Painter of a Vanished World

Reviewed by Meryle Secrest
Sunday, November 2, 2008


A Biography

By Jackie Wullschlager

Knopf. 582 pp. $40

Of all the 20th-century artists whose work owes a debt to their childhoods, none presents a clearer example than Marc Chagall. The inspiration for his paintings, with their dancing fiddlers and flying peddlers, their smiling cows and donkeys, comes from one place and society: the Russian town of Vitebsk and the Jews who lived there.

Many artists' themes owe something to their origins, but few painters have been more intent on reflecting a culture through the prism of their experiences. Looking back, Chagall wrote later of Vitebsk, "I didn't have one single picture that didn't breathe with your spirit and reflection."

Chagall was born into a culture that, having existed for centuries, would be swept away in his lifetime. (Vitebsk itself is now part of Belarus.) His father was a laborer, condemned to a life of drudgery; his mother resourceful but uneducated. He was the first of her nine children, born in 1887, and her favorite. That outpouring of love gave him, as Jackie Wullschlager writes in her compelling biography, "a robustness and basic optimism and made him a survivor in life; it also lent him a vulnerability in his extreme dependence on women." This new biography is not the first but is certainly the most extensive book about Chagall, thanks to the author's access to a hitherto closed cache of the artist's letters and papers, made available by his granddaughter Meret Meyer Graber.

Chagall's childhood in a poor suburb of Vitebsk, where pigs and cows wandered in and out of houses, ought to have condemned him to the same life as his father in that closed world of Hasidic Jewry. But his mother had other ideas. She fought to get him into a good high school, where he began drawing lessons and studied mathematics, music and poetry. Step by step he worked his way toward the heretical goal of becoming an artist by winning scholarships and studying with influential mentors in St. Petersburg. One of them was Ilya Ginzburg, a sculptor who knew Tolstoy, Repin and Gorky, and introduced Chagall to his first wealthy patron.

His mature style dates from his 1908 painting of a murder that took place one dark morning outside his childhood home. He heard a woman's screams and later recalled seeing a coffin, a black horse and a dead man laid out on the floor, his face illumined by candles. The murder inspired the painting "The Dead Man," a tapestry of his emotional responses transformed like a stage set into a collage of dreamlike images. Chagall had learned to tap into a powerful "emotion recollected in tranquillity," a process that Wordsworth described as essential to the genesis of any creative work.

Somehow Chagall "transformed the cramped, dull backstreets of his childhood to a vision of beauty and harmony on canvas," Wullschlager writes. Making art out of shtetl life was, to say the least, original. Moving to St. Petersburg gave him the perspective of distance to see Vitebsk's cultural obsolescence even as he was celebrating its past.

That vision sustained him in the tumultuous years that followed. He moved to Paris, experimented with Cubism, fell in love with Bella Rosenfeld, a friend of his then girlfriend, and eventually married her. Bella was from a family of rich Vitebsk jewelers and working toward a career in the theater. She became the model for some of his most tender and moving works, among them "The Birthday," in which they float, kissing, above their everyday surroundings. This theme of levitation, a frequent motif in his paintings, suggests liberation, even intoxication with life. In another painting, "Double Portrait with Wineglass," he portrayed himself perched on Bella's shoulders.

The wellsprings of his art were bound up with a lover's unquestioning, self-sacrificing love. Bella was his art's as well as his love's personification; when she died suddenly in 1944, Chagall took up with Virginia McNeil, an Englishwoman hired to be his housekeeper, before marrying the adoring, manipulative Valentina (Vava) Brodsky.

Chagall's long odyssey from Paris back to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, his brief role as a Commissar of Art in Vitebsk, his escape in 1922 from Russia and its rising anti-Semitism to Berlin and then Paris once more, coincided with growing sales, popularity and a fame that has never left him. He lived to the great age of 97, spending his final years in New York.

Yet as this sympathetic and perceptive biographer writes, a desire for financial security in old age led Chagall to "an over-production of less-than-top-quality works." What had once given his art its strength, "the overriding autobiographical imperative," now became stale, even trite, "because his personal story was exhausted, the reinvention of the exile played out." To have outlived one's inspiration is hardly rare in art.

If this biography has a shortcoming, it is its unruly length of almost 600 pages in which Chagall himself sometimes gets lost behind too-detailed descriptions of the supporting players. Yet Wullschlager has a sensitive understanding of his contribution that makes the book especially valuable. This biography presents Chagall's moving portraits of a vanished age in colors as glowing and haunting as his own canvases. ยท

Meryle Secrest is author of "Duveen" and numerous other biographies in art, architecture and music. Her biography of Amedeo Modigliani will be published next year.

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