After reading my book out loud, I finally accepted the truth: I’m just not an oral tradition kind of guy
A brilliant new perspective on one of the most beloved—and most misunderstood—artists of the twentieth century. Novelist and critic Jonathan Wilson clears away the sentimental mists surrounding an artist whose career spanned two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and the birth of the State of Israel. Marc Chagall’s work addresses these transforming events, but his ambivalence about his role as a Jewish artist adds an intriguing wrinkle to common assumptions about his life. Drawn to sacred subject matter, he remains defiantly secular in outlook; determined to “narrate” the miraculous and tragic events of the Jewish past, he chooses Jesus as a symbol of martyrdom and sacrifice. Wilson demonstrates how Chagall’s life constitutes a grand canvas on which much of twentieth-century Jewish history is vividly portrayed. Chagall left his shtetl for Paris at the dawn of modernism, looking back dreamily on the world he abandoned. After a stint as a Soviet Commissar for art, he returned to Paris but was forced to flee to the United States steps ahead of the Nazis. Drawn to Israel but not enough to live there, Chagall grappled endlessly with a nostalgic attachment to the vanished past and the magnetic pull of an uninhibited secular present. Wilson’s portrait of Chagall is altogether more historical, more political, and edgier than conventional wisdom would have us believe—showing us how Chagall is the emblematic Jewish artist of the twentieth century.
She loved Chagall and wasn’t ashamed of that. —T. Carmi, “In Memory of Leah Goldberg” In 1968, when I was in my first year at university, I had a cheap poster of a Chagall painting, Double Portrait with Wineglass, on the wall of my dormitory room. The airborne figures, a young man and woman floating above a Russian town, the woman with a sexy slit in her low-cut white dress (possibly a bridal gown), the young man in a bright red jacket with his head tipsily displaced to one side of his body and grinning like Harpo Marx, embodied for me precisely the kind of secular, whimsical, neoromantic sensibility that, at eighteen, I found so compelling. The poster, in my imagination, went right along with E. E. Cummings’s poem that began “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond / any experience, your eyes have their silence” and Elvira Madigan, Swedish director Bo Widerberg’s movie about a doomed tightrope walker. I did not, at this stage of my life, have much or any use for the “Fiddler on the Roof” Chagall: his Praying Jew, for example, a more or less straightforward earthbound representation of the Rabbi of Vitebsk wearing his phylacteries (a painting which I later discovered Chagall long prized as his “masterpiece”), appealed to a conservative sentimentality that I associated, rightly or wrongly, with my parents’ generation and the crowds packing in to see Topol or Zero Mostel as Tevye. If I were a rich man I would have bought one of Chagall’s dreamy garlanded canvases,inspired by his trips into the French countryside, rather than, say, The Violinist, which featured an actual fiddler on the roof and which I considered a lachrymose work formed by a nostalgia-tormented shtetl-locked mind. But, of course, I knew nothing of the social context of any Chagall painting, and almost nothing of his personal history. As with so many writers and artists whom I came across in my formative reading and looking years—Kafka, Bellow, Soutine—the salient thing I knew was simply that they were Jewish. It did not take long for me to learn that sophisticated art aficionados weren’t supposed to love or even like Chagall. His lovers and his rabbis, his massive bouquets and his violins were equally dubious, equally cloying, not kitsch, but living somewhere dangerously close to that ballpark. In the last few years a fresh interest in Chagall’s work, partly attributable to the resurfacing of paintings long hidden in the vaults of Soviet museums, has spawned a number of blockbuster shows. The “new” work, which includes a series of outstanding murals created for the Moscow State Yiddish Chamber Theater in 1920, has led inevitably to a reassessment of the “old” work. Chagall’s oeuvre, when seen in its entirety, seems altogether more historical, more political, harder and edgier than conventional wisdom would have us believe. There is, too, strikingly and unavoidably, a long Jewish story to be told through Chagall’s work. His career spanned two world wars, the Russian Revolution, and the birth of the state of Israel, and his work directly addresses these transforming events through the prism of a Jewish consciousness. Chagall’s perceptible ambivalence about his role and status as a Jewish artist only deepens the content of the story: drawn to sacred subject matter, he remains defiantly secular in outlook; determined to “narrate” both the miraculous and tragic events of Jewish history, including the Nazi Holocaust, he frequently, almost obsessively, chooses Christ as his central symbol of martyrdom and sacrifice, in full knowledge that, even when wrested from their Christian context, images of Jesus are tough for a Jewish audience to swallow. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, Chagall (without converting) found his resting place almost a century later in a Catholic cemetery in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. Aptly, his stained-glass windows adorn both churches and synagogues. His story, then, as told through his paintings, drawings, lithographs, book illustrations, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries, sculptures, windows, and the acts of his life, repeats both the twists and turns and the pulls and tugs of so much Jewish life in the twentieth century: the serpentine vagaries of history, a nostalgic attachment to the spiritually charged but circumscribed pre-Nazi Eastern European Jewish past, and the magnetic attraction of assimilation into an uninhibited secular present.
Marc Chagall, forever associated with dreamy, whimsical canvases of lovers and fiddlers on roofs, was a far more complicated figure than conventional wisdom allows. Born into an Orthodox family, the seminal Jewish artist of the 20th century was buried in a French Catholic cemetery. Best known for depicting the vanishing world of Eastern European Jewish life, Chagall fixated on the figure of Jesus as a symbol of suffering. He was witness to the Russian Revolution, two World Wars, and the first days of the state of Israel, and his work reflected the anxieties, sorrows, and headiness of these transformative events. With verve and insight, Jonathan Wilson deftly examines the long life of Chagall, through whose career we can trace the story of the modern Jewish people. The following questions will help guide you through his life and work. The Man He painted love but he didn’t practice it. —Virginia Haggard The man in the air in my paintings…is me. —Marc Chagall Wilson calls Chagall “a chameleon figure, fiercely protective of his artistic independence and yet eager to please.” How did this chameleon-like behavior manifest itself? Can you recall episodes from Chagall’s life in which this type of behavior harmed him? Did he ever benefit from it? Chagall “exhibited a floating anxiety” about his sexuality, painting his cheeks as a young man, shying away from the machismo that defined contemporaries such as Picasso. How was this anxiety reflected in his life and his paintings? How does Wilson characterize Chagall’s few overtly sexual canvases? How does one view such paintings in the context of Chagall’s overall body of work? Chagall was the most prominent Jewish artist of his day, “a position that he both embraced and rejected,” Wilson says. How did he embrace his position in the Jewish community, and in what instances did he reject it? And what does his ambivalence say about his own Jewish identity? “I am a little Jew of Vitebsk,” Chagall said. “All that I paint, all that I do, all that I am, is just the Little Jew of Vitebsk.” Do you think this is an accurate statement? Why or why not? Can you name some instances in which Chagall shied away from the role of the “little Jew” when it didn’t suit him? Chagall did not seek out friendships with other painters, rarely exchanged work with other artists, and for decades harbored a strong jealousy of Picasso. Do you think Chagall’s anxiety around other artists hindered him? What do you think fueled this insecurity? How did Chagall’s relationship with the non-Jewish Virginia Haggard, mother to his only son, highlight his own “confused and sometimes guilt-ridden association to his own Jewishness”? Throughout his long life, Chagall was often described as childlike, someone whose wives and daughter handled the day-to-day details of his life and career. Was this quality reflected in his work? How so? The Art She loved Chagall and wasn’t ashamed of that. —T. Carmi When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is. —Pablo Picasso Wilson writes that Chagall painted “in Yiddish…yoking a Yiddish past with modernist techniques.” What methods did he use to accomplish this, and what is specifically Yiddish about his art? Why? In his work, Chagall would mix and match genres and characters—painting Jesus into Jacob’s dream, placing pyramids in Vitebsk. Wilson calls this a “characteristically Jewish” technique. Why? Wilson writes that “sophisticated art aficionados weren’t supposed to love or even like Chagall.” Why not? How does the reality of Chagall’s work differ from the conventional wisdom? The Second Commandment prohibits the creation of graven images. What explanation does Wilson give for this prohibition, and did it impede Jewish painters historically and Chagall specifically? Wilson writes that Chagall “walked the tightrope that separates sentimentality from deeper more authentic feeling better than perhaps anyone.” What saves Chagall from being dismissed as too sentimental, and did he ever cross the line? While making the same point, Wilson compares Chagall to Jewish entertainers such as Al Jolson and Barbara Streisand. Is there something quintessentially Jewish in this outpouring of emotion? The cycle of paintings that Chagall created after he return to his hometown of Vitebsk in 1914, obsessively documenting the town, is the work that defined him as the leading Jewish artist of the post-Holocaust period, not the work that Chagall created in response to the Holocaust. Why are these images so popular? Does it matter what Chagall’s intentions were or when the paintings were created? What does this suggest about our own impulses and desires for Jewish identity and authenticity? Politics, Anti-Semitism, & Israel They all say they are fighting for justice and they all loot. —Isaac Babel Lenin turned it [Russia] upside down in the way I turn my pictures. —Marc Chagall “Chagall’s career, mood, and subject matter paralleled to a certain extent the shifting political and economic fortunes of Europe and America,” Wilson writes. How did his art reflect these historical shifts? In the early 1920s, with Russia in turmoil, Chagall was not documenting the persistent poverty, the severe winters, or the scarcity of food, but rather fiddling musicians, tumbling acrobats, and upside-down cows. Is this a weakness of Chagall’s artistry? Why or why not? Wilson holds that Chagall’s career tells the story of the Jewish people in modern life. In what sense is his career emblematic? Could the artist, in whose massive body of work “we will find no equivalent to Guernica,” as Wilson writes, truly capture the ethos and destruction of the 20th century? Chagall was arrested twice in his life—in 1908 in St. Petersburg and in 1941, in Vichy France—both times the underlying crime was being a Jew. According to Wilson, Chagall exhibits a surprising nonchalance at these events. Why do you think he never felt himself to be in true danger, and what does distancing himself from these arrests say about Chagall’s emotional makeup and his Jewish identity? Decades after the American diplomat Varian Fry helped Chagall and his wife escape Vichy France, Chagall refused to grant a favor of Fry’s on behalf of other refugees. Even his daughter, Ida, called Chagall’s actions “a disgrace.” Why would Chagall refuse Fry? As Wilson points out, Chagall was far more politically involved than conventional wisdom holds, becoming a minister of the arts for the Vitebsk region in 1918, during the first flush of the revolution. He started a state arts school and requisitioned a Jewish banker’s mansion for that purpose. Do these facts complicate the artist’s reputation or shift your perception of Chagall? How? When the conditions for Jews in 1940s Europe became dire, Chagall returned to painting images of Lenin and the Russian revolution on his canvases. Why? What did these symbols mean to him? Chagall made several trips to Israel, producing work that, according to Wilson, was almost uniformly abysmal. Was it simply bad luck, or was there something about being in the Jewish homeland that prevented him from creating deeper, lasting art? Chagall, Jesus, And the Church For me, Christ is a great poet, the teaching of whose poetry has been forgotten by the modern world —Marc Chagall How did Chagall, who grew up in an Orthodox home, hearing stories of the Hebrew Bible, turn to painting Christ figures and scenes from the New Testament? When did he first encounter the material? What about it was appealing to him? When one thinks of Chagall, nostalgic images of vanished shtetls are what often come to mind, not depictions of Jesus. But Chagall returned to the figure of Jesus throughout his decades of painting—the sale of his canvas Dedicated to Christ in 1913 jump-started his career. Does this change the way you think of Chagall as a Jewish artist? In the 1940s, Chagall became more focused on Jesus, personalizing him and identifying him with Nazi victims in a “manner both disturbing and profound,” as Wilson writes. What techniques did he use to accomplish this? What do you think inspired him to link Christianity to the Holocaust? Do you find these paintings provocative, illuminating, distasteful? Wilson claims that Chagall was “yoking Christianity to the Holocaust, absorbing Christianity into Judaism, not the other way round.” Do you think this is true? In 1950, a monk asked Chagall to decorate his newly built church. Chagall, who had offered his services to churches in the past but had been turned down, became so wracked with guilt that he procrastinated for months, seeking the advice of everyone from France’s chief rabbi to Chaim Weizmann. What does such an instance illustrate about Chagall’s feelings toward his role as a Jewish artist? Do you think he managed to Judaize the churches and cathedrals he decorated, or was the Christian world simply absorbing him? Wandering and the Pull of Home I am too much the Jew from the ghetto… I am always haunted by the sense that I live in somebody else’s country. —Marc Chagall Art lives in France. —Marc Chagall Why did the figure of the fiddler have a significant and lasting role in Chagall’s art? What do you think he represented to Chagall, growing up in Vitebsk? When painting Vitebsk, even as a young man, Chagall was already fictionalizing it, transforming it on canvas into a small village rather than presenting it as the medium-sized city it truly was. Why would Chagall do this? What does this say about what the city of his birth represented in his mind and stood to become in his art? Wilson points out that Chagall, like James Joyce and Philip Roth, had to leave his hometown in order to obsessively represent it. Why do you think this is the case? Are these exceptions to the rule, and if not, what does imagination require of the mind that would necessitate this absence? Chagall, peripatetic for much of his life, shuttling from Russia to France to the United States and back to France again, was constantly searching for a lasting home. Where does Wilson suggest Chagall’s true home was, and how does this home speak to Chagall’s identity as an artist and as a Jew?
“Though compact – one can read it in an afternoon – Wilson’s book is a full biography in terms of illuminating the major chapters in the artist’s life and career. It’s elegantly written and bluntly honest about some aspects of that life that other biographers have ignored or glossed over.” Continue reading
“An artfully written art biography that captures its subject in the same kaleidoscopic palette as Chagall painted.” Continue reading
“…a wonderfully easy read…it is altogether the best since Sidney Alexander’s monumental biography I reviewed back in 1978.” Continue reading
JONATHAN WILSON is the author of A Palestine Affair, The Hiding Room, Schoom, and An Ambulance Is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble, and of two critical studies of the fiction of Saul Bellow. His work has appeared … Continue reading
After reading my book out loud, I finally accepted the truth: I’m just not an oral tradition kind of guy