When Marc Chagall died 10 days ago, the world emitted an appropriate sigh of regret. It was, of course, for the loss of a particular man but one who was 94 and had painted the chapters of his life so completely that there had been time to decorate the borders. Sadness seemed focused on a recognition that even the last flickering flames of the youth of our culture are guttering out irretrievably.

Very few practical Americans are truly crazy about avant-garde art and even fewer have anything like a firsthand recollection of Paris circa 1914. Everybody, however, has a more-or-less candied illusion that it was a time of poetic Bohemian youth when fresh ideas were as possible as slightly naughty young women, rakish berets and huge floppy bow ties.

By the time Chagall died, his art had not been shown in large retrospective here in nearly 40 years, so what we necessarily reacted to was a memory-illusion of the intertwined man-and-his-art. The emergent myth is the closest any artist might evoke to a kind of popular musical comedy fiction of a Bohemian avant-garde Paris youth, followed by a cozily bourgeoise idea of success complete with wealth and honorary degrees. Picasso comes across as a monster ego and womanizer whom some still suspect of being a charlatan. Modigliani was as handsome as a movie star, but his myth has to be about tragic decadence.


Chagall was the best man to call public attention to the demise of the youth of Modernism. The right man for the role of “The Last of the Giants.” You could build a TV miniseries around his life, which would inspire many and offend none. Born to a poor Russian-Jewish workman’s family, our hero rises to the pinnacle of sophisticated society. Lionized by the international elite, his work enters major museums. He designs sets for ballet, paints the ceiling of the Paris Opera and lives on the Riviera. Yet he never loses his innocence or appreciation of the fundamentally celebratory attitudes of his Hasidic roots.

In his autobiography Chagall said that when he was born in the village of Vitebsk he appeared to be stillborn. He lived as if in simple gratitude for being alive. He loved his first wife to distraction and was permanently choked with affection for the second.

That scenario sounds too overdrawn to entirely credit as anything but fiction. On the other hand, we have a battery of beady-eyed critical gunslingers waiting for him at high noon on Boulevard Montparnasse, as if his ebullience was somehow an affront to artistic seriousness.

In 1965 Thomas P. Hess called his art, “Chagall’s Riviera shtetl ,” and labeled it “masculine camp.”

In 1970 connoisseur Douglas Cooper ranked Chagall as a “Lesser Cubist” and bracketed him with such forgettable minor players as Andre Lhote, Auguste Herbin and Roger de la Fresnaye, “Men of limited talent who clung to a basically naturalistic vision. Chagall was always at heart a fabulator opposed in spirit to Cubism.”

In a kindlier and more whimsical assessment, critic Paul Richard called him, “The Harpo Marx of Art.”

Factually speaking, it is something of a miracle that Chagall was ever bracketed among the giants of Modernism. He was, in age and time of emergence, a second generation School of Paris master some twenty years younger than Matisse and almost 10 years junior to Picasso.


No one ever argued that he was a great innovator, and Picasso scorned him as excessively money conscious--but look who was talking. Picasso also considered him the greatest master of color and light after Renoir.

For us, a posthumous assessment of Chagall’s art will have to wait until May when a survey retrospective comes to the Philadelphia Museum. Meantime, there is no question he was, at his best, a superb visual performer and lyric poet more comparable to the Le Douanier Rousseau than a rigorous countryman like Malevich.

But both before and after gimlet-eyed calibration of his talent there is the hovering eidetic image of what Chagall was able to do for us. He could recall the giddy feeling of what it was like to be 20 and in love. You wore your head on upside down. The air was filled with confetti and somehow God had given you the most beautiful girl in the world to love. She was a bouquet, a purring cat and once in a while she smoked a cigarette while staring out at the Eiffel Tower, or Central Park or a hillside sign that said “Hollywood.”

Thanks, Marc, and adieu.