Times Art Critic

A retrospective exhibition devoted to the art of Marc Chagall is so hugely popular that it has been extended two weeks, to July 21. The Philadelphia Museum of Art seems rather happily flummoxed by the success of a survey that thus far has attracted more than 136,000 viewers, most from out of town. First seen at London's Royal Academy last winter, it encompasses nearly 200 paintings and graphics, as well as examples of Chagall's late stained glass and two enormous theatrical backdrops for the ballet "Aleko."

On a warm, ordinary midweek day, taxis pull up to the museum as if to a movie premiere. Galleries are so crowded that the art is all but unviewable. A graybearded veteran Los Angeles painter spots a familiar face in the mob and burbles fervently, "I'm so glad you could come. I've been here for two weeks and I come every day."

In short, evidence suggests that this, the only U.S. appearance of the show, has become something of a phenomenon and that Chagall, who died in March at age 97, is now enshrined in that oddest of artistic niches, the popularly beloved modern master. It makes sense when this happens to a Norman Rockwell. When the icon is Marc Chagall, a bit of puzzled reflection is required.

After all, here is a Russian Jew from the tiny village of Vitebsk who became part of the Parisian avant-garde when the century was still in its teens. His most frequent subject was Jewish peasant life and his nominal style was Cubism, a combination that seems a bit esoteric for general adulation.

Yet directly beneath the prosaic facts lurks a psychological scenario of virtually universal appeal. Chagall spoke to everybody's nostalgia for the imaginary perfection of a lost childhood. Papa was the strongest and happiest of men, playing his fiddle on the roof while Mama churned butter and hummed a comforting tune. Big sister was a strapping girl who ordered bullies away so that the beautiful youngest child was free to be the beloved poet and singer, adored for charming ways. Yellow cows jumped moons, and later, when we were struggling students, lovely lovers made bouquets appear from nowhere and gravity let us go.

One possible way to find that fable distasteful is if it seems cloying or shallow. Chagall's early Russian paintings--for example, "The Dead Man" and "Birth"--are murky, shadowed with pain and hardship. Something of their tragic aura lurks in the corners of much of his later art, so that it rarely seems merely superficial; it harbors a wounded spirit that has decided to be merry in spite of it all (Chagall's Hasidic background puts a lot of stock in enthusiasm). The results sometimes seem treacly, like a clown's sighs, but it is hard to hate an artist who tries so to please.

Even a truly sweet artist can be exasperating if he is technically inept, but Chagall--at least in the early Paris period--was a whiz. "I and the Village" of 1911 masterfully adapts Cubism to the lyric mode of fable. "The Soldier Drinks" shows that Chagall possessed the insights to deal with the revolutionary tensions all around him.

Something happened to his art between his return to Russia in 1914 and his final exile in 1923. Trapped by the revolution, he married, had a daughter and got caught up in the initial official enthusiasm for avant-garde art, including vicious wrangles over petty points of doctrine and position in the emerging Bolshevik hierarchy. The radical Abstract purist Kasimir Malevich ousted Chagall from a position in the Soviet art bureaucracy, and the betrayal seems to have ended the artist's comradely trust.

After his return to Paris, the artist gradually waxed ever richer, ever more celebrated by the Establishment. He was commissioned to paint theater ceilings from London to New York, design stained glass from Jerusalem to Chicago. He spawned so many lithographic suites, both authorized and pirated, that they became a joke in the art world.

As far as his rank-and-file fans were concerned, Chagall's celebrity just fulfilled more of their own fantasies. The artist was the first Russian refusenik to escape Communist oppression and express himself in the free air of capitalism. He was the small-town boy who made good in the big city, and fame did not go to his head. He became simpler and more pious with the years, preaching pictorial peace at the U.N. and turning biblical themes into lovely fairy stories.

Meantime, the art crowd gave him up for lost. Structural rigor had long since vanished from his work; his wise virgins, flying horses, red chickens and tweedy heroic fools existed in a world of pastel cotton.

Actually, Chagall continued to get better at being the kind of artist he wanted to be. His later works, with their boneless figures and spongy atmospheres, are like big tissue-paper bouquets proffered by a whitefaced mime.

At this point, he doesn't remind you of other artists. He reminds you of Marcel Marceau, blinking wistfully while he watches his hand pretending to be a butterfly, and you wonder why Marceau doesn't speak in the same way you wonder why Chagall didn't paint. It seems so pointlessly artificial that it takes a minute to realize that's the way they want it. The mature Chagall didn't want to paint; he wanted to make nice, and avoid the real world at all costs.

When you look at "The Large Grey Circus" or "The Players," it's clear that they are wonderful examples of decorative fantasy illustration for grown-ups. There is nothing wrong with them, until you remember they were made by a man who was, for a moment long ago, a great artist. Instead of sticking with it, he ran away into the past and joined a group of strolling players.

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