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.

Remarkably, Feiga-Ita managed to get her son into the Russian equivalent of a gymnasium – an unusual opportunity for a poor Jewish child. When he showed an interest in drawing, she secured lessons with Yehuda Pen, a Jewish painter who had the only art school in the Pale and the closest thing to a gallery in Vitebsk. (Chagall’s classmates included the future modernist Lazar – later El – Lissitzky.) Not yet 20, Pen’s most energetic pupil left to continue his studies in St Petersburg. He secured a scholarship and after two years in the capital assimilating a sense of modernist art and experiencing himself as a ‘Jewish curiosity’, he returned to the maternal (and sisterly) warmth of Vitebsk, where he painted his first mature canvases.

In paintings like The Dead Man (1908) and The Procession (1909), Chagall portrayed Vitebsk with a theatrical sense of composition and a blocky primitivism picked up from Gauguin. He also became involved with Bella Rosenfeld, the cultivated daughter of a wealthy Vitebsk family, who had abandoned Jewish orthodoxy for the new religion of art (she had studied acting with Stanislavsky). Supplanting Feiga-Ita, she was the artist’s muse and manager for the next 35 years. Chagall bloomed. ‘Most traces of provincialism and gauche demeanour disappeared,’ Wullschlager writes. ‘His clothes smartened up and, visibly more relaxed … he began to acquire the persona of the cultivated oriental bohemian.’ A bohemian in Vitebsk? In 1911, Chagall left for Paris where, working on his own, he would invent Yiddish modernism.

In those years, Russia’s leading group of painters, known as the Knave of Diamonds, encompassed rival camps of folk-nativists and cosmopolitan Cézannists. Chagall and the other artists who could be considered Yiddish modernists – the painters Nathan Altman, Robert Falk and, for a time, El Lissitzky, the composers Lev Pulver and Moshe Milner, the writer who called himself Der Nister – were defined by the struggle to integrate these two tendencies. ‘Our first imprimatur is our modernism, our leftism and our youth. Our second imprimatur is our orientation towards the people, our traditions and our old age,’ the critic Abram Efros would proclaim in his 1918 manifesto ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’.

Although most of these men were futurists – at least in its ‘everyday meaning’, defined by Altman in a 1918 manifesto as encompassing ‘all leftist tendencies in art’ – their interests mirrored the fascination with religious artefacts, peasant crafts and the art of children that characterised the Russian avant-garde between 1908 and 1912. No need to visit Tahiti or study African masks: the primitive past could be found at home, in the shtetl or among the Hasidim. Between 1911 and 1914, the writer and former social revolutionary S. Ansky (another son of Vitebsk) headed a series of expeditions into the tiny hamlets of the deepest Pale. Armed with cameras and recording equipment, Ansky and his associates transcribed legends, collected songs, photographed old synagogues and purchased ceremonial objects. This material became the core of the Jewish Ethnographic Museum established in Petersburg in 1916; it also inspired Ansky’s modernist poetic drama The Dybbuk.

Ansky’s expeditions coincided with Chagall’s three-year stay in Paris. He had, of course, brought the Pale with him. For much of the time, he lived in an artists’ slum (a ‘special Jewish enclave’, in the words of the art historian Werner Haftmann) known as the Hive. Other residents included Soutine (avoided by Chagall as a pitiful ‘morbid expressionist’) and Altman. For the French, Chagall was far more than a curiosity: he was an exotic savage. Blaise Cendrars, his friend and champion, saw Chagall as an authentic ‘nouveau homme’, who was turning ancient tradition into avant-garde art. He also saw him as a painter of ‘exacerbated sexuality’.

Chagall’s Paris canvases combined fantastical personal and religious symbolism with Orphism’s intense palette and a crude sort of cubist space. When he exhibited a series of large figure paintings (including Golgotha, a shtetl crucifixion, with the figures of Mary and St John based on his parents), one enthusiastic critic said it was ‘as if by mistake, the works of a child, truly fresh, “barbaric” and fantastic, had landed there.’ When his work was shown in Berlin two years later the response was even more enthusiastic. Not yet 27, the kid from Vitebsk was a burgeoning European star. He returned home even so, arriving a week before the archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo.

It was in every way a tumultuous period. His mother died, he married Bella. His friends were drafted, but thanks to his well-connected in-laws Chagall got a clerical position in Petersburg, working in the war bureau. Thoroughly indifferent to his job, he painted a series of joyfully erotic double portraits of himself and his bride, who soon became pregnant, and thus managed effectively to shut out the war until the privations of 1916-17 reached their climax with the October Revolution.

‘Like most of his circle,’ Wullschlager notes, Chagall was ‘euphoric and astonished at the speed of events … There is no doubt that as a Jew, a child of the working classes, and a leftist artist, Chagall celebrated the Revolution.’ Vitebsk was now a Bolshevik stronghold and Chagall was doubly emancipated – as a Jew and as an avant-garde artist – and doubly empowered. The state became his protector and his patron, purchasing 20 pieces, both paintings and drawings, between 1918 and 1920. For a few years, Russia’s cultural establishment would be based in its vanguard; no less remarkably, for the first and only time in history, Yiddish culture would have official sanction.

Anatoly Lunacharsky, the new cultural commissar, whom Chagall had known in Paris, asked the painter to take charge of the commissariat’s visual arts section. Chagall declined; instead, he became commissar of arts for Vitebsk, where his first job was to celebrate the Revolution’s first anniversary. Lunacharsky wanted the town transformed with colourful images and bunting; Chagall responded on a scale which even Christo might have envied. As described by Wullschlager, Commissar Chagall ‘posted a placard asking all painters, including house painters and sign painters, to stop any other work and present themselves for registration.

Seven triumphal arches were built in the main squares across Vitebsk; 350 enormous posters and countless banners and flags were hung from the façades of houses, shops, trams and kiosks. At night red banners illustrated with symbols of the Revolution – hammer and sickle, rising sun – were illuminated, as if Vitebsk were reborn in a different light. But the dominant images were Chagall’s own, which he produced as sketches and insisted everyone else copy: upside-down multicoloured animals, a revolutionary tuba player riding a green horse across town, and War on Palaces, in which a militant, bearded peasant bears a colonnaded house in his arms, carrying it as lightly as if the Revolution had changed the laws not just of property but of gravity as well.

In January 1919, a few months after Vitebsk’s temporary transformation into a Chagall theme park, the artist effectively dramatised War on Palaces as he presided over the opening of the Vitebsk People’s Art College, located in a neoclassical mansion appropriated from a Jewish banker. Chagall was a popular, much admired teacher (and a reasonably sensitive administrator) at the school, which was free to anyone who wished to become a ‘revolutionary painter’, until overtaken – as both director and revolutionary modernist – by the charismatic suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich, who had been brought to the school by Chagall’s former schoolmate El Lissitzky.

With this defeat, Chagall left Vitebsk never to return. In the summer of 1920 he moved his family to Moscow, where the critic Abram Efros introduced him to Alexander Granovsky, the founder and director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (Goset), himself newly arrived from Petersburg. Granovsky was an assimilated Jew, as well as a universalist disciple of Reinhardt and Stanislavsky. Chagall was Chagall. As he would write in his memoirs, this was another opportunity to make revolution: ‘to do away with the old Jewish theatre, its psychological naturalism, its false beards’. Asked to provide murals for Goset’s new space, Chagall based them on the elements he considered ‘indispensable to the rebirth of the national theatre’. Painting night and day for six weeks, he lit up the interior walls and ceilings with seven allegorical paintings.

Revolutionary in its own way, the festive atmosphere was less suggestive of October than the Jewish carnival of Purim. Chagall used traditional Jewish figures to represent the various arts – a Torah scribe for poetry, a wedding jester for theatre. The largest mural depicted Efros bearing the painter himself to a waiting Granovsky. The inference was coy but apt, for the new theatre’s first success, Sholem Aleichem Evening, was a kind of three-dimensional Chagall that dazzled audiences with Solomon Mikhoels’s stylised clowning amid the painter’s prismatic sets. Chagall was also responsible for the costumes and even took it on himself to redesign Mikhoels’s make-up.

This initial collaboration was decisive, creating an idiom that sustained Goset through the 1920s and into the 1930s, although Chagall was never again asked to design for the theatre. His artistic personality, it seems, was too overwhelming. (‘If Granovsky is the mother of Goset, then I am the father,’ he had announced.) Nor was he able to secure work with the Hebrew-language Habima or any of Moscow’s other revolutionary theatres. To his dismay, his rival Nathan Altman was commissioned to design The Dybbuk.

A number of prominent Russian artists emigrated in the early 1920s and, in 1922, the Chagalls joined the Russian Jewish colony in Berlin. It was as if he’d been resurrected. There had been no news of him since his epochal 1914 exhibition and many assumed that he had been a casualty of the war. But despite the renewed interest in his work, Chagall soon moved on to Paris, where he was still seen as so radical that even the surrealists attempted to enlist him.

He didn’t take long to settle into the School of Paris. The gauche primitive became a charming primitif. His canvases grew calmer and more decorative; the painter and his wife became fashionable and social – ‘a dashing, charismatic couple’, Wullschlager calls them. Chagall’s most significant work was behind him – though Wullschlager still has half a book to go. Approaching 40, he found a measure of security, or rather the illusion of security. Even after Yehuda Pen was murdered by the NKVD in Vitebsk in 1937, perhaps because of a letter received from his former student, Chagall still hoped to represent the Soviet Union at that year’s International Exhibition in Paris, marking 1917’s 20th anniversary with a painting entitled The Revolution: Lenin performing a handstand beside a pensive praying Jew and before a seated donkey. The canvas’s left side depicts an armed struggle; the right side, on which the red flag has been flung, is purest Chagall-land, featuring the painter’s stock company of lovers, pedlars and brightly coloured livestock.

Although The Revolution never made it into the Trocadéro, Chagall was featured at the year’s most significant political exhibition, the Nazi’s massive Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show. ‘The German press had swooned over him as early as 1914,’ Wullschlager notes, ‘so there was no shortage of texts.’ Three paintings – including Rabbi (1912), which the Nazis had four years earlier expelled from the Kunsthalle Mannheim and displayed to jeering crowds in an open cart – were shown under the heading ‘Revelation of the Jewish racial soul’ in a small room reserved for Jewish artists. Chagall’s paintings, notably White Crucifixion (1938), began to reflect the Nazi threat directly. Still, it wasn’t until the fall of France that he and Bella grasped the approaching danger and, even so, they were among the last to escape: ‘Their attachment to France blinded them to the urgency of the situation,’ Wullschlager writes.

The Chagalls landed in New York on 21 June 1941, the day before Germany invaded the Soviet Union. A refugee in America, he was seen and experienced himself as Russian. He made a public show of support for the Red Army and was pleased to host his old colleagues, Solomon Mikhoels and the Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, when they toured America on behalf of Soviet war relief during the summer and autumn of 1943. Chagall included The Revolution in his second American show, which was favourably reviewed by Clement Greenberg in the Nation as well as by the Yiddish Communist daily, Morgn Frayhayt. Chagall, however, was too far-out for many Jews. His ‘art of private and folk fantasy’, Harold Rosenberg later explained, ‘was felt to be too avant-garde to reflect their collective experience’. Chagall, Rosenberg thought, ‘received far more support from collectors who were Catholics’ and consequently ‘busied himself during his stay with finishing a series of Crucifixions’.

Bella died in the summer of 1944 while the Chagalls were vacationing in the Adirondacks. The cause was a simple streptococcal infection. Chagall didn’t speak much English, and the local hospital failed to appreciate that his wife’s condition was critical. In losing her, Wullschlager writes, ‘he had lost his vital link to Jewish Russia and thus to the living inspiration for his work.’ Chagall stopped painting for six months. He would resume, but for the rest of his life, he expended his creative energy on murals, stained glass and set design – including a production of the Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera which some consider his last masterpiece. America remained alien to him and, accompanied by his housekeeper turned mistress, Virginia Haggard McNeil, by whom he would have a son, he returned to France in 1948. He took up residence in Vence, between his imagined rivals Picasso and Matisse.

The Israeli government tried to persuade him to make a seasonal aliya, offering him a Mediterranean villa and living expenses if he would consent to winter in Haifa. But Chagall, who had never been a Zionist, had chosen his artistic homeland and, despite a measure of chauvinist grumbling, was repaid with gratitude. The eternal exile became, Wullschlager notes, ‘a beacon of national art at a time when France finally lost cultural impetus to America; in art histories and encyclopedias of the period he is invariably listed as a French, not a Russian, artist.’ His affair with McNeil ended badly, and he remarried: his devoted daughter Ida found him a middle-aged Russian-Jewish virgin, Valentina Brodsky, who, like Bella, would devote herself to his art.

Treasured by the French, honoured by the Israelis and bought by the Americans, Chagall enjoyed a popular if not an aesthetic flowering in the 1960s. The 12 stained glass windows, each representing a tribe of Israel, that were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art before being installed at the Hebrew University Medical Centre near Jerusalem, were seen by more than a quarter of a million visitors in the museum’s best attended show to date. But it was with the tremendous success of the 1964 Broadway musical comedy Fiddler on the Roof that he entered popular culture. The show, which ran for eight years and 3200 performances, sentimentalised Sholem Aleichem’s tales of the homespun philosopher Tevye the Dairyman and, even more, Chagall’s vision of the shtetl. The production was designed by the artist’s one-time acolyte Boris Aronson, who also suggested the title, a reference to one of Chagall’s visual tropes, present in his early paintings and prominent in the Goset murals.

The following year Chagall was depicted in an 11-page cover story in Time magazine as the artist without whom ‘the history of modern art would seem vacuously cold.’ He was now the Jewish artist par excellence although, as Harold Rosenberg noted in 1975, his ascension had been quite recent, predicated on ‘the popularisation of modern art and the establishment of the state of Israel and of Jewish institutions supporting the most up-to-date styles’. Decades after his first breakthroughs, he was embraced as a parvenu. Productive until the end, he illustrated books, accepted honours, entertained pilgrims, oversaw the creation of a personal museum, and pursued an unlikely friendship with his Riviera neighbour, the Rolling Stones bass-player, Bill Wyman.

It’s ironic that Fiddler on the Roof contributed so heavily to the artist’s myth: the musical represented the ultimate embourgeoisement of Yiddish modernism and Granovsky’s revolutionary Yiddish theatre. Chagall never forgot the theatre he had helped to create and to which he gave its defining aesthetic direction. Specifically, Wullschlager writes, Chagall ‘could not put the murals out of his mind. For the rest of his life he asked after them, talked about them, and returned in his art to the tragicomic vision of acrobats and harlequins that he had crystallised in revolutionary Russia.’ You could say Chagall spent his last 40 years attempting to re-create those murals in New York, Paris and Jerusalem. A part of him was for ever attached to the evanescent Soviet Jewish utopia of 1922 – a carnival in which, for a moment, the world itself turned upside down.