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Double Feature on Fifth: Chagall & Spiegelman at NYC's Jewish Museum

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It’s all definitely worth the wait and the throngs.

We were lined up down Fifth Avenue, slowly making our way to the entrance of the Jewish Museum with its understandably ridged security. With works by the legendary Marc Chagall on view until February 2nd, the crowded galleries featuring the famed artist were exceptionally busy as we all took in his paintings. Most focus on the period from the 1930s and 1940s. It was a time when Chagall faced his own severe discomfort over the Jewish persecution of the war years. For many years, his personal anguish over the sudden loss of his wife Bella forced him to curtail his sweeping palate-pleasing artistic excitement into more subdued tones.

From the French Chagall Musee in Nice, to the famed windows of the Hadassah Medical Center in Israel, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, along with other New York cultural centers including most recently at the Nassau County Museum of Art, we have had many opportunities to discover and rediscover Marc Chagall’s work over the years. But the “Love, War and Exile”-theme of this current Chagall exhibit stands on it own. It’s worth visiting the Jewish Museum during its limited run as you take in over thirty Chagall paintings as well as a number of his drawings and pieces. The extensive exhibition follows Chagall as he escapes Nazi persecution going from Russia to Paris and onto New York City exile in 1941. The death of his wife Bella puts an understandable pall on his work. Over time, and with the war ending, the famed artist slowly reverts to the more expected Chagall style. It’s a look expressed in words from the Jewish Museum as Chagall’s “joy-filled paintings replete with intense color and levitating figures.” One might also think of those words in some of his paintings for their dreamlike imagery, even light comic-style. Which seemed appropriate to me in terms of how the Museum focuses and transposes its visitors to another talented, albeit less legendary artist.

Yes, there’s more to come. The Museum invites you to escape the huge Chagall crowds and even wind down a bit, as you wind up discovering a true comic or co-mix art genius. Through March 23rd, the main first floor gallery exhibition brings you into the influential world of Art Spiegelman. Be prepared to smile and even laugh.

Like Chagall, Spiegelman’s creative talents speak boldly, telling his stories in some cases, frame by frame. He first became known as part of the San Francisco-based underground comix scene before taking hold of the New York cartoon industry. Shortly after entering the first gallery, take note of the highly entertaining Garbage Pail Kids cards. They are Spiegelman’s comic take-off of the popular Cabbage Patch Kid dolls of the 1980s. The same section includes his brand-name knock-off collectable cards called Wacky Packages. All were produced through his long-term association with the Topps Company, of baseball card fame. Growing up in Rego Park, Queens, Spiegelman became influenced by, and was an avid fan of the comic style of Mad Magazine, even writing in a graphic novel, “I studied Mad the way some kids study the Talmud.”

Understandably, a large amount of gallery space is devoted to his powerful story behind Maus, a two-volume book in which Spiegelman tells the tale of his parents’ experience in Nazi-occupied Poland as well as in Auschwitz. Using the medium of frame by frame comics, you’ll see how he utilized this innovative light format to focus on such a heavy story.

You’ll then move onto seeing various Spiegelman-created New Yorker magazine covers, some of which were quite controversial. Perhaps most notable is the 1993 Valentine’s Day cover showing an Hasidic man and an African-American woman together in a passionate embrace and kiss.

Of course, the extensive permanent collection on the upper floors of the Jewish Museum are worthy of your time as well. But during these limited runs, you’ll want to devote most of your time to taking in the hugely impressive Marc Chagall-Art Spiegelman double feature. Based on the crowds, you too may come for Chagall. But stay for Spiegelman. Together, they partner up for two sensitively profound and most artistically impressive exhibitions.

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