I spent last weekend with two very different artists. The first was Alberto Giacometti, played by Geoffrey Rush with a perpetual frown and a constantly lit cigarette, in the Sony Classics film “Final Portrait.” The other was Marc Chagall in a whimsical song and dance fest titled “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk”, presented on the stage of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
First, Giacometti, whose art reflected his unique existential perspective as well as his natural pessimism and self-doubt. Born and trained in Switzerland, he worked in Paris as one of the group of avant-garde artists exploring surrealism and expressionism in the early years of the 20th century. Well-respected and well-paid, he nevertheless lived with his much-neglected wife in a squalid studio surrounded by unfinished and abandoned sculpture: empty faces without bodies and elongated bodies without heads.
His major obsession, however, was his mistress, a prostitute named Caroline who was his muse as well as the model for many of his works. Also part of the household was a wonderful but strangely unrecognizable Tony Shalhoub playing Alberto’s younger brother, Diego.
The focus, however, is on the creation of a portrait of American author James Lord, whose subsequent Giacometti biography is the book upon which Stanley Tucci based this film, and for which he is credited as writer and director. Lord, portrayed by Armie Hammer, was told by Giacometti that he could finish the portrait in three days, so Lord began sitting in the artist’s claustrophobia-inducing studio, and as Giacometti worked he shared his musings with his new friend.
One of Giacometti’s confessions dealt with his fascination with death and his urge to commit suicide “just for the experience.” But he decided against it, he said, “because you can only do it once.”
As the work progressed Giacometti was repeatedly dissatisfied with it and each time it neared completion he would destroy it by splashing it with white paint. And each time, Lord would postpone his return to New York. This went on for what seemed like months, and it was almost as if Giacometti was destroying the paintings because he was reluctant to see his friend leave Paris. (Reminding me of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, who avoided marrying one of her many suitors by spending her days weaving and her nights unraveling her work.)
Eventually, however, Lord developed the insight to recognize when Giacometti was about to destroy the painting and he jumped up, grabbed it, and ran off with it, not quite finished and apparently still wet. But he was quite pleased with it, even if Giacometti wasn’t.
“Final Portrait” will open in Los Angeles on March 23.
Marc Chagall was quite a different personality. Born in 1887 in Belarus, a province of Russia, his art encompassed fantasy, modernism, and Eastern European Jewish folk culture. Considered by many to be “the world’s preeminent Jewish artist,” he worked in stained glass, creating windows for cathedrals in Reims and Metz as well as for Israel’s Jerusalem Windows and for the UN. His work, in addition to his paintings, included book illustrations, stage sets, tapestries, costumes, and more.
Having lived through a turbulent period in Russia, Chagall moved to Paris in 1910 and became an important member of the group of artists who at that time were introducing the public to new ways of perceiving the world.
In 1914 he returned to his home town, Vitebsk, to marry his sweetheart, the writer Bella Rosenfeld, in a scene that was one of the sweetest moments in the play. Dancing in ecstatic unison on a stage decorated with long poles and ropes to hang onto when standing at a precarious angle, the pair manage to fashion a glorious chupa (that canopy that a Jewish couple stands under during their wedding ceremony) from a long piece of netting. They even manage to simulate that traditional dance in which the bride and groom, seated in chairs, are lifted high in the air by their guests, who continue to dance around them. (Not easy to accomplish when the only other people on stage are a guitarist, a piano-player, and a second guitarist who also plays a brass instrument, klezmer style.)
To celebrate his happiness, Marc tells his bride “My knowing you has already seeped backwards as well as forward in time so my whole life is pervaded with the color of loving you.” But having returned to Vitebsk to marry Bella, he was quarantined there through the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Finally returning to Paris, he and Bella endure the Second World War, the beginning of the Holocaust, and their despair on learning that Vitebsk and its large Jewish community had been completely demolished.
Through all the turmoil Chagall continued to create his happy fantasies wrapped in vibrant colors and wearing wings and imaginative headdresses. He also created many portraits of Bella, sometimes flying through the air, her arm entwined with his.
To this day Chagall’s work remains instantly recognizable, suffused with the love that the two felt for each other from the moment they met.
This fascinating play, with its acrobatic dances and beautiful voices singing in many languages, was written by Daniel Jamieson and stars Marc Antolin as Chagall, Daisy Maywood as Bella, and musicians James Gow and Ian Ross.
Performances will continue at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. through March 23. Order tickets by phone at (310) 746-4000 or online at TheWallis.org/Lovers.
Cynthia Citron has worked as a journalist, public relations director, documentary screenwriter and theater reviewer. She may be reached at email@example.com.
Bella Chagall (Daisy Maywood) brings her husband, Marc Chagall (Marc Antolin)
a birthday bouquet in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk”
Armie Hammer and Geoffrey Rush as James Lord and Alberto Giacometti
in Sony Classics film “Final Portrait”