Vitebsk On The Hudson


Most visitors to a new Chagall exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan likely will find more interest in the Velcro animals on display than in Vitebsk, the artist’s beloved hometown. But while they putter and play among the exhibits that make up “Chagall for Children,” young audiences are getting a foundation in art appreciation, the exhibition’s organizers say.

“One thing children lack more than anything is experience in life,” says CMOM director Andrew Ackerman. “Looking at a good deal of art requires experience.”

“Chagall for Children,” which originated several years ago at the Kohl Children’s Museum in the Chicago suburbs, is one of a special breed of exhibitions — shows that introduce young viewers and their caregivers to the work of serious artists. Marc Chagall’s predecessors in the field of kiddy connoisseurship include sculptor and mobile-maker Alexander Calder and children’s book author-illustrator Maurice Sendak.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, a special exhibition, “Art Access,” displays reproductions of works from the museum’s collections at a child’s eye view. CMOM currently has on view an innovative interactive exhibition, “Art Inside Out,” that invites children to become co-creators with the contemporary artists Elizabeth Murray, William Wegman and Fred Wilson.

“The idea,” Ackerman says, “is to find great artists whose work and subject matter is accessible to kids,” but that is also interesting to adults. With grown-ups comprising about half of the children’s museum audience, exhibitions that can stimulate mature minds offer benefits beyond just keeping kids busy.

“Something wonderful happens,” Ackerman says. “The parent or caregiver gets excited and the kids see the excitement. It’s wonderful role modeling.”

Chagall is a natural for the swing-set set. The painter’s fantastical canvases and stained-glass windows feature kaleidoscopic scenes of flying people, outsize animals and multi-hued human figures. Chagall (1885-1985) returned time and again in his art to the people and scenes of his early life in Russia. Throughout his career, his work expressed a youthful exuberance. “I am a child who is getting on,” the artist said as he approached his 80th year.

About 20 of Chagall’s works are presented in framed reproductions and interactive exhibits in “Chagall for Children,” on view through April. On a recent Friday afternoon, the exhibition was inspiring some of the hoped-for excitement, but reviews were mixed.

Brooklyn resident Sara Myers said she was glad to see the museum display fine art, as opposed to more typical kids’ fare such as Dr. Seuss or Winnie the Pooh. Noting Chagall’s Jewishness, which is mentioned briefly in the exhibition, Myers said the artist’s career might promote awareness of Jewish culture among general audiences and cultural self-esteem among Jewish children. Nearby, her son Sam, 2, was lifting and slamming down one of the telephone receivers that provide in-depth information about Chagall’s creative process.

Rachel Mizraechi, 4 years, 3 months, was unimpressed by exhibits on works like the 1955 stained glass “America Windows” with its light-up board and transparent puzzle pieces, or “The Green Violinist” of 1923-24. (In the latter case, a potentially engaging computer program that would have enabled Rachel to color an image of her face red, blue or green was out of order.)

Rachel was, however, a fan of the do-it-yourself puppet theater nestled under large cutouts from “The Birthday” (1915). That painting of ecstatic young lovers is discussed elsewhere in the exhibition with a description of bas-relief sculpture.

“I think it’s more interesting to me than to them,” Upper West Side resident and first-time CMOM visitor Nancy Zickerman said of her 15-month old twins Rebecca and Casey.

The pair had just crawled away from an exhibit on Chagall’s 1955 painting, “The Concert.” Together with Michelle Lesseraux, 3, they had orchestrated an impromptu—and surprisingly melodious — symphony by pressing buttons marked “violin,” “drum,” “tambourine” and “cello.”

Zickerman — already a Chagall fan — says she was “thrilled” to find the exhibition at CMOM, but admits her attention was diverted.

“Where did my son just go?” she asked, as Casey rounded a corner.

“Chagall for Children,” is on view through April at Children’s Museum of Manhattan, 212 W. 83rd St., (212) 521-1234, Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $6.