilings, so the ambient light is much dimmer. The reduced illumination brings out the gradations in the blue, intensifies the perception of the transmitted light, and casts the whole exhibit in a blue glow. There is no dominant icon in the painting, so the divisions in the glass seem more randomly fractured. For me, the effect was curiously contradictory – here is a work celebrating art, joyous in tone, yet its presentation evoked a sense of reverence that made me want to whisper and step quietly. I marvelled at the effect that variations on one colour can accomplish.

The America Windows were quite popular before their removal, and a good crowd had gathered to see them. They are a great intermediary between the imposing body of pre-twentieth century European paintings and the sometimes head-scratching art in the Modern Wing, combining an old medium and fabrication technique with a modern style of painting.

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