Marc Chagall’s work has long been subject to the charge that it is too much like illustration. Art connoisseurs rarely like illustrative art. It makes interpretation too easy for them, limiting their role as cultural gatekeepers. It was a charge made against Chagall by the great Russian revolutionary artist Kazimer Malevich in 1919, and it’s still made today almost daily at the Art Institute when viewers pass the artist’s stained glass windows dedicated to Mayor Richard J. Daley. Chagall’s work does have a sentimental, spirited, narrative quality, and his use of intense, saturated colors has made him a favorite of greeting card and calendar vendors.

But when Chagall returned to Russia in 1914, after four years painting in France, he was a successful and influential artist. After some initial good fortune in Moscow, however, he was ostracized by the Russian art world, which found his work too unchallenging. It was this critical failure that led to the creation of the half dozen murals now installed in the Art Institute’s revelatory exhibition, “Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater.”

Here Chagall’s illustrative powers are put to potently subversive use. Behind the faces of quaint Jewish villagers, wandering minstrels, and gay revelers lies a revolutionary lesson that aims at the obliteration of the traditional life-style of Russian Jews.

Chagall was committed early to the egalitarian and ardently secular ideals of the Russian Revolution, believing it would free Russia’s Jews from the stigma and legal hindrances they endured as part of an “unofficial religion.” In the beginning his optimism was justified.

Following World War I, the new government appointed him commissar of art for the region of Vitebsk, a mid-size city northeast of Minsk. (One of the artist’s most famous works, The Rabbi of Vitebsk, is in the Art Institute’s permanent collection.) There he started a school and a museum. But a strident group of modernists, whom Chagall himself had invited to teach there, mutinied against him in favor of Suprematism, an emerging abstract style.

Chagall, cut off from the school and the artistic mainstream, took an opportunity to design the Moscow State Yiddish Theater’s production of three one-acts adapted from the works of Sholem Aleichem.

Today Aleichem is best remembered as the author of the Tevye stories, which were adapted into the sentimental musical Fiddler on the Roof. But in Chagall’s time, the Yiddish theater put the writer’s works to quite a different use. The State Yiddish Theater reflected all the antireligious and anticapitalistic fervor of the revolutionary government that sponsored it. Its productions twisted the author’s stories beyond recognition. Sad twists of fate were rewritten as calamities wrought by stereotypical, blindly pious, money-loving Jews. The depictions are chillingly close to those of the state-sponsored anti-Jewish campaigns long a feature of czarist Russia and soon afterward of the communist regime.

Seen out of context, Chagall’s murals do not seem to degrade Jews in the way the onstage performances did. The Art Institute, however, in an act of curatorial courage, has augmented the show with historical material that illuminates the revolutionary spirit in which the murals were painted. Summaries of the Yiddish theater’s plays, documents showing Chagall’s influence in altering Aleichem’s stories, and the artist’s own sketches show how willing Chagall was to go along with the efforts of secular, revolutionary Jews to assimilate into the new Soviet society. He even uses Yiddish-language inscriptions on the canvases to emphasize the backwardness of the old Jewish ways. The text, painted in Chagall’s hand, reads from left to right, the direction of Russian and Western writing but the reverse of Yiddish and Hebrew. Together, the materials contradict the accepted view of Chagall as a celebrant of Jewish village life and mysticism.

The artist was invited by the theater not just to create backdrops, a scene painter’s usual role, but to design the whole stage, its shape and what was on it. Chagall did even more than that. He applied his painter’s vision to the entire auditorium. In just 40 days he completed the 26-foot-long canvas Introduction to the Yiddish Theater, four large panels representing the arts, and another painting exploring Love on Stage. Plus, of course, the scenes and sets for the three one-acts. Unfortunately, all that’s left of the work are the paintings from the auditorium walls and the sketches on view in the exhibition.

Introduction to the Yiddish Theater is perhaps the most revealing piece in the show. This work is one of Chagall’s largest paintings. It’s also one of the first in which he worked out the Jewish themes and vocabulary that would propel his long career. It depicts a raucous collection of Jewish villagers and itinerants, including musicians, acrobats, and a city sophisticate. With the hastily painted figures, Chagall rushed headlong into creating an entertaining but repulsive view of village Jewry. He includes virtually every stereotype of Jews that anti-Semitic Russian propagandists had long nourished: they are hook-nosed, rickets-ridden, greedy, dirty, and lazy.

As with most of Chagall’s work, the rules of the real world don’t apply here. Physical laws, artist’s perspective, the limits of human movement and of the laws of time are abandoned to create a mythic, surreal world. Chagall employed a rudimentary kind of cubism to unify the world, and his subjects inhabit a prismatic ether, the landscape of the artist’s imaginary village. Wandering and floating among the celebrants is an assortment of smiling farm animals, which the artist seems to vest with more dignity than the buffoonish humans. The basest act is reserved for a dwarfish Jew tucked into the lower right corner of the mural. He is urinating on a calf (or perhaps an unkosher pig!).

In Chagall’s hand, the Jewish stereotypes have more whimsy than venom. Nevertheless, they are meant to subvert. Chagall regarded the Yiddish theater’s previous attempts to reeducate Jews as simple-minded sloganeering, poorly adapted from gentile propaganda. The carnivalesque he created or rather superimposed over the work of Sholem Aleichem allowed the theater’s ideology to play out in a distinctly Jewish, though largely fabricated, milieu. “This enabled the theater to fill its production with a fictional world populated by rich archetypes,” writes Benjamin Harshav, in the exhibition catalog. “And although these characters were grotesque and out of touch with reality, they also were inspired by flights of fancy and poetry and by an ahistorical sense of the absurd and comic human dignity.” Chagall and the Moscow Yiddish Theater did for Jews what whites did for blacks with Amos and Andy. They made them appealing, sentimental, and recognizable while at the same time ridiculous, through the use of negative stereotypes.

Chagall used the made-up old world to drag the Jews into the new world order. He also sharply separated the exaggerated stage Jew from the enlightened Jew of 20th-century Soviet Russia.

Interestingly enough, though later Chagall seemed to appreciate the bittersweetness of losing the old world, at this stage, still drunk on the revolution, he thought the universe he harked back to was suited only for farce. Chagall’s exile from Russia, the subsequent persecution of his fellows at the State Yiddish Theater (every other member was killed in Stalin’s purges), the Holocaust, and the birth of the state of Israel would cause the artist to rethink the Jewish past many times over. Nevertheless, each time he returned to Jewish themes he called up the world he had created at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, at a time when he wished much of Jewish culture away.

The Chagall exhibit continues at the Art Institute, Michigan Avenue at Adams, through May 7. Special tickets are required for admission: they cost $6 and are available at the door or through Ticketmaster (902-1500). Art Institute hours are 10:30 to 4:30 Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; 10:30 to 8 Tuesday; 10 to 5 Saturday; and 12 to 5 Sunday. Call 443-3600 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.