Born in Russia in 1887, Marc Chagall is widely regarded as the leading interpretive painter of Hasidic Judaism. Though he spent the greater part of his working life in Paris, his vocabulary of imagery centers for the most part on memories of Jewish life in his native land. An exhibition of Chagall's graphic work dating from 1923 to the artist's death in 1985 reveals him to be a folk artist of considerable sophistication.
Though Chagall incorporated elements of all the major art movements he saw in his lifetime--Surrealism and Cubism in particular--he was essentially a faux naive primitive. Fresh is the operative word in describing his pictures, which read as homages to idealized notions of youth, fertility and spring. Employing a palette of muted primary colors--reds, blues, greens--he crowds his pictures with virginal maidens, bouquets, horsies and birdies. He tends to give the nude female form the asexual appearance of a child's rag doll and his work usually seems as innocent as a May Day pageant.
One must remember, however, that Chagall was a resident of Paris, so it's not particularly surprising to discover that he occasionally turned out work that was blatantly erotic. We see, for instance, a clothed young man fondling the breasts of his nude female companion and a benign incubus floating above a reclining nude female who demurely covers herself with a nosegay of flowers. Chagall's basic sensibility shines through in these pictures too, which come off as inexplicably wholesome. If his work has a central flaw it's that it sometimes gets a bit heavy handed in the whimsy department. That caveat aside, Chagall was--like Jim Dine--a good, not great, artist and a real charmer. (Mekler Gallery, 651 N. La Cienega Blvd., to Jan 23.)