WHILE the world is occupied with speculation about the Russia that is yet to come, it is interesting to contemplate Marc Chagall's exuberant vision of a country that never existed except in his imagination.
Marc Chagall was born of poor parents in the town of Vitebsk, in Byelorussia (White Russia). Here, Chagall studied briefly with a local artist. But his talent must have been remarkable because in 1907, at the age of 18, he was admitted to the Imperial School of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. He studied there intermittently for three years, eventually under Leon Bakst, who is best known for his stage designs.
Usually an artist's courtship and marriage are not especially relevant, but in Chagall's case, his repeated use of the image of his wife Bella and their happy marriage as subjects for canvases make them central to his art.
The couple met while Chagall was visiting a friend in his hometown. He heard Bella's voice first, before even seeing her. It sounded to him, "like a bird, like a voice from another world." When he met her, he felt she had always known him. "My childhood, my present life, my future, too. There and then, I knew, this is she, my wife," he said.
Both of their families opposed a marriage because they felt Chagall did not have sufficient means to support a wife. So, in 1910, Chagall went to Paris without Bella, supported by a living allowance from a St. Petersburg patron.
In the French capital, he met the avant garde - poets, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollonaire; painters, Amedeo Modigliani, Robert Delaunay, Chaim Soutine, and Roger de La Fresnaye. He absorbed their Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist modes without surrendering to any one of them. Chagall's style remained quite personally his.
It was in Paris, that he painted "I and the Village."
This large, handsome canvas easily dominates the museum room in which it hangs - in spite of the whimsical nature of its content, and the lightness of Chagall's touch. The artist uses a circle and its wedged-shaped sections as a unifying compositional component, as well as other Cubist forms, but his purpose is far from analytical Cubism. The geometric shapes in this piece give Chagall the means to integrate his wildly imaginative green man with the winsome cow as they engage in a friendly dialogue.
The reds and greens have an Expressionist feel to them, and a foretaste of Surrealism is seen in the young woman milking the cow-within-a-cow with one hand while holding a bunch of flowers behind her back. The cow's eye looks like an eye, but the man's is an upside-down white heart. His hat is absurdly small but makes possible the transition from the dominating scale of the man's profile, to the small background figures and houses.
Those two figures, the man with the scythe trudging along in very ordinary fashion, preceded by the upside-down young woman whose arms are held in the position of a dance, are characteristic of Chagall. Behind them is the village scene dominated by the Russian Orthodox onion-domed church.
Although Marc Chagall was Jewish, Christianity was a part of his village. The green man wears a cross around his neck. If one looks closely, one sees a face peeking out from the bottom of the church.
The apparent random inclusion of the delicately painted branch looks like a burst of botanical fireworks. Its fragile texture offsets broader renderings and defines both the space and the mood. Remove that branch and there would be quite a different painting.
The hand holding the branch makes it reminiscent of the so-called engagement portraits, popular in the Renaissance, in which the prospective groom held a sprig that signified a marital virtue, such as fidelity. Art experts say that there are also references to Russian folk tales and Jewish proverbs encapsulated here.
Chagall seems to have been readily accepted by the Paris school of artists because, from 1910 to 1914, he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Indepeindents. In 1914, thanks to his friend Apollinaire, he had his first one-man show in Berlin. He then returned to Russia, and a year later married Bella. Their life was not easy but it was happy. He celebrated each anniversary with a painting of the two of them together.
AS an avant-garde artist he naturally gravitated, as many young idealists did, to the Communists. After the czar was overthrown in 1917, Chagall was appointed Commissar of Fine Arts for Vitebsk. He founded an art academy there. Among his faculty was Kazimir Malevich, one of the pioneers of abstract painting, who was famous for his painting of one small, black circle on a large, white canvas. But the people who came to power in the Soviet Union were not avant-garde idealists; they were exceedingly conserv ative and were determined to use art for political ends.
By 1919, Chagall resigned or was fired from his post at the art academy, the result of a disagreement over how Soviet artists should paint. At the center of the dispute was a painting Chagall had done that showed a natty, straw-hatted young man leaping joyously over the town of Vitebsk.
He and Bella moved to Moscow where he painted murals, stage sets, and costume designs, including some for three one-act plays by Sholom Aleichem for the State Jewish Theater. When it became clear that he had no intention of bending his talents with the winds of the state, he was thrust into the post of art director for one of the newly established children's colonies.
In 1923, the Chagalls managed to make their way back to Paris. During his seven-year absence, his paintings had been exhibited by his friends in Holland and Germany to the praise of critics.
He painted a rush of jubilant, fanciful pictures, but refused to call them fantasies or simple folklore. They were the images of his emotions, representations of a subjective life.
He said, "The inner world is perhaps more real than the visible world." That was his answer to all the questions people asked about the floating objects and people in his work.
In the 1930s, Chagall was disquieted by the political developments in Europe and his paintings began to include more religious subjects and became somber in mood.
In 1941, he responded to an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and spent the years of World War II in the United States. But after the war he returned to France, where his talents and work had been sympathetically nurtured.
When the current political turmoil in the former Soviet Union has settled down, it will be interesting to see whether another Marc Chagall will emerge - free from official Soviet rigidity in the arts, free now to express his individuality with joyous canvases.