Art: Fiddler on the Roof of Modernism: Marc Chagall: 1887-1985

Marc Chagall: 1887-1985

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"He grabs a church and paints with the church," wrote a poet of the cubist era, Blaise Cendrars. "He grabs a cow and paints with the cow . . . He paints with an oxtail/ With all the dirty passion of a little Jewish town/ With all the exacerbated sexuality of provincial Russia." Soutine? Strangely enough, no: Marc Chagall.

Cendrars' rhapsody reminds one how different the late decades of that hugely productive painter were from his early ones. One does not think of late Chagall in terms of the "dirty passion" and "exacerbated sexuality" that struck his (mostly Gentile) friends in modern painting's golden age, Paris before 1914.

Instead one thinks of an institutionalized, not to say industrialized, sweetness: the Chagall of the blue, boneless angels, the muralist of Lincoln Center and the fresco painter of the Paris Opera, the stained-glass artist who flooded interiors from the U.N. headquarters in New York City to Reims Cathedral in France to the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem with the soothing light of benign sentiment. His quasi-religious imagery, modular and diffuse at the same time, would serve (with adjustments: drop the flying cow, put in a menorah) to commemorate nearly anything, from the Holocaust to the self-celebration of a bank. When he died last week at the age of 97 at his home near Nice, Chagall's career had spanned more than three-quarters of a century of unremittingly active artmaking.

He was seen by an immense constituency of collectors and museumgoers as the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century, even though he was not Orthodox and professed, if anything, a discreet and nonmilitant atheism. He had a lyric, flyaway, enraptured imagination, allied to an enviable fluency of hand; the former could weaken into marzipan poignancy, the latter into routine charm. He left behind him an oeuvre of paintings, drawings, prints, book illustrations, private and public art of every kind, rivaling Picasso's in size, if not always in variety or intensity. The number of novice collectors who cut their milk teeth on a Chagall print (Bella with bouquet, floating over . the roofs, edition size 400, later moved to the guest bedroom to make room for a large photorealist painting of motorcycle handlebars) is beyond computation. Chagall may have given more people their soft introduction to art dreams than any of his contemporaries. He was the fiddler on the roof of modernism. If he sometimes paid his spiritual taxes in folkloric sugar, it may not matter in the long run--for at Chagall's death one consults the paintings of his youth, whose wild eccentric beauty is indelible.

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