Retrospective could serve as Chagall's passport to artistic immortality

The Marc Chagall retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art here serves as a fitting memorial to the vigorous artist whose death on March 28 at the age of 97 took the art world by surprise, and as a convincing argument for his importance in 20th-century art. It is also a warmly sympathetic recapitulation of his long career, with particular emphasis on his originality, cultural sophistication, humanism, religiosity, and humor, and with a carefully edited accounting of his most recent work.

Most of all, it is a fascinating demonstration of one man's extraordinary passion for full-bodied, luxurious color and highly imaginative imagery, and of his ability to adapt otherwise dissimilar modernist formal devices and ideas to his own profoundly romantic and occasionally somewhat idiosyncratic purposes.

This large and chronologically arranged exhibition begins with a number of canvases executed before 1910 while Chagall was still an art student in St. Petersburg, continues on with works produced while he lived in Paris, Moscow, Berlin, New York, and southern France, and ends with two particularly radiant and poignant pictures painted in 1984.

Included among the roughly 200 works chosen by Dr. Susan Compton, the show's curator and author of its excellent and profusely illustrated catalog, are oil paintings, works on paper including prints and theater designs, stained glass, and two huge backdrops for the ballet ``Aleko.'' The entire project was organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and opened originally at the Royal Academy in January of this year.

The exhibition is both welcome and important. Welcome because it is the first Chagall retrospective in the United States in almost 40 years, and important because it lays the groundwork for a clearer evaluation of his work and of its place in the history of modernism and of art in general. Of particular importance is the manner in which Dr. Compton, both in her choice of what was included and in her catalog text, has focused attention on Chagall's extensive use of the art and literature of the past in the formulation of his own iconography.

Thanks also to the care with which Dr. Compton made her final selections and the judicious manner in which she concentrated exclusively on those recent works that would permit her to present Chagall in a positive and yet fully rounded manner, this retrospective -- and the image of Chagall it projects -- could easily serve as the artist's passport to artistic immortality.

It's almost as though Chagall sat for his portrait by an artist who understood him very well, and who depicted him honestly and without pulling any punches -- but who did, at the same time, insist that he be seen in the best light and from an angle that wouldn't emphasize his wrinkles and thinning hair.

As a result, Chagall has never looked better. It's Chagall, all right, there can be no question of that, but it is Chagall in his best suit and with a carefully knotted tie.

Now there's nothing wrong with that. It's time someone came along to remind us of his extraordinary talent and accomplishments and to take our attention away from the altogether too many pretty and flaccid canvases and prints that rolled endlessly from his studio these past 21/2 decades. The huge and vacuous ``murals'' hanging inside the main entrance to New York's Metropolitan Opera, for instance, have done his reputation nothing but harm, and the same is true of the numerous cheap color reproductions of his remarkable Jerusalem Windows.

By focusing attention on such late and moving canvases as ``The Myth of Orpheus'' (1977), ``The Musicians'' (1979), ``The Grand Parade'' (1979-80), and ``The Dream'' (1984), Dr. Compton gives us back the older Chagall many of us thought we had lost. And by giving emphasis to such magnificent statements as the 1954 ``Bridges over the Seine,'' the great (what other word will do?) 1968 ``The Large Circus,'' and the haunting ``In Front of the Picture'' of 1969-71, she confirms the continuity of his creativity from very young to very old man.

We are also given the opportunity once again to see the delightful ``Birthday'' of 1915, which celebrates his love for his wife, Bella; ``The Praying Jew,'' which reminds us of Chagall's deep affection for Rembrandt; and the magical ``Lovers in Lilacs,'' ``The Flying Sleigh,'' and ``Time Is a River Without Banks.'' The exhibition is also rich in works seldom, if ever, seen in America such as ``The Cattle Dealer,'' ``The Fiddler,'' ``Solitude,'' and the stunning ``Bella With a White Collar.''

It is not so much the individual paintings that create the most lasting impression, however, as the ensemble effect of so many rich, deeply felt, and passionately alive images occupying so relatively small a space. There is an aura about this show that couldn't be matched in the retrospective of any other 20th-century artist. For one thing, Chagall's art is exceptionally rich in the imagery, color, passions, and enthusiasms of his Russian-Jewish heritage. And for another, it is drenched with a quality that is traditionally described in art as romanticism, but which would better be described in Chagall's case as love.

This quality permeates almost every one of the works on view and dominates the exhibition as a whole. It is evident not only in his paintings of lovers, flowers, animals, clowns, angels, and prophets, but in his more somber portrayals of war, the everyday occurrences in village life, and assorted religious and mythological subjects as well. It is expressed lyrically and ecstatically, given form through sympathy and compassion, or made manifest with delightful good humor.

But however it is conveyed, it establishes a powerful empathetic bond between Chagall, the viewer, and the person or object depicted that is very rarely encountered in modern art.

Of all the major painters of this century, only Chagall, Rouault, Schiele, and one or two others put sentiment on an equal footing with formal autonomy. And of these, only Chagall truly wore his heart on his sleeve. He may not, partly as a result, rate as highly as Picasso and Matisse in the eyes of future art historians, but he will be somewhere in their company nevertheless.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 7. Due to the popularity of this exhibition, the museum is using the services of Ticketron and Teletron for the sale of admission tickets -- which can, however, also be bought at the museum in advance.

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