How to See Colour: Inspired by the Life and Work of Marc Chagall

Letter to Mayor Denis Coderre

Marc Chagall, The Praying Jew, 1923

Dear Mayor Coderre,

I attended last night’s reception at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal to celebrate the opening of the Marc Chagall exhibition.

I was pleased to see you there and I appreciated your presentation, particularly how you connected Chagall’s life and work as a reflection of the times, a fight against the anti-Semitic horror that marked the first half of the twentieth century. I agree that his creative expressions convey a call for openness, impassioned dream-like narratives that offer a glimpse into his life, to the Hasidic world from which he came.

I loved that you aligned these values of openness and diversity to Montreal. Montreal is a diverse city, it defines who we are, it is our strength. Or — at least this is the powerful and important message that is spoken by political leaders including yourself and our Canadian Prime Minister. I completely agree with this sentiment, but it is not what I’m seeing on the ground. In reality, far too many Montreal citizens struggle to be understood, to be respected, to be treated fairly, to be loved.

I come from the art world and have always admired works that exist and respond to a historical moment yet continue to resonate in the present time. In art school, I studied Chagall’s work within the context of modernism and a string of other ‘isms’. But yesterday, I saw these works in a whole new light. Now, I live in Outremont and I have two children. Chagall’s stunning illustrations moved me to tears. Not only because they are brilliant, colourful, compositionally phenomenal works, but they also tell a story that is now familiar to me.

In recent weeks, I’ve come to know the challenges associated with trying to improve understanding and respect of the various cultures and religious groups that live in my neighbourhood. As you know, the Outremont borough held a referendum on places of worship which was a complex, divisive discussion and the outcome was devastating. The most difficult thing for me was to learn of the anti-Semitic attitudes of some of my neighbours. The abhorrent societal context in which Chagall worked is different, but sadly, there are parallels.

This past fall I started working with a group of parents who share these values of diversity and openness and launched the Committee for Pluralism within Outremont Schools. Our mission is to encourage, facilitate and create interaction to promote respectful understanding among the diverse people who make up our school communities. You will be pleased to know that we are many, we are diverse, and our group continues to grow. This initiative demonstrates a desire to celebrate Montreal’s diversity, but it also recognizes that there is room for improvement.

Though our gestures stem out of love and respect for our neighbours, we have faced backlash and intimidation. We navigate a delicate balance between building bridges while not provoking more hateful rhetoric. While Montreal is most certainly a diverse city, many Montrealers still fear diversity. I personally don’t understand this, we have so much to learn from each other — as Chagall’s paintings prove so exquisitely.

Our committee is planning a family day on Sunday February 26th to celebrate Black History Month. The day will feature fun activities that promote better understanding of the history and accomplishments of Black people in Quebec and Canada. It would be wonderful to have you come to this event. It would be an honour to have you join us, to exchange ideas on how we can achieve our shared vision for our beautiful city.


Jennifer Dorner

Artist, Mother, Advocate, Director of the FOFA Gallery, Concordia University