Bohemian in Vitebsk

J. Hoberman

  • Chagall: Love and Exile by Jackie Wullschlager
    Allen Lane, 582 pp, £30.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 7139 9652 4

At the time of his death at the age of 97 in 1985, Marc Chagall was, if not the world’s best-known living artist (as much trademark as painter), certainly its best loved. The School of Paris’s last surviving master was dismissed by some as a purveyor of high-class kitsch and hailed by others as one of the 20th century’s truly popular artists, but no one denied Chagall’s power as a colourist or the distinctiveness of his iconography: the embracing lovers, joyful barnyard creatures, tumbledown villages and Jewish musicians, among other free-floating symbols.

Marc Chagall, ‘Nude over Vitebsk’ (1933)
Chagall’s 17-year-old daughter Ida modelled for ‘Nude over Vitebsk’ (1933) in the garden at Villa Montmorency.

Chagall himself floated above some of 20th-century Europe’s greatest catastrophes, as Jackie Wullschlager details in a massive biography that gracefully integrates a tremendous amount of historical material and deals most tactfully with her subject’s personal failings. But did Chagall really belong ‘among the very great artists of our time’, as the museum curator Peter Selz thought, or was he, as Arthur Danto puts it, ‘overproductive, repetitive and shallow’? Naive, or a self-consciously calculating opportunist? The canny ‘manager of his own fairyland’ (Jean Cassou), or a painter who carefully cultivated his image as a ‘loveable, fantastical Jewish genius from Vitebsk’ (Clement Greenberg)? Crypto Christian or too Jewish?

During the last decades of his life, Chagall was among the most public of public artists. He created murals for New York’s Metropolitan Opera and painted the ceiling for the Paris Opera; his mosaics embellished the First National Bank in Chicago, his tapestries hung in the Israeli Knesset, his stained-glass windows illuminated the interior of the United Nations building and several French cathedrals. He also came to epitomise middlebrow taste: posters of his work decorated doctors’ surgeries; the author of a recent monograph on the artist, remembering the reproduction he’d put up on his wall as a student, notes that ‘it did not take long for me to learn that sophisticated art aficionados weren’t supposed to love or even like Chagall.’

The so-called New York intellectuals, most of them young enough to have been Chagall’s sons, were suitably ambivalent. Irving Howe dismissed Chagall’s ‘softened and sweetened’ version of the shtetl. Harold Rosenberg was more tolerant in his condescension: ‘The distinction of Chagall’s ghetto recollections lies in his tenderness.’ Clement Greenberg had the most complicated response. In 1946, he said that Chagall’s ‘gaucherie’ was essential to his power as a painter.

In the twenties Chagall set himself to assimilating French cuisine and suavity with the obsessiveness of a clumsy and sentimental man learning to dance … That a man from the Jewish enclave in the provinces of Eastern Europe should have so quickly and so genuinely absorbed and transformed Parisian painting into an art all his own – and one that retains the mark of the historical remote culture from which he stems – that is a heroic feat which belongs to the heroic age of modern art.

Seven years later, Greenberg had lost interest, comparing Chagall, with his ‘cloying, folkish cuteness’, unfavourably to Chaïm Soutine, whose raw, emotion-charged canvases he considered more authentically Jewish. Perhaps so, but it was Chagall who, in his youth, had been the key figure in a specifically Jewish vanguard. In fact, it was Chagall who, although he resisted the idea, created an Eastern European Jewish tradition in the visual arts where previously there had been none. He knew it too. However insecure he might have been, Chagall didn’t lack self-confidence. He identified with Jesus and compared himself both to Kafka, the greatest of Jewish modernists, and to the Gentile most often mistaken for a Jew: ‘Chaplin seeks to do in film what I am trying to do in my paintings.’

Some modernisms are more modern than others. The delay with which advanced aesthetic ideas penetrated the tsar’s frozen empire only heightened the passion with which Russian artists rushed to embrace them. The years immediately before and after the October Revolution saw movements that had taken half a century to unfold in the West replayed with stunning compression in Moscow and Petersburg and even Chagall’s birthplace, Vitebsk – a medium-sized, Belorussian city of ‘thirty bright onion-domed churches and sixty synagogues’, as Wullschlager describes it, tucked into the north-eastern corner of the Pale of Settlement.

Born a year after his parents’ marriage, little Moshka was a strikingly beautiful boy who would remain his mother’s favourite of her nine children, seven of whom were girls. This, Wullschlager believes, was the defining relationship of Chagall’s life: he remained a spoiled, self-absorbed baby, nurtured by a succession of devoted women. The uneducated Feiga-Ita not only adored her firstborn son, but also facilitated his genius in a field that then had precious few Jewish flowers. The family was poor. Chagall’s father, Khatskel, was a day labourer who toted barrels of pickled fish on his back. His ‘clothes sometimes shone with herring brine’, the artist would recall, relocating the figure of his father to Chagall-land. ‘Everything about him seemed to me enigma and sadness.’ Chagall’s parents were Hasidim, though Wullschlager overemphasises his traditional upbringing; as Benjamin Harshav stressed in his translations of Chagall’s Yiddish writings, the family’s religious life was rudimentary. However deeply ingrained, Chagall’s Jewish identity was essentially secular.

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