Marc Cha­gall

  • Review
By – November 15, 2011
For the read­er who knows Cha­gall only through his work, this book is a good intro­duc­tion to the artist. Jonathan Wil­son, a nov­el­ist and pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty, pro­vides a sol­id foun­da­tion for Chagall’s itin­er­ant life and a broad appre­ci­a­tion of the artist’s achieve­ment.

Born as Moishe Sha­gal in 1887 in the poor Jew­ish sec­tion of Viteb­sk, a sub­stan­tial town in Belarus, Cha­gall left the town as soon as he could to pur­sue his stud­ies, but he nev­er left Viteb­sk emo­tion­al­ly. Wil­son astute­ly points out that Cha­gall paint­ed in Yid­dish, the only lan­guage he com­fort­ably spoke, lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ing the luft­men­sch— intel­lec­tu­al air­man” — and oth­er fab­u­lous crea­tures of Yid­dish folk­lore into fan­ci­ful fly­ing images.

Cha­gall first went to Paris in 1910 and set­tled there in 1923, absorb­ing the artis­tic ener­gy and influ­ences of the city and work­ing furi­ous­ly. Chagall’s pro­fes­sion­al and social world was the great stage of art — lit­er­a­ture, the­ater, music — not the nar­row world of East Euro­pean Cha­sidism with which he is often iden­ti­fied. His deal­er was Ambroise Vol­lard, who also rep­re­sent­ed Renoir, Picas­so, Gau­guin, Van Gogh. Chagall’s work sold well, and over his long life he gained com­mis­sions for church­es, opera hous­es, bal­lets, syn­a­gogues from Chica­go to Jerusalem to New York to Paris. 

Wil­son is strongest deal­ing with the ten­sions in Chagall’s life and work. He res­cues Cha­gall from the sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of Fid­dler on the Roof and places his nos­tal­gic, bib­li­cal, and folk­loric inspi­ra­tion in a uni­ver­sal set­ting. He explores Chagall’s con­flict­ing per­son­al and artis­tic iden­ti­ties: Fueled by Cha­sidism, Cha­gall lived a sec­u­lar, polit­i­cal­ly engaged life; a painter of joy and lus­cious col­or, he fre­quent­ly turned to the image of the cru­ci­fied Jesus, some­times wear­ing a tal­lit, to express the suf­fer­ing of the peri­od he lived through. 

A vol­ume in the Nextbook/​Schocken Jew­ish Encoun­ters series, Marc Cha­gall is not intend­ed as a full-scale biog­ra­phy. Wil­son does not dis­cuss Chagall’s pro­fes­sion­al deal­ings or the ori­gins and exe­cu­tion of his large-scale projects. Chagall’s emer­gence from pover­ty to wide recog­ni­tion speeds by; a bib­li­o­graph­ic note sug­gests fur­ther sources. But the reader’s great­est frus­tra­tion is hav­ing to read about, not see, Chagall’s work, prov­ing that one pic­ture would indeed be worth a thou­sand words. An index would also have been help­ful. Bib­li­o­graph­ic note, chronol­o­gy, and illustrations.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions