Chagall losing `French artist' tag. Exhibition in Moscow shows he is thought of as a thoroughly Russian painter

TO find yourself in Moscow's historic Chagall exhibition by mistake is something of an achievement. After being warned that it would take three to four hours' queuing time to be admitted to the Chagall show, I decided to see the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum's permanent collection instead. But, once inside, I found myself suddenly surrounded by painting after painting of levitating lovers with blue or green faces; with large roosters carrying small nude women on their backs; with circuses full of acrobats; with horses that looked - as their painter himself once wrote - more like donkeys or cows; with dream visions of the small Russian town of Vitebsk (Chagall's hometown) in the past and in the snow; of Paris and the South of France (where he lived most of his 98 years) in the moonlight and in his fantasy. The motifs, characters, and style of the paintings, drawings, and prints on view are familiar enough: Chagall's art has, after all, long been popular and even overexhibited in the West. But many of the paintings in this show are strikingly unfamiliar, because they come from quite obscure public and, until now, completely obscure private collections in the Soviet Union.

To the crowd of eager and often intensely thoughtful Russians quietly elbowing their way around this large display, Chagall's work is largely a new adventure, a fresh realization. It is their first chance to see, in any real comprehensiveness, the works of this lyrical, irrepressible artist who once said: ``In my pictures there is not one centimeter free from nostalgia for my native land.''

This is not the first time Chagall's works have been exhibited here. He did revisit the Soviet Union in 1973 (he had left it finally in 1922) at the time of an exhibition of his lithographs at Moscow's Tretyakov Museum of Russian Art. And the Tretyakov (though closed at present for an indefinite period) has not disguised the fact that it owns several of his works.

What is new and different about this show, which marks the centenary of Chagall's birth, is that it would bear comparison with a major retrospective in the West. It is a full-hearted recognition of Chagall: He is acknowledged in the very fact and the content of the exhibition to be not a self-exiled, beyond-the-pale foreigner but a thoroughly Russian artist of outstanding merit and imagination, of whom Russians can be proud. This is in marked contrast to the entry in a current Russian encyclopedia, which still lists him as a ``French artist.''

Two years ago the catalog for the large retrospective in Philadelphia and London made the point that in the West, too, his ``origin as a Russian painter is often overlooked.'' That show took care to analyze and emphasize his Russian Jewish background (his original name, incidentally, was Moses Shagal). In similar manner, the Moscow tribute (which to its credit does not overlook his Jewishness) brings out his Russianness. A large number of his vividly comic and - given the gentle disposition frequently apparent in his art - sharply satirical etched illustrations to Gogol's novel ``Dead Souls'' are shown. He identified himself imaginatively with Gogol, and the meeting of their minds brought a spice to Chagall's art - a spice that it can be justly accused of lacking at times.

Where this exhibition fails to give a complete picture of his art is in the paintings. His youthful rapture and innocence are there all right, in such joyful pictures as ``Over the Town'' and ``The Stroll'' (in which he has his feet only just on the ground but his girl, if he let go, would go into orbit above Vitebsk). And there is evidence of his absorption of the Parisian avant-garde - or more precisely, perhaps, of Italian Futurism - in works like ``The Artist Visited by His Muse'': It transforms Cubistic fragmentation into a kind of personal baroque fantasia. But his occasional tendency toward aggressive Expressionism is only really evident in one strong painting, ``The Red Jew'' of 1915, which falls somewhere between portrait and fierce caricature. Likewise, his preoccupation with the crucifixion and with other iconographical aspects of traditional Christian art is scarcely touched on. His love of Old Testament themes is more in evidence.

Still, the one extant painting in which he tried to express his feelings about the Russian Revolution is not present. This small oil was still part of his own collection in 1985, and probably could have been one of the works generously lent to the show by his widow and daughter. But it's a paradox-filled painting that explores the difficulties involved in gaining political freedom at the expense of world-shaking turmoil. Perhaps Chagall's capacity for exploring ideas in terms of private symbols gives this work ambiguities that would have been untenable in this context. But by the same token, this very privacy and ambiguity may be precisely what rendered his art safe enough for full-scale exhibition, at last, in Moscow.

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