A Russian Jew, Chagall spent most of his life trying to escape tyranny. Mark Rowe follows him from bleak Belarus to the Paris Opera

I know him well. Avant garde, a bit gaudy, French.

Actually, he was born in the town of Vitebsk in what we today call Belarus in 1887, the eldest child of a Hassidic labourer who sold herrings for a living. It was this Jewish-Russian upbringing that dominated his paintings. To many he was mould-breaking, moving and innovative but his popularity has often been out of step with the critics who dismiss his garish colours as sentimental and naive, amounting to little more than nostalgic fodder for greeting cards.

You'd better give me a quick run-down on his life and times.

He moved to St Petersburg in 1906 and to Paris four years later, living in classic artistic squalor in Montparnasse. He returned via Berlin to Russia at the outbreak of the First World War and after the Russian Revolution he became director of the Art Academy in Vitebsk. He was then appointed art director of the Moscow Jewish State Theatre, gaining a commission to decorate the building. Hidden away during the subsequent Stalinist repression of all things Jewish, they have only recently seen the light of day. By 1922 he had fallen out of favour for good with the Bolsheviks. The Soviet authorities were never able to shake off their suspicions about Chagall's Jewish heritage and off-beat images. In addition, he had no interest in playing the expected artist's role of promoting the revolution by depicting super-Soviets in heroic pose. Rather predictably, his art was banned during the Soviet period and his name never mentioned. He returned to France in 1923 but hastily emigrated to the United States in 1941 as the Nazi grip on France was tightened. After the war he moved to Vence in southern France where he died in 1985.

I liked those pictures of the fiddler on the roof.

Chagall felt art was a way of telling stories of life, and the image of the violinist floating across the rooftop reflects his Jewish upbringing in the shtetl which formed the small Jewish community of Vitebsk. The fiddler was present at all major events in Jewish life, from births, to marriages and death, and may also refer to the Jewish expression "you're crazy, come down off the roof" which signifies someone who has an unrealistic idea. The landscapes of Vitebsk also heavily influenced his paintings, featuring small houses, fences, animals and children. He had little regard for the rules of perspective and a childlike, dreamlike quality means his paintings are characterised by floating cupolas, wandering rabbis, clowns and blissful lovers (usually Chagall and his first wife Bella) hanging effortlessly in the sky. His work was eclectic in the extreme, picking up elements of cubism and fauvism and merging them with Russian iconography.

What is there to see in Paris?

His main work here is the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier. He was invited to paint the panels in 1964 which are fixed as a canvas to cover the ceiling. They depict opera and ballet scenes and come complete with trademark gaudy reds and yellows and floating angels. An eight-ton crystal chandelier hangs from it. To view them, a cheaper option than a night at the opera is to take a guided tour of the opera house, which will cost around £3 but book in advance during summer (10am-5pm, closed Monday; 00 331 4001 2514; www.opera-de-paris.fr).

The brasseries on the boulevard du Montparnasse, such as Sélect and Rotonde, are worth a look, though you should bear in mind that in his early years Chagall would rarely visit them unless a friend was able to sub him for a drink. You might be lucky and see some temporary exhibits on Chagall at the Musée du Montparnasse (21, avenue du Maine, closed Monday and Tuesday), a converted studio which as a sideline ran the cantine des artistes, where Chagall would eat.

There is a small collection of his paintings at the Jewish Art and History Museum (Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme, 71 rue du Temple, closed Saturday), where, given their context amid the almost unspeakable recounting of the experience of French Jews, they have become important not just for their artistic value but also as records of a way of a life.

Is Vitebsk worth a trip?

Belarus is something of a backwater when it comes to international tourism. Tourists find it harder to gain access than Hitler and Napoleon who both marched through en route to Moscow and the unreconstructed, rude and unhelpful service will represent a pleasing throwback for Soviet nostalgics. Minsk, the capital, has an unexpectedly airy feel with some lovely art nouveau buildings and a fine painting of Chagall by his art tutor Yehuda Pen in the Belarussian art museum. Vitebsk, however, welcomes you with ugly Stalinesque buildings and those huge Soviet streets, wide and long enough to land a jumbo jet on. Yet the city's Chagall museum is worth a visit and the house Chagall grew up in, at 11 Pokrovskaya Street, was thoughtfully restored in the 1990s. The tourist office hasn't quite come to terms with the concept of interested visitors and you might almost have to beg them to take you to the area of traditional wooden houses in Peskovatics, on the edge of the town where Chagall was born. Here you'll find plenty of the gaily coloured stone houses that Chagall would have recognised from his youth along with vivid green window frames, tidy fences and little rag-tag children.

Where can I see more of Chagall's work?

Check out the beautiful Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall in Nice, which houses many of his later, biblical works. Chagall contributed to the building by providing the stained glass windows and mosaics. He also painted windows for Metz's gothic cathedral, Reims cathedral, the United Nations building in New York and All Saints' Church in Tudeley in Kent. For the best current selection of his work, head for the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, where a retrospective, transferred from an exhibition in Paris, opens on 26 July and runs to 4 November. For more details visit www.sfmoma.org.

How do I go?

Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) offers two nights in Paris with Eurostar from £148 per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation. Belavia, the Belarussian airline (020-7393 1202), flies from Gatwick to Minsk, with return fares from £269. From Minsk it is a six-hour train ride to Vitebsk. You can also travel via Vilnius in Lithuania to the Latvian town of Daugavpils, from where there is a grim midnight train to Vitebsk. You must get a visa in advance from the Belarussian embassy (020-7938 3677; www.belembassy.org/uk) for £19, for which you must show you have booked accommodation or have an invitation.

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