Marc Chagall’s epic work "The Lovers" will hang in its rightful place over the next few days, in Gallery 905 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but no one will be able to see it. The painting will be cloaked with a gray cloth until World Refugee Day on Thursday, a scheme that curators hope will lead visitors to imagine a world without the contributions of refugees.
"Our hope at the Met is that our visitors come away from our galleries with a greater awareness of what the idea of home might mean in the context of those who cannot return to theirs," said Sheena Wagstaff, who leads the Museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art.
Wagstaff said she chose to shroud "The Lovers" because it is “an extraordinary work.” It depicts Chagall and his fiancee, Bella Rosenfeld, in an embrace. The two were both refugees who fled France after the Nazi invasion in 1940. The organization that would become the International Rescue Committee resettled Chagall and Rosenfeld in New York during the war.
In addition to his piece, other paintings by well-known refugee artists will be visibly highlighted at both The Met on Fifth Avenue and The Met Breuer, including works by Mark Rothko, Max Beckman, Max Ernst, and Ibrahim El Salahi. The Museums will add yellow labels to identify these pieces and invite viewers to share the art on social media.
But only Chagall’s piece will be covered.
The idea to cloak the work was a collaboration with the IRC, as part of a campaign to raise awareness of World Refugee Day on June 20.
David Miliband, president and CEO of the IRC, said in that in 2017 68.5 million people were either refugees or internally displaced. He said that as more people were in need of help from persecution than at any time since World War II, fewer people and countries have been willing to embrace them.
“In too many places refugees are receiving the cold shoulder,” Miliband said at the Met, standing next to The Lovers. “That makes it especially important that we use a day like World Refugee Day to highlight not the quote-unquote burden that refugees represent, not just the suffering that they endure, but actually the contribution that they can make.”
Wagstaff said that as she walks the halls of The Met on a daily basis, she is reminded of the personal experiences that drive artists’ work, particularly refugees’ sheer strength of character.
“You see the work of living artists now who come out of the contemporary condition of being exiled from their country — whether it’s Syrian artists or Iraqi artists — and you understand how much more fortitude artists have,” she said.
"The Lovers" will be uncloaked on Thursday to mark World Refugee Day. The Tate London’s four galleries will also spotlight works by refugees.
Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering crime and policing at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter @yasmeenkhan.