MOSCOW, SEPT. 2 -- The surreal, whimsical vision of Marc Chagall has been reawakened in his native land with the opening here today of a comprehensive exhibit of works by the Russian-born artist in the centennial year of his birth.
The retrospective of 90 paintings and nearly 200 drawings, lithographs and letters will continue for five weeks, allowing Soviet viewers for the first time to experience the full sweep of Chagall's dreamy landscape of smiling blue cows and old rabbis, of levitating lovers and upside-down acrobats, of fantastic metaphorical depictions of the Byelorussian ghetto in which he was born.
The show seems to mark, as well, an official Soviet reassessment of Chagall, who left his homeland for France in 1922 and has since been dismissed in three paragraphs in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia as a Frenchman who studied art in St. Petersburg.
"Let us rejoice that he is back at home, or at least his works are home," poet Andrei Voznesensky, an organizer of the show, told reporters. Voznesensky described Chagall as "one of the greatest artists of the 20th century" and attributed the massive display of the painter's works to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost," or openness, in political and artistic expression.
The exhibit stretches across three rooms of Moscow's Pushkin Museum in a chronological arrangement of works drawn from museums and private collections in this country and France, where Chagall died two years ago at the age of 97.
More than 60 of the works were brought from France by Chagall's 82-year-old widow Valentina and his daughter Ida, and include "A Stroll" and "Above the Town" -- two of the painter's more renowned gravity-defying images. Also on view is "The Blue Angel," on loan from American entrepreneur Armand Hammer.
"Heavenly things," Valentina Chagall said on seeing for the first time some of her husband's youthful works created here before he went into voluntary exile. "My only regret is that he could not be here."
Chagall, born in the town of Vitebsk near the Russian-Polish border, joined a flood of artists who left this country for the West in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But up until his death, Chagall continued to reach deep into his memory of Vitebsk and the Jewish community there to fuel his artistic vision.
It was a "sad and joyful city," he once said, and he painted its wooden houses, muddy streets, smiling animals and trembling lovers all his life. One such reverie included in the exhibit is "The Artist Over Vitebsk," a sentimental evocation of a young man with arms reaching toward a distant city, painted when the artist was 93. In Chagall's famous "Letter to Vitesbsk," written to friends there during the Nazi occupation, he anticipated the point of the painting with the declaration: "There is not a single picture of mine which does not reflect your joy and sorrow."
The feelings were for the most part unrequited. As an e'migre', Chagall fell into disgrace and out of textbooks and museums across Soviet Russia. Even now, a nonchalance about his importance and influence among modern artists lingers here. Asked today if there were a gallery to display his works in Vitebsk, Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum, bristled. "I might name you hundreds of big Russian painters of the 19th and 20th centuries who have no museums devoted to them," she said.
Still, the Pushkin show appears to climax an official warming to Chagall that began with piecemeal exhibitions of his work here in 1973 and 1982. "You have already heard the word glasnost," said Voznesensky, himself a native of Vitebsk. "I think that the people of Vitebsk -- which is rather far from Moscow -- will understand Chagall's significance.
"For now, let's celebrate Chagall's birthday. Let's greet his return to his motherland. Let's welcome him back home."
The exhibit seeks to capture that spirit of a homecoming, combining works from Chagall's early Russian years and his more mature French period.
Among the sketches displayed are nearly 50 illustrating Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls," which Chagall drew in France and later donated to the Soviet Union. Other paintings come from permanent collections in Soviet museums that are rarely shown publicly here, and still others come from private Soviet collections, such as those of Ilya Ehrenburg and the family of artist Boris Kystadiev.
The biggest attractions of the show, however, are likely to be the 62 paintings contributed by Valentina Chagall and her daughter and the additional works from the Chagall museum in Nice, France. One apparent hit among these is "The Stroll," a cubist-inspired work depicting a man walking through a village with his upside-down, airborne wife grasping his hand.
When Chagall created the work in 1918, Russia was in the midst of a revolution and ill-prepared for such avant-gardist trends. At today's opening, "The Stroll" drew the largest crowds.