Marc Cha­gall and the Lost Jew­ish World

Ben­jamin Harshav
  • Review
By – May 14, 2012

As the author’s resumé includes pro­fes­sor­ship at Yale in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, Hebrew lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture and Slav­ic lan­guages, along with pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions on Cha­gall, one can expect much from this book. One would not be dis­ap­point­ed. It is beau­ti­ful­ly pre­sent­ed in over­size for­mat with more than 120 plates and draw­ings, many of them cov­er­ing a full page and bril­liant­ly col­ored. The chap­ters cov­er Chagall’s roots, ear­ly mas­ter­pieces, a dis­cus­sion of the lost Jew­ish world from which he sprang (replete with idioms, apho­risms, and folk­lore), the Yid­dish art the­ater, includ­ing the the­atre murals and their iconog­ra­phy and last­ly his lat­er paint­ings, includ­ing works on the Holo­caust, Chris­t­ian ref­er­ences and the famous Jerusalem stained-glass windows. 

Pro­fes­sor Harshav’s text clear­ly com­bines his­to­ry, soci­ol­o­gy, and esthet­ics in a lucid nar­ra­tive. While pay­ing metic­u­lous atten­tion to Chagall’s inner life, the attrac­tions of the Chris­t­ian world and his embed­ded Jew­ish upbring­ing, all of which are reflect­ed in his paint­ings, the author places Chagall’s strug­gles with­in the con­text of oth­er Euro­pean artists and thinkers impact­ed by the unfold­ing hor­rors of the 20th cen­tu­ry. It is both Chagall’s Jew­ish world, and the Jew­ish world that was lost. 

The book’s clear typog­ra­phy is well­spaced, on coat­ed paper, with a few ran­dom typos, and some con­fused num­ber­ing of plates. Less than ade­quate for its con­sid­er­able weight is the bind­ing. Nev­er­the­less, Dr. Har­shav has writ­ten a fine ref­er­ence book, which can dou­ble as a gift vol­ume. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, list of illus­tra­tions, notes.

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

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