“The Virginia Project”: Giving Voice to Marc Chagall’s So-Called Mistress

“The Virginia Project”: Giving Voice to Marc Chagall’s So-Called Mistress

When the writer and poet Tina Barry moved from Brooklyn to High Falls, N.Y., a hamlet two hours north of New York City, in 2015, she learned that Marc Chagall had once resided in the same town nearly seven decades earlier. Intrigued, she began researching the artist’s time there, which spanned 1946-1948, and discovered that Chagall had lived in High Falls with Virginia Haggard, a woman 30 years his junior and sometimes described as his maid or mistress. Haggard, it turns out, was neither of these things.

The well-educated daughter of an English diplomat and a talented artist in her own right, Haggard was Chagall’s former housekeeper turned lover and partner. The pair were in a relationship for seven years, following the death of Chagall’s wife, Bella, and had a son, David, together. Haggard eventually went on to become a successful portrait photographer in Brussels. Nevertheless, she was relegated to the footnotes of history, which did not sit well with Barry.

Lori van Houten’s installation “White Flannel” (linen, porcelain, photographs) responds to Barry’s poem of the same name.

“It really bothered me that she was just written off in that way, that so little thought was given into who she was and what she contributed,” Barry said in a recent interview with ALL ARTS.

Barry began writing poetry and prose from the perspective of Haggard and Jean McNeil, Haggard’s young daughter from a failed marriage who also lived in High Falls with her mother and Chagall during that time.

“I just felt compelled to do it, to give them a voice in their story,” Barry said. “That’s how the writing part started.”

Jenny Lee Fowler’s “Shadow Pictures: Rabbit” (cut paper) responds to Barry’s piece “Shadow Pictures,” written in the voice of the child Jean McNeil.

The project morphed beyond the written word when Barry approached 14 women artists to interpret some of her pieces in visual form. The resulting body of work, a group of paintings, illustrations and mixed media installation presented alongside Barry’s writings, is collectively titled “The Virginia Project” and is currently on view in an exhibition in the Humanities Gallery at Long Island University, Brooklyn (the show made its debut last October at Wired Gallery in High Falls, right down the street from where Chagall and Haggard lived). Works by Adie Russell, Heige Kim, Lori van Houten and Jenny Lee Fowler are included.

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“I feel very much that it’s a feminist piece,” Barry said, “and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted it to be only women artists. I wanted them to look at these women and to interpret their lives. I think my wanting to give these two women a voice in their story really comes from a feminist place and a political place.”

“The Virginia Project” is on view at Long Island University, Brooklyn, through Feb. 22.

Top Image: Adie Russell’s “Shall I Change the Color of the Water," created in response to Tina Barry's poem "Raft."