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The many masks of modern art

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It seemed, in the 1960s, that every home in America had at least one Marc Chagall lithograph or reproduction. And that every serious collector had a least one of his oils or watercolors.

Collecting Chagall threatened to become a national obsession -- and friends reported that much the same thing was happening in-Europe and Japan. Only Miro among the modern masters had a similar effect on collectors, decorators, or the average homeowner who wanted something both modern and colorful on the walls.

And that wasn't all. Chagall was commissioned to create large public works, including windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center near Jerusalem and for the cathedral at Metz, a ceiling for the Opera in Paris, and murals for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He was, in short, very popular and very much in demand.

The sad thing was that he was already past his prime, and that both the large commissioned works and the paintings and prints with which he was flooding the world art market at that time were only pale versions of the magnificent art he had produced between his arrival in Paris in 1910 and the middle 1950s.

It was not a case of diminished vigor --he is still hard at work today at 93 -- but of a slackening of creative imagination, a lessening of interest in the art of his art, and an increasing dependence upon its surface charms and its subject matter. Unlike Miro, whose paintings and prints have become simpler and more powerful as the years go on, Chagall has seemed more and more content to relax and to produce increasingly pretty and decorative variations of his early masterpieces.

It is, to my mind, one of the sadder tales of 20th-century art, and one that should constitute a warning to every artist -- major or minor -- who reaches a plateau of success in his work.


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