Now, the D & H Canal Museum in High Falls is hosting a new exhibition, “Chagall in High Falls,” that visually charts the famous émigré artist’s time in our midst. Moreover, the great man’s granddaughter, Bella Meyer, will be a special guest at an opening reception for the show set for this Saturday evening, September 3, in the Museum Chapel. Restaurateur John Novi will be hosting a special benefit dinner two weeks later, on Saturday, September 17, at his DePuy Canal House just up the road to complete the festivities.
The exhibition includes vintage photographs of Chagall and his companion Virginia Haggard during their time in High Falls, full-size replicas of some of the paintings and lithographs executed during his stay, including his sets for Stravinsky’s The Firebird and his haunting Four Tales from a Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Chagall came to the US during the early years of World War II, moving from his beloved France, where he had emigrated from his native Russia decades earlier. Based in New York City at first, he was hit by personal tragedy while in the northwestern Adirondacks with the death of his beloved wife of a quarter-century, Bella. After a year’s convalescence at his daughter’s home, he moved upstate with his studio assistant, who then bore him his only son.
“The myth and legend had survived for years, and as a historian, I wondered about the truth,” explained retired history and English teacher Rik Rydant, one of the locally based organizers of this community effort that has ended up having international reach. “My curiosity got the best of me, and the more I learned about the artist, the more I realized the impact of High Falls on his work and in his life. And the fact that this whole period in his life had been ignored increased my curiosity, almost to the point of obsession.”
“I started looking at the dates of Chagall’s works, and it became apparent that his years here were some of the most productive of his career,” added co-coordinator Gary Ferdman of High Falls. “I guess I had thought that his time in High Falls was just a kind of getaway – an escape. It was that, of course: an escape in the truest sense of the word. But it was also a source of inspiration, and the place where he regained his balance and productivity after a very difficult period.”
Among local old-timers, the new exhibit has already had the effect of starting to draw more memories out of Chagall’s years in the supposed middle of nowhere. “My grandfather built a house in High Falls, which we owned until the 1980s,” noted Myra Schwartz in an e-mail that she forwarded to all her friends around the region. “The house was built in the mid-to-late 1940s and was two doors down from the painter Marc Chagall. Growing up, I, as well as other family members, have some vivid memories from that period.” Others are expected to come out and share their own stories, both among themselves as well as with Bella Meyer, the daughter of his daughter, Ida.
Being a storyteller himself, albeit in paint and glass, Chagall would appreciate such an evening as is planned for this Saturday, as well as the other events surrounding this two-month show – including Novi’s dinner, designed to raise back funds being spent for the exhibition, as well as a September 13 recounting of Chagall’s journey to the US by Sheila Isenberg, author of a biography of Varian Fry, the Protestant editor who saved Chagall and so many similar artists and intellectuals of that time from the Holocaust.
Chagall and Haggard eventually left High Falls in 1948. She left him, with their son David, in 1952. He didn’t sell the house on Mohonk Road until 1954, when he knew that he was not coming back, and the world that he inhabited there was gone forever. “High Falls, where I was so wildly free,” he later wrote of his days in Ulster County.
This exhibit, opening with a special donation-requested reception featuring the artist’s granddaughter this Saturday, September 3 from 5 to 7 p.m., runs through October 30 at the D & H Canal Museum, located at 23 Mohonk Road in High Falls. Hours for “Chagall in High Falls” are Thursdays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is an admission charge.
For further information on Novi’s special benefit dinner at 6 p.m. at the DePuy Canal House on Saturday, September 17 – including Zakuska, Russian hors d’oeuvres consisting of smoked fish with hot Persovka vodka and caviar – call (845) 687-7700. For more on the entire exhibit, including its origins, visit www.chagallinhighfalls.com.