“If I were not a Jew...I wouldn’t have been an artist, or I would be a different artist altogether,” Russian-born painter Marc Chagall once declared. It was a paradoxical statement, because Judaism, with its prohibitions against image worship, has no sustained tradition of figurative art. Chagall recalled that, growing up in the isolated Russian town of Vitebsk during the late 1800s, he “never had a single picture, print, or reproduction.... I never had occasion to see, in Vitebsk, such a thing as a drawing.” But it was this upbringing in an introverted Hasidic community, with its archetypal characters, ingrained rituals, and shared imaginative life, that vividly sustained Chagall through eight decades as a painter, illustrator, and designer of stained glass and tapestries. His art gave form to Jewish folk culture and its dreams of wholeness, shelter, and perpetuity, the very dreams whose destruction he witnessed firsthand as a refugee and Wandering Jew of the twentieth century.

The tale of Chagall’s origins and rise to eminence is sweeping, spanning three continents and nearly a hundred years. His pictures still attract an enthusiastic public audience, but scholars’ opinions are more equivocal: in many ways, Chagall’s identity as an avatar of Jewish tradition and memory diverges from his reputation as a modern artist. By the 1980s, he had become an international cultural icon, thanks to his monumental stained-glass cycles and murals for major civic buildings, including the United Nations, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and the state hall of the Knesset in Israel. It is, however, the paintings he created as a young man, in extreme poverty and upheaval, that constitute his most significant contribution to art history. In her biography—the first of this painter—Jackie Wullschlager agrees with many critics that Chagall’s “greatest work was behind him” by 1922, when he had more than sixty years left to live. Yet the historical disasters of those sixty years heightened the poignance of his art and deepened his significance on the world stage.

Moyshe Shagal was born in 1887 in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the area where Catherine the Great had confined all the Jews of her empire. (By 1890, the 5 million people living there constituted 40 percent of world Jewry.) His father was a laborer in a herring warehouse, his mother, Feiga-Ita, an enterprising spirit whose “protective sensuality” exerted a lasting influence on the artist. Her imprint is visible in paintings such as Mother by the Stove, which transforms a woman baking bread “into the ruling goddess of the house.” But Feiga-Ita did not share her son’s sensibility, and allowed him to take art classes only after reassuring herself that the local academy was located near a bakery, pastry shop, and tailor, and therefore had to be a shtikl gesheft, or “viable business.”

From his beginnings as an artist, Chagall sought to represent the superreality of humble people’s lives—the mythology surrounding their births, marriages, and deaths. Studying with Yehuda Pen, a technically proficient but unimaginative painter, he absorbed his teacher’s taste for genre scenes of local life but spurned his labored, academic realism. Chagall’s first mature painting, The Dead Man, depicts a corpse surrounded by six candles and a collection of timeless types: a grieving woman, her hands stretched above her head; a melancholy violinist perched on a village roof; an oblivious street sweeper who serves as a small-town grim reaper. With its blocky concatenations of color and uncanny distortion of recognizable events, the painting set the tone for much of Chagall’s subsequent art. In works such as Over Vitebsk, Russian Wedding, and I and the Village, he revisited the same handful of themes, from the kinship between human beings and animals to death and regeneration and the rituals accompanying them. His often fantastical scenes remained anchored in observation: the many airborne figures populating Chagall’s skies, for instance, were prismatic versions of the luft-mensch, or “man who lives on air,” a name given to beggars who drifted from town to town in the Russian Pale. Like the Wandering Jew, another staple of the artist’s early work, the luft-mensch was both a recognizable type and a universal symbol of loss and displacement that would resonate with many later viewers of Chagall’s pictures.

The young painter’s nostalgia for an unfragmented world and his affection for village life were at odds, however, with his desire to flee the provincial setting of the shtetl. As Wullschlager demonstrates, Chagall’s achievements were enabled by his escape from the world commemorated in his greatest paintings. In 1911, he headed for Paris, arriving days after the Salon des Indépendants had first presented Cubism as a coherent movement. Living in La Ruche, the infamous artists’ colony in Montparnasse, Chagall befriended major figures of contemporary painting and poetry, and began reconceiving his earlier works in a Cubist style dominated by bright, overlapping wedge forms. His pictures of this period transmuted the hardscrabble reality of his Russian childhood into what Wullschlager dubs a “cosmic dream.” In his Golgotha of 1912, Chagall worked a similar form of alchemy on a central image of Christianity, envisioning the Crucifixion as a hallucinatory montage of translucent color. Jesus, whose loincloth is patterned with Stars of David, is supported by only the hint of a cross: “He is crucified on earth, the entire world his arena of suffering,” Wullschlager observes. Emphasizing Christ’s Jewish origins, Chagall dared through “Cubist dislocation” to reimagine the biblical story in terms of his own culture. The artist would return to this theme throughout his career, each time refracting the Russian-Byzantine icon tradition through the lens of twentieth-century Jewish experience.

It was in Paris in 1912 that Moyshe Shagal became Marc Chagall, the name printed next to the titles of his works in the catalog of the Salon des Indépendants. Little of his style or subjects would change over the next seven decades. Yet Chagall was just embarking on his adult life, which would intersect repeatedly with transforming moments in world history. He was waylaid in Vitebsk in 1914 by the outbreak of World War I, and ultimately remained in Russia through the Bolshevik Revolution. This tumultuous period witnessed the production of Chagall’s favorite work, a cycle of murals at the Jewish Theatre in Moscow. The ensemble, which came to be known as “Chagall’s Box,” depicted major figures of the Jewish folk tradition—violinists, dancers, marriage brokers, wedding jesters, and Torah scholars—in larger-than-life scale, boisterous colors, and dramatically angled forms. Bulky, energetic, comic in their movements, these characters were conceived in a spirit of both reverence and backhanded mockery: the poet Chaim Bialik compared Chagall to a cantor who sang to his congregation and then, when their eyes were closed in prayer, stuck his tongue out at them.

Shortly after completing his Box, Chagall left Russia for good, settling first in Berlin, later in France. In 1941, threatened by the Vichy government, he moved to the United States, returning to Europe only well after the Second World War had ended. By this time, exhibitions of Chagall’s work in Paris and New York had attracted broad attention; mounted in 1946 and 1947, the retrospectives coincided with worldwide grief at the fate of Jews in the Holocaust. From this point forward, Chagall’s art would increasingly serve as a manifestation of Jewish memory and a tool of advocacy for Zionist causes.

In her account of these later years, Wullschlager manifests the political power of the painter’s works and his growing importance to postwar international audiences. Like the rest of her biography, these sections are enriched by impeccable contextual research, practiced visual analyses, and astute links between the artist’s life and work. Yet the most compelling portions of the story are her evocative descriptions of Chagall’s childhood, which are enhanced by the artist’s own memoirs and letters provided by surviving relatives. More than most painters, Chagall viewed his early years as the imaginative font from which all his later achievements flowed. His production continued well into old age, and viewers today contend with a vast body of work that, like the era in which he lived, can be seen from countless points of view. In bringing many of these perspectives together, Wullschlager reveals the manifold significance of this artist, whose vibrant testimony to a lost world renders its beauty, imaginative vigor, and recognizably human values visible to generations far removed from his own.


Related: Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall: How Christians & Jews Approach the Cross, by John A. Coleman, SJ

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: View Contents
Susannah Rutherglen is a PhD candidate in art history at Princeton University.
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