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Marc Chagall's life, as told by his paintings

Marc Chagall, By Jonathan Wilson, Schocken, 256 pp., $19.95

Airborne lovers, fiddlers on rooftops, crooked houses lining village streets -- the images in Marc Chagall's paintings instantly proclaim the artist. His career was a triumph over impoverished beginnings and the displacement he experienced as a European Jew. In addition to painting, he created theatrical sets, etchings, and stained-glass windows. By the time he died at 97, in 1985 , he was honored and world-renowned.

Yet as Jonathan Wilson points out in his biography of the artist , Chagall's reputation has never been altogether secure. He has been called sentimental, tame, nostalgic. The commercial success of the 1960s musical "Fiddler on the Roof," with its Chagall-inspired title and sets, has only fueled critics' disapproval. Chagall, so goes the thinking, took few risks and made the past seem quaint.

Wilson (author of the novel "The Palestine Affair" ) traces his own interest in Chagall to boyhood conversations with an uncle who found in Chagall's work a fascinating convergence of lost Yiddish culture and the modern world. Wilson does not deny the unevenness of Chagall's output, but in the spirit of his uncle takes an expansive look at the life and work. Despite his book's brevity, it is no dry overview. Both biography and extended essay, Wilson's study argues persuasively that Chagall's paintings are "more historical, more political, harder and edgier than conventional wisdom would have us believe."

Chagall's great subject was the Belorussian town of Vitebsk , where he was born and grew up, the son of Orthodox Jews. Wilson treats Chagall's career as a kind of transaction among his boyhood memories of Vitebsk, his studies and travels, and the wrenching historical events through which he lived. As a fledgling artist, Chagall soaked up the influences around him: Yiddish metaphor, Hasidism, biblical stories, and later, in Paris, the works of modern artists, especially Matisse. He swore by no doctrines and issued no manifestos.

Chagall's art benefited from his sense of separateness. He viewed himself as a ghetto Jew who lived in "somebody else's country," but to a friend that estrangement made Chagall "a man truly open, free." His paintings are eclectic, rule-breaking, filled with disproportionate figures, fantastic creatures, strange shapes, surprising colors. Many have a sorrowful quality: "The Dead Man" (1908) , based on childhood memories of Vitebsk; "Nude Over Vitebsk" (1933) and "Solitude" (1933-34), unsettling and ominous, as if reflecting the impending Nazi threat. In his most mystifying and controversial work, Chagall employed the image of the Crucifixion to express the suffering of European Jews.

Even as he draws our attention to the harsher elements in Chagall's work, Wilson still celebrates its sensuous and joyful qualities. Discussing the early Parisian paintings, Wilson observes how Chagall bathed his traditional subjects in brilliant colors, as if to transport the sense of liberation he felt in Paris back to Vitebsk. He warmly describes Chagall's exuberant depictions of romantic love, tributes to his first wife, Bella , and highlights less familiar works, such as his radiant country still lifes from the early 1940s.

Wilson gives us a feeling as well for Chagall, the man: his dandyish ways, self-assurance, passion for Bella. But above all, Wilson inspires us to forget about the fame and look afresh at the work.

Judith Maas is a freelance writer/editor.