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Chagall's Ode To Chicago Is Brightly Back

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Marc Chagall's America Windows is a love letter cast in stained glass. The great modern artist created it in his own hand to honor Chicago, America's bicentennial and Mayor Richard J. Daley, who died in December 1976. Host Scott Simon talks with curator Stephanie D'Alessandro about the piece, newly cleaned, restored and put back on display in the Art Institute of Chicago.


Marc Chagall's "America Windows" is a love letter cast in stained glass. The great modern artist created it in his own hand to honor Chicago, where the art institute was so instrumental in celebrating his work.

The windows were taken down five years ago to protect them from damage during a new construction in the art institute. They have now been cleaned, restored, and put back on display.

Stephanie D'Alessandro, modern art curator at the institute, joins us.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. STEPHANIE D'ALESSANDRO (Curator, Art Institute of Chicago): It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: A lot of out-of-towners, I think, first saw the windows in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: Yeah, it's I think a great moment in that movie and sort of a, I think, a moment when Chagall hits popular culture and our windows hit popular culture. But I have to say, since they were installed in 1977, they've become a well-loved destination at the museum. I mean people meet there. It's kind of, you know, meet at the Chagall windows kind of thing. People have fallen in love in front of those windows. And I think it was a real heartbreak when they went away for a while.

SIMON: So how do you clean windows that famous?

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: You do it with basically what is a mild kind of soapy water, patience, and a lot of elbow grease.

SIMON: Do we see something that maybe those of us who've loved the windows for the past 20 years have missed over the past few?

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: I think so. I mean, first of all, there's just this wonderful remembrance, this physical experience that you have in front of these windows. They're so enveloping with their color and they're so lovely I think anyway.

But we've been able to put them in a new space that honors the original installation. You know, there were wing walls once that were on the sides of windows that had been taken off at a certain point in the history of them. And those wing walls were so important because they helped to, you know, concentrate the light and really intensify the color. And that plus the cleaning, you know, really bringing the color of the windows back to what they were when Chagall worked on them in his studio, it's just such an inspiring experience.

SIMON: What is it about stained glass that moves us?

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: Well, that's a good question. You know, when I think of the windows, I imagine that experience that we probably all had when we were children, when you would submerge yourself on a, you know, beautiful sunny day underneath a swimming pool and open your eyes. And light would bounce off the sides of the walls and dance off the water. And you'd see all those different tones of blue. And that's the backdrop of these windows.

This beautiful watery blue, and top of that is red and green and yellow. And it's just this animated, physical, enveloping warm kind of quality. I think it's something very different than a painting or a tapestry or a sculpture. It's a really physical thing.

Stephanie D'Alessandro is curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, speaking with us from member station WBEZ.

Thank so much.

Ms. D'ALESSANDRO: Thank you, you too.

SIMON: This NPR News.

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