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Different Strokes

Last year, the Boca Raton Museum of Art opened in its new location with "Picasso: Passion and Creation -- The Last Thirty Years." Now, almost a year later, the museum presents two retrospectives focusing on another 20th-century giant: "Chagall: From Russia to Paris -- Drawings and Watercolors 1906-1967," displayed in the rear gallery on the first floor, and a second-floor show, "Chagall in Print."

Like the Picasso exhibition (see "The Late, Great Picasso," March 22, 2001), the Chagall shows make sense seen primarily in the context of a more comprehensive career spanning close to a century. Marc Chagall was born in 1887 in Russia and died in 1985; also like the long-lived, Spanish-born Picasso, he spent a great deal of his life in France. But these two new shows don't remind us of the vigor and seemingly endless inventiveness of their subject the way the Picasso retrospective did.

Unless you're already familiar with Chagall, the works here might well leave you wondering just what he did to achieve his international reputation and popularity. For that, you would have to turn to the artist's paintings, which repeatedly emphasized, as Boca Museum executive director George S. Bolge observes in the exhibitions' catalog, "Chagall's trademark fiddlers, floating lovers, and village landscapes... [and] his Jewish roots...."

Chagall can be thought of as an expressionist precursor of surrealism, as he demonstrated in some well-known works: I and the Village (1911) with its topsy-turvy buildings and people, and Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (c. 1913-14), which features the Eiffel Tower hovering in the background, to name two. Aside from these and other early works, however, I've always thought Chagall was a bit overrated, although I wouldn't go as far as Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, who once declared, "Chagall painted nothing but cloying ethnic kitsch for the last thirty years of his life."

Except for a few watercolors, the two Boca shows focus on drawings and graphics. "From Russia to Paris" includes 70 pieces, most of them in pencil, pen, or India ink on paper. "Chagall in Print" has more than 165 etchings, including all 105 of the ones the artist did to illustrate the Bible, a set he worked on all through the 1930s and during the first half of the 1950s. The latter show also includes a series done for The Story of the Exodus, illustrations for André Malraux's On the Earth, and some 1967 sketches for costumes for a ballet company.

One way of looking at drawings and sketches is as preparatory work -- a fleshing out of ideas that will later be further developed in other media. Another is as works that can stand on their own. Either way, it seems to me that the works in this show fall short.

A few of the early drawings hint at what's to come later in the paintings -- a 1910 pencil portrait of a violinist, for instance, and an ink drawing of a pair of lovers from the 1920s -- but many of the other drawings come across as uninspired doodling. Some of the portraits, especially those of harlequins and clowns, are simply reminders of how much better other artists handled such subject matter (again, Picasso comes to mind). One ink piece -- The Artist and the Crucifixion (1939-40) -- is an unsettling image of an artist working from what appears to be a real crucified man right there in the studio.

Among the best pieces in the first-floor show are three charcoals, all titled Portrait of P. Barchan and done in Berlin in 1923. Seen side by side, they show how deftly Chagall captured three subtly different moods of the same character. Another especially strong drawing is a pencil portrait called The Chimney-Sweeper (c. 1925), which conveys greater facial expressiveness and detail work than is evident in many of the other portraits.

The main impression I took away from the "From Russia to Paris" show is that, for an artist who painted people with such precision and care, Chagall could be surprisingly clumsy with a pencil or pen. That impression was strengthened by the "Chagall in Print" show upstairs.

An introduction posted at the beginning of the second exhibition insists that Chagall "is perhaps best known and most widely popular for his lithographs than for his work in any other media." But Art 20: The Thames and Hudson Multimedia Dictionary of Modern Art characterizes Chagall as "essentially a colorist," which points us away from the lithographs and back toward the paintings (and to Chagall's designs for stained-glass windows such as the ones he did for the Metz Cathedral in France).

A strangely awkward handling of the human figure predominates in the Biblical series, with many of the people frozen in stiff, formal poses. (That's why The Grave of Rachel, with its simple landscape including a tree, some hills, a building, and a camel, is such a standout in this series.) This is especially jarring for an artist whose paintings often feature highly fluid, graceful figures, such as the dreamy, elongated couple portrayed in the 1915 painting Birthday.

Compared with some of the outstanding shows hosted by the Boca Museum in the past year or so -- the Picasso, for example, and Arman: The Passage of Objects (see "Objects of Dissection," December 27, 2001) -- the Chagall shows aren't exactly bad; they just feel faintly halfhearted. The catalog suggests that this might indeed be the case. The reproductions are fine, but there's that lack of attention to detail that can be so irritating. Bolge, the museum's executive director, ends up with a G as his middle initial on both the title page and at the end of his "Acknowledgments" section, while both Chagall's first and last names are misspelled as "March" and "Cahgall" within the first few pages. The gushy introductory essay by Vincenzo Sanfo reads like a careless translation, and India ink is referred to as "Indian ink" throughout the catalog.

But the placement of the two shows is what finally convinced me that, despite the museum's billing of them as "special" exhibitions, they might be a little less than special: To see the two, you must pass through the Arman show not once but twice. And when you do, you may decide, as I did, that Arman is considerably more interesting than Chagall -- at least, Chagall the graphic artist.

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Michael Mills

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