Monday, April 13, 2009

Cool Blue Glass


Senses swimming in a deep, blue hue. An unexpected bath of color, and the feeling of being washed clean. In the intimate, empty auditorium of the Musée Chagall, in Nice, France, I sat in shafts of light made dazzling by the stained-glass windows of the artist's spiritual genius. Outside, at the base of the hill on which the museum perched, the January air did little to keep beach goers off the Promenade, but my mom and I preferred being inside, in this museum. I am surprised we did not go back daily while in Nice. It was 1990. I was living my twenty-first year, and in that moment, in front of that three-panel installation of Chagall's windows, I could allow myself to feel that I was just then, only then, beginning to live. In fact, the windows are called La création du monde, or "The Creation of the World," dating from 1971–1972. I was two to three years old when they were made, so we were very nearly born at the same time, the windows and I. The auditorium was unexpected. My mom and I had been wandering the white-walled galleries, admiring the canvases—their symbolism, their dreamlike images, their saturated colors. We'd seen a beautiful mosaic that depicted the astrological signs turning in clockwork fashion around a central biblical figure (a prophet, I forget which); the mosaic was reflected in a pool of water at its base. From the museum interior (I don't know why we didn't or couldn't go outside), I took a photo of my mother there; in the photo she is wearing a dark green quilted jacket, and, I think, a necklace of pearls—no, a bracelet? After touring the museum, we happened upon the auditorium, slipped inside its doors, and were amazed. The auditorium lights were off, but the space was flooded with natural light seeping through the abstract windows, made eerily blue like life-giving water. On the small, semicircular stage a grand piano stood, lid propped open, waiting to send its sound into the light. The rows of chairs were all upholstered in a deep blue meant to camouflage with the windows, nothing to detract from their beauty. Interestingly enough, my life is punctuated by another set of windows by Chagall: the America Windows at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were installed 1977, when we were living in that city, but I don't remember them from that time. I remember seeing them only later, living in Chicago as an adult; and then, I walked straight back from the museum entrance, down a long corridor with gallery wings to each side, only stopping in front of the windows dead ahead. That same blue, but different images—more identifiable—to commemorate America's bicentennial, to honor the freedom (artistic and other) and the innovation that were once hallmarks of America. The windows were also dedicated in memory of the former mayor, Hizzoner Daley Senior, but that's another story. (If you want to watch some documentary footage about the making of the America Windows, you can do that here.) Chagall and his cool, blue glass always made an impression—or sometimes, ironically, they allowed me to empty my mind of impressions altogether and just exist in a more meditative state. For this reason, I guess, I began to collect cobalt blue glass bottles that I would find in antique stores. Due to space constraints, I've whittled down my collection a bit these days, but I do have many of the bottles and jars: old Noxema jars, a "baby head" milk bottle, a medicinal eye cup, among other pieces. The one I regret losing is one that broke by accident a few years ago; it was a tiny vial fashioned in an octagonal prism shape with a clear glass stopper and the word "poison" in raised letters on one side. It was the one treasure to come from another international antiques market I visited with my mother, this one in Dublin, Ireland, in 1995. Who would advertise a thing like poison? We invented all kinds of scenarios surrounding this little bottle: who had poisoned whom and why. But maybe it was good that it broke, in a way. Maybe this color blue, for me, cannot contain allusions to poison; it is the one color of the spectrum that, no matter my ills, consistently heals me. I don't know if I will ever visit the Musée Chagall in Nice again. It's probably safe to say that I'll return to the Art Institute at some point and get my dose of the America Windows. But until then, I have my own reflections of blue cast upon my walls when a shaft of light passes through cobalt. I have my memories of Chagall's windows, and of the peace they bring.

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