Commentary Magazine, October 2008
“it was no secret that Chagall’s most vital work had been made on the eve of World War I, when he hurtled among St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin, creating his own amalgam of modern art and Eastern European Jewish folk culture”
Sooner or later, the reputation of every creative artist hardens into a kind of permanent fact, after which point only a sharp and massive shift in public sensibility can budge it. For artists who live to extreme old age, this process can take quite a while. Those lucky enough to become public figures find that their works are exempted from exacting judgment, and everything they do—good, bad, indifferent—is treated as equally fascinating. Eventually, however, the vivid personality recedes, leaving only the work.
That time seems to have come at last for Marc Chagall. When he died in 1985, a few months shy of his ninety-eighth birthday, Chagall was venerated as the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists. (Miró had died two years earlier.) For decades he had also been lionized as the world’s preeminent Jewish artist, although the public commissions that poured his way were by no means exclusively Jewish: stained glass for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, a Dag Hammarskjöld memorial at the United Nations, the great ceiling mural in the Paris Opera.
For all his public acclaim, however, it was no secret that Chagall’s most vital work had been made on the eve of World War I, when he hurtled among St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin, creating his own amalgam of modern art and Eastern European Jewish folk culture. As early as 1965 Time could report, in an otherwise fawning profile, that his “major accomplishments [were] over by 1922.”
It has always been difficult to untangle Chagall’s two interlocking reputations—as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. To be sure, he was both. He experienced modernism’s golden age in Paris, where he forged a highly personal synthesis of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism that was widely influential and that would, after a certain period of incubation, give rise to Surrealism. At the same time, he was most emphatically a Jewish artist, whose work was one long dreamy reverie of life in his native Vitebsk.
Fortunately, it no longer seems necessary or even possible to assess Chagall’s importance by calibrating his respective position toward Judaism and modernism. For one thing, a Jewish artist is no longer a rarity; since the 1950’s, Jews have been major figures in painting, sculpture, and architecture (particularly the last, with such figures as Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, and Robert A. M. Stern). At the same time, the modern movement has long since ceased to be a unified or coherent force, a development freeing artists to be judged by criteria other than the extent to which they advanced or retarded its progress.
It is therefore timely that there should now appear a major biography of Chagall.1 Written by Jackie Wullschlager, the visual-arts critic of the Financial Times, it is the first to make full use of his correspondence with his first wife, Bella, and to give us access to the late Virginia Haggard, Chagall’s companion from 1945 to 1952. It therefore offers a fuller and more detailed picture of its subject than we have yet had. But while it is revealing about Chagall the man, it is less so about Chagall the artist, and in the end one cannot help suspecting that readers will come away with a rather different impression from what the author intended.
Movsha Shagal was born in 1887 in the Belorussian city of Vitebsk, half of whose 66,000 inhabitants were Jewish. Called the “Russian Toledo” for its picturesque skyline of church and synagogue domes, the city was largely built of wood (little of which would survive the three years of Nazi occupation). Chagall’s family circumstances were modest: his remote, pious father toiled in a herring warehouse, and his mother ran a small grocery business from their home.
As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers. To fix the scenes of childhood so indelibly in one’s mind, and to invest them with an emotional charge so intense that it could only be discharged obliquely through an obsessive repetition of the same cryptic symbols and ideograms, would seem to require some early trauma. But nothing of the sort is related in Chagall’s copious memoirs, other than his statement that he stuttered.
Visual art was not a part of the hasidic milieu in which Chagall grew up. Nonetheless, Jewish artists were already beginning to make their mark in czarist Russia, and he managed to study with two of them. His first teacher was Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, a realist who painted plein-air scenes of Jewish life and who ran a drawing school in Vitebsk; among his pupils were such future luminaries as El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine.
Bristling at Pen’s realism, Chagall moved in 1906 to St. Petersburg, albeit clandestinely, for Jews were not then permitted in that city without a permit. After a turbulent time at a private drawing school—an exceptionally stubborn student, he seems to have quarreled with all of his teachers—he came to study with Léon Batsk, the celebrated set designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Batsk was a Jew most of the time (he converted temporarily to Lutheranism to marry the daughter of the founder of Moscow’s great Tretyakov Museum), and he offered Chagall a different model from Pen’s of Jewish success and achievement, and a far more cosmopolitan and sophisticated one.
At the same time, Bakst was essentially a maker of decorative art, the rules of which are different from those of easel painting. Forms that are to be seen from some distance need to be bold and lively in outline, and strong in color. The tendency is for form to become flatter, more rhythmic, and more linear, something at which Bakst, who admired the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, was singularly adept. All this left its mark on Chagall, who learned to place his figures on the canvas as if they were stenciled cut-outs, their eloquence made up almost entirely of their expressively straggling silhouettes.
Arrogant as he was toward his tutors, Chagall was evidently the picture of charming gratitude to the private benefactors, all of them Jewish, who underwrote his years of study in St. Petersburg and, beginning in the spring of 1911, in Paris. There he encountered modern art at the zenith of creative tumult. He would already have known about the Fauves and about Orphism, but black and white photographs would not have prepared him for the full chromatic intensity of Matisse or Odilon Redon. His palette quickly became high-keyed and shrill, and he lost the gloomy earth tones he had favored in Russia.
Paris must have been terrifying to a provincial Russian Jew, but it was also in a heady state of flux in which foreigners like Picasso could make their mark. Instead of being discouraged, Chagall seems to have been convinced that he could succeed there. He found allies in the modernist poets Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, but the only notable painter he befriended was Robert Delaunay, whose wife Sonia, a Russian Jewess, was fond of Chagall.
If Delaunay’s art was not as progressive as Picasso’s, it was far more lyrical: when he painted the Eiffel Tower, its forms fractured into playful glinting shards as if the scaffolding had relaxed into a kind of rhythmic dance. Chagall found this more congenial than the reserved and solemn draftsmanship of Cubism. Delaunay would be the last major influence on his mature style, which by 1912—when Chagall was twenty-five—was largely complete.
Many of Chagall’s Paris works were updated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist keys. The practice of recycling earlier compositions and themes would become a lifelong habit, and is one of the great peculiarities of his career. In these Parisian years he developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs: the ghostly figure floating in the sky, sometimes with a detached head and sometimes with a peddler’s sack, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock with transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down.
Given this uncanny gift for coining fresh and haunting symbols, with the rubbery logic of dreams, it is curious that he would repeat himself so deliberately. But in a certain sense they were dreams. The majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted in Paris, which gives them their undertone of yearning and loss, and also their detached and rather abstracted quality. Apollinaire was struck by this quality when he first visited Chagall’s studio and exclaimed: “surnaturel!”
The anecdote, like most of our information about Chagall’s early work, is known only from his own account. Still, there is no question that his animal/human hybrids and airborne phantoms were a formative influence on Surrealism. Apollinaire later changed the term surnaturel to surréel, which found its way into the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Chagall was flattered, but insisted that he himself was not among the Surrealists. He evidently did not like their exaltation of the arbitrary and the random, feeling that his own personal language of symbols was meaningful and thoroughly sincere.
It is also true that Chagall was an incorrigible loner and chronically incapable of affiliating with a school. This was not necessarily a disadvantage. The foreigner in Paris was an outsider, but with the freedom of an outsider to browse omnivorously without being forced personally to commit himself, one way or another, to a movement. Only American artists in Europe enjoyed a similar freedom at the time, when such figures as Max Weber and Marsden Hartley dabbled in modernism’s arresting visual styles without adopting any underlying ideology or theory.
Chagall’s Paris idyll came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1914. But in the final prewar months, he had the most important exhibition of his career. Strangely, this took place not in Paris but in Berlin, where his lurid colors and emotional intensity could be appreciated as a variant of expressionism. Chagall’s patron was Herwarth Walden, a picturesque Jewish art dealer, and the one-man show brought together 40 of his best paintings, nearly all previously unseen. That the outbreak of the war prevented him from retrieving his work would prove to be a blessing in disguise. In the coming years the paintings would be frequently shown—and sold. By the time Chagall was able to travel to Germany again, he was regarded as a principal figure of modernism.
Chagall spent the wartime years in Russia. There he married Bella Rosenfeld, the bright and headstrong daughter of a prosperous Vitebsk jeweler. A daughter, Ida, was soon born. The euphoric paintings of this time, which show the young couple floating balloon-like over Vitebsk—its wooden buildings faceted in the Delaunay manner—are the most lighthearted of his career. The war itself did little to dampen his spirits: Bella’s well-connected brother managed to keep him from the front and to allow him to perform his military duty at a desk job.
The October Revolution of 1917 and the ushering-in of the Bolshevik regime presented Chagall with both opportunity and peril. He was by now one of the Soviet Union’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, which for the moment enjoyed extraordinary prestige as the aesthetic arm of the revolution. From his days in Paris, he was acquainted with the new commissar of education, who offered him the position of commissar of visual arts. But thinking perhaps of his own disinclination for paperwork, or perhaps of the dangers of such an exposed position, he declined. He settled instead for the position of commissar of arts for Vitebsk, a striking demonstration that, for all his cosmopolitan education, he was still something of a homebody.
Chagall’s principal achievement was to found the Vitebsk Arts College, which for a time was the most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union. Despite its provincial location (actually something of an asset in those years of urban famine), its faculty drew the most important artists in the country, not only Chagall but El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. (In an amiable gesture, he added Yehuda Pen to the faculty.) The school did not seek to impart an official style, and Chagall characteristically stressed the importance of personal expression (“be careful not to erase the individual peculiarities of each person, while working in a collective”).
This, however, proved politically naïve. Malevich, whose Suprematist art of squares and circles promised an objective and impersonal form of expression, had only scorn for bourgeois individualism. He and Lissitzky mocked what they called “the whole Chagallian eroticism of powdered rococo.” Never terribly good at infighting, Chagall was helpless when the students and faculty mobilized against him. He returned from a trip to find his last friends dismissed and a sign on the school door proclaiming it the Suprematist Academy.
Chagall’s resignation as commissar and move to Moscow brought him a more agreeable position: stage designer for the newly formed State Jewish Chamber Theater. For its scheduled grand opening in January 1921 with a trio of plays by Sholem Aleichem, he was given just six weeks to outfit the auditorium with an array of large decorative murals. His challenge was to find a visual language in keeping with the radical modernism espoused by the theater, which took as its model the non-naturalistic approach of Max Reinhardt. Actors were to be non-professionals without stage experience, and they were to communicate as much in gesture and movement as in dialogue. Chagall became a close friend of the most talented of them, a lawyer-turned-actor named Solomon Mikhoels whose wildly expressive face would feature prominently in the artist’s murals.
Those murals owed much to Chagall’s immersion in Bakst’s decorative art. In the key work, a canvas eight yards long entitled Introduction to the Jewish Theater, he created a joyous rhythm of interlocking arcs through which passes a merry procession of dancers, fiddlers, acrobats walking on their hands, and bemused farm animals: one critic called it “Hebrew jazz in paint.” Here was none of Chagall’s characteristic self-absorption, only a fruitful subordination to the demands of the program itself, in which his storehouse of symbols and devices was exactly what was needed.
Sadly, the Jewish Theater work remains an aberration in his career. By the time he again made monumental murals, as in the Paris Opera, he was far too famous to take direction from a client.
George Orwell once said that Mark Twain, having had the opportunity to become a great figure of literature, chose instead to be an after-dinner speaker. Something similar seems to have happened to Chagall, who after 1922 began very assiduously to market himself. He left Russia, ostensibly to transport work to an exhibition of Jewish art in Berlin, but with the explicit intention of emigrating for good; his wife and daughter followed shortly thereafter. No sooner was he out than he published his autobiography.
To write one’s memoirs at the age of thirty-six is not necessarily a mark of excessive self-regard, especially if one has lived through the Russian Revolution and experienced the Paris School in its golden age. But it suggests that Chagall was thinking of all this as a closed chapter. At the same time, he began to re-create his earlier works—not, as he had once done, imaginatively, reinterpreting them in the light of some new stylistic discovery, but as literally as possible. In the case of items missing or no longer accessible, he attempted to do so by means of memory alone.
It is true that, as Wullschlager makes clear, he had good reason to devote himself to self-promotion. Passing through Berlin in 1922 to collect the paintings from his one-man show, he found that Walden had not only sold all of them but ostensibly put the sales revenues in escrow, and that he could not be held responsible for the German postwar hyperinflation that had rendered the receipts worthless. Furious and chastened, Chagall now came to prefer the security of binding contracts. He formed a relationship with Ambroise Vollard, the eminent French dealer, for whom he produced the etchings for a series of illustrated books: Gogol’s Dead Souls, the Bible, and the Fables of La Fontaine. These represent his finest efforts at printmaking.
There is nothing in the last six decades of his life to compare—in terms either of artistic quality or of human interest—with the previous one. But this is not to say that Chagall’s later life was uneventful. Chronically unworldly, he almost fell into Nazi hands in World War II. He tarried in Vichy France until the last moment and was saved only by Alfred Barr of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who had prepared a list of artists the United States should seek to extricate. Chagall, having figured prominently in the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition, was one of them; but he did not leave France until May 1941, when it was almost too late.
Chagall’s American exile disoriented him, and he never properly learned English. As during all of his travails, he leaned heavily on Bella, not only for emotional support but for professional and even aesthetic guidance. It was she, he claimed, who determined at which point his paintings were finished. The truth is, for all his time in the modernist salons of Paris, skirmishing with Apollinaire and Cendrars, his formidable and outspoken wife was more the intellectual than he. And Bella had literary aspirations of her own. During their stay in New York, reverting to Yiddish, she produced two volumes of memoirs about the world of her childhood: Brenendike Licht (published as Burning Lights in 1945), and Di Ershte Bagegnish (First Encounter, 1947).
That world, she well knew, was disintegrating even as she wrote. During the summer of 1943 she and Chagall spent much time with Solomon Mikhoels and the Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer; the pair had been sent from Russia to solicit funds from American Jews. From them the Chagalls would hear firsthand accounts of how complete and pitiless was the Nazi destruction of Jewish Russia.2 This clearly influenced the mournful, elegiac tone of Bella’s memoirs, which would be her sole work. She died in 1944 of a simple streptococcus infection, untreatable because of the wartime shortage of penicillin.
Although distraught over the loss of Bella, from which he never quite recovered, Chagall was evidently unable to work without the comfort of a quiet family life. In short order he took up with Virginia Haggard, the estranged wife of a painter; when that relationship ended in 1952, he promptly married Valentina Brodsky, a Ukrainian Jewess who, like Bella, was cultured, multilingual, and an astute manager of Chagall’s financial affairs. As the world quivered around him, Chagall worked to ensure a cocoon of his own, fey and detached, while a surprising number of the Jewish associates he had left behind in Russia were murdered, sooner or later, by the NKVD. Their number included Mikhoels, Walden—who had fled from Hitler to Stalin—and even poor Pen, killed weeks after Chagall recklessly sent him a jaunty letter in 1937.
Chagall’s story has been told before, most notably by Franz Mayer, Ida Chagall’s husband and an art historian in his own right whose rich and detailed biography was published in 1964. But that book was silent about many aspects of the personal life (leaving unmentioned both Virginia Haggard and Chagall’s child by her). Jackie Wullschlager is thus the first to offer an uncensored look at the painter’s private life. (Not that the revelations are prurient: if anything, Wullschlager shows that Chagall was sexually prudish to a fault.)
An accomplished linguist who came to this project after decades of interest in Chagall, Wull-schlager has personally translated sources in German, Yiddish, and Russian and presents a terrific amount of new material. In every respect, she has produced a lively, readable, and sympathetic biography, although unfortunately not the most penetrating one.
One of the problems in dealing with a figure like Chagall is his own incorrigible garrulousness. A compulsive talker and memoirist, he left behind a trove of recollections about his youth and travels that sometimes conceal more than they reveal. At times one has the sense that Wullschlager is dutifully paraphrasing Chagall’s anecdotes while fleshing them out with context and an occasional polite correction. At other times she seems somewhat credulous—stating as fact, for example, that Chagall “was the most talented student” at his St. Petersburg school while admitting later that “nothing remains from this time.” At still other times, she is excessively generous to his weaker work, treating, with only a few exceptions, every artistic change as an advance. In all, Wullschlager’s long itinerary of anecdotes and incidents remains something of a diary, without the comprehensive view that comes from distance and detachment.
The book ends with Chagall’s death. One especially wishes that Wullschlager had written an epilogue, suggesting what his art means to us today, in terms both of modernism and of Judaism.
It was long held that the great triumph of Cubism was to strip painting of those extra-pictorial considerations—subject matter, didactic content, moral sentiment—that compromised what ought to be a purely aesthetic experience. By this standard Chagall, who never relinquished subject matter or sentimentality, was rather a straggler in the march of modernism. But as I suggested at the outset, we are no longer obliged to use modernism as a rigid yardstick.
Instead, we are free to assess Chagall on his own terms and to see him for what he was: a minor master on the order of a William Blake or an El Greco, a painter whose achievement must be appreciated in personal terms and not by reference to a school or movement. If his gifts were limited, he exploited them intensely and with unusual urgency of feeling, and has earned a permanent place in the pantheon of artists who have spoken deeply about the secrets of the human heart.
In terms of Judaism and art, his contribution is a mixed one. On the one hand, and at worst, he is the maker of poster fodder for people who were introduced to modern art by his late-life, mass-produced lithographs on Jewish subjects, thereby gaining a taste for sentiment and kitsch that can often prove resistant to treatment. On the other hand, he remains the most important visual artist to have borne witness to the world of East European Jewry, a role he played with great distinction despite, and not because of, his immersion in the radical modernity of Paris. For while he bravely tried on all that modernism had to offer, he remained in a deep sense a provincial naïf and, at his core, oddly impervious to influence.
It is striking how many of his limitations are those of folk art. There is the same high horizon, the filling-in of blank spaces with auxiliary figures, the strange shifts in scale that show hierarchical importance rather than recession in depth. Even his obsessive repetition of motifs recalls folk art. One thinks of an itinerant folk painter like Edward Hicks, who repeated his The Peaceable Kingdom again and again, almost as a ritual.
This is not to say that Chagall was a Jewish Grandma Moses, or a figure of only sentimental interest. The fact is that if the world of his childhood years did not have the high art of oil painting, it did have a distinct visual culture, expressed in media from embroidery to wagon painting to jewelry to decorative carpentry—all, incidentally, linear media. Long before he ever thought of being a painter, the young, stuttering Chagall had already absorbed a tactile sense of the world from his surroundings. This is the most poignant component of his art, and the one that kept him on an unvarying course even among the blandishments of Paris. (Paradoxically, it was the more sophisticated American painters, lacking the anchor of a settled traditional society, who were more likely to be disoriented by a prolonged stay in Paris.)
Given Judaism’s religious inhibitions about pictorial art, it is not surprising that the most distinctive and celebrated Jewish art of the 20th century would be at the level of popular and folk imagery, or of such productions as Fiddler on the Roof, with its Chagall-haunted scenery (designed by Boris Aronson, his assistant at the Jewish Theater four decades earlier). If the overinflated and overmarketed artist of later years is now justifiably diminished, we can see all the better the curious, earnest provincial of 1911, who looked to express the private truths of his childhood in the rough and unfamiliar language of pictures, and inadvertently became the public witness of a now vanished civilization.
1 Chagall: A Biography by Jackie Wullschlager. Knopf, 592 pp., $40.00.
2 During the visit, their daughter Ida had a romantic affair with the tragic Feffer. It was he who would later use sign language to inform the American singer Paul Robeson, in a bugged Moscow room, of Mikhoels’s killing and his own imminent execution at Stalin’s hands. Upon his return to the United States, the pro-Soviet Robeson, despite having been struck by the fact that Feffer’s fingernails had been pulled out during torture, kept the news to himself
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