To many, Marc Chagall, who passed on last week at the age of 97, was the only good modern artist, the only one whose paintings made any sense, and the only one whose works were permitted to hang -- generally in the form of a color lithographs, etchings, or reproductions -- in their homes. For one thing, his subjects were almost always charming and delightful and consisted of radiant floral bouquets and landscapes, warmly idiosyncratic depictions of Russian peasant life and fairy tales, the madcap antics of musicians, animals, and clowns, and the chaste embraces of lovers entwined in each others arms while surrounded by massive clusters of flowers.
And for another, his painting style was easy to understand, lyrically and passionately colorful, and drenched with a sense of life that was both joyous and remarkably open-hearted.
The world, in short, saw him as a painter of beautiful pictures that were warm, brightly colored, subtly decorated, and exotic enough to be modern without causing alarm. What it didn't see, but only because he had long ago changed his ways, was an artist of startling originality who at one point had pushed painting in directions it had never before gone, and who had brought a touch of sorely needed color and flamboyance to the art of 1912-1930.
His originality and exuberance were apparent the moment he arrived in Paris in 1910 at the age of 22. He was fresh from his studies and early successes in St. Petersburg, where he had received the help and advice of such avant-garde figures of the Russian theater and art world as Leon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, and Mstislav Dobuzinsky. Thanks to them, Chagall's talents were steered toward the structurally and thematically innovative, and his own sense of fantasy was permitted full play.
That fantasy, however, was based less on pure imagination than on memories of the rich Jewish social and cultural life he had witnessed during his childhood and early youth in the Russian town of Vitebsk, where he was born in 1887. Young Moyshe Shagal was a part of the large Jewish community of the Vitebsk that was forced to keep to itself and to maintain a separate cultural identity from the town's non-Jewish members. This not only drew the young artist closer to the traditions and rituals of his religion, but helped him in the shaping of an imagery that leaned heavily on Russian Jewish themes, ideas, and attitudes for its subject and impact.
His success in Paris was immediate, partly because of the delightful and extravagant nature of his autobiographical fantasies but also because he very quickly learned how to adapt some of the more innovative aspects of Fauvism, Cubism, and futurism to his own fanciful compositions. This portion of his career was short-lived, however, due to the outbreak of World War I. He returneed to Vitebsk for the duration of the war, became sufficiently involved with revolutionary activity after 1917 to be appointed commissar for art there. Then he founded and directed the Vitebsk Academy until his resignation from it in 1920. He moved to Moscow that year, executed stage designs for the State Jewish Kamerny Theater there, and later traveled on to Berlin.
In 1923, Chagall went back to Paris, where he not only worked hard, but also assembled his first retrospective, which was held the following year. The exhibition was a resounding success that helped consolidate his reputation, and caused several publishers to express interest in him as an illustrator of the Bible and other books.
The secret of his early success was based on three key ingredients: his rich memory of the folklore, ritual, and iconography of his Russian Jewish background, an extraordinary gift for sumptuous color, and a solid compositional sense augmented by a highly personal adaptation of avant-garde formalist principles. Thanks to these qualities, he could take his art wherever he wished and do almost anything with it. In his world, people floated through the air or appeared upside down, cows sat comfortably in the sky, fish sprouted wings and flew, and houses remained neatly on end. And all because he combined his extraordinary personal and authentic creative vision with strict compositional control. For all their exuberance and fun, Chagall's art at that time was as carefully grounded in geometry as any of the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque.
He had a genius during that period for humanizing the great formalist disciplines of the early 20th century, for taking abstraction and making it shout and kick up its heels, and for making painting an act of joy rather than an act of intellectual discipline. He turned painting into a high-wire act in which the rich, deep sentiment of Jewish folklore and ritual was playing against the crisp, pragmatic formalism of 20th-century artistic theory. But most of all, he kept tight control over the full range of his talents and imaginations and never permitted one to take precedence over another.
By the late 1920s, Chagall was well known in very corner of the Western art world and by the mid-1930s he was almost as great an international art celebrity as Picasso, Mattisse, and Miro.
As he became increasingly more famous, he was honored not only by numerous exhibitions, but by commissions from institutions around the world that wanted murals, stained-glass windows, mosaics, or large paintings from him and were willing to pay the very high prices his art was beginning to receive after World War II. It was about that time, however, that the quality of his work began to decline.
Even so, his contributions to 20th-century art have been deep and important and undoubtedly will remain of interest for centuries to come. In the meantime he will continue to rank among the handful of painters and sculptors who gave modernism its right to be called great.