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Chagall, chronicler of a century's triumphs, terrors

Chagall, 1957, photographed by Alexander Liberman. ''He developed a radical, original style,'' writes Wullschlager. Chagall, 1957, photographed by Alexander Liberman. ''He developed a radical, original style,'' writes Wullschlager. (Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, 2000)
By Michael Kammen
January 18, 2009
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CHAGALL:
A Biography

By Jackie Wullschlager
Knopf, 582 pp., illustrated, $40

Marc Chagall, who died in 1985 at age 97, is best remembered for his vivid colors, his villagers and animals floating through the air untethered to the homely realities of his native town in the Russian Jewish Pale, but above all, perhaps, for his fiddler on the roof ("The Violinist," 1913), adapted long after he first painted it as an exuberant symbol of poverty but also the simple joys of life in a rustic community.

Among many he is also known for the glorious big projects of his later years: two stunning murals at the Metropolitan Opera; the stained-glass window "Peace" at the United Nations; the stunning ceiling he designed for the Paris Opera; his 12 stained-glass windows for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and for windows at churches in France, his adopted country.

Although his work and persona may have been unique, we learn a great deal about the influences that shaped him from this first full-scale biography, "Chagall," by Jackie Wullschlager, the chief art critic for the Financial Times. When Chagall was asked in the 1960s about the most essential influences on his painting, he specified the mysticism of Hasidic Judaism, the will to construct, and the mystique of Russian icons. We learn that he was more responsive to writers than artists, though Gauguin's primitivism clearly had considerable impact, as did Cubism during his first stay in Paris (1911-14), and then Rembrandt, especially when Chagall became intrigued with etching projects. Mystical and highly spiritual artists like El Greco also had notable appeal.

Chagall painted numerous self-portraits but created many more works inspired by his first wife and beloved soul mate, Bella Rosenfeld, immortalized as the lithe and lovely spectral figure whose hand he holds or whom he locks in a firm embrace.

Although Chagall's style remained astonishingly consistent, it passed through substantive phases, ranging from the fantasy-land village motifs of life and death to more nostalgic themes during the 1930s, when his exile from Bolshevik Russia saddened him, and then Bella's death in 1944, which crippled him emotionally for six months, and finally to the promptings of memory in his later years, when he became famous and wealthy, living on the French Riviera with his second wife, and Picasso and Matisse his neighbors.

The role of religion in Chagall's life, work, and identity is very complex and perhaps deserved more extended commentary. Although he ceased to be a believer at the age of 13 and remained nonobservant throughout his life, Jewish concerns and themes pervade his work. But so does Christian iconography, including madonnas, angels, numerous crucifixion scenes, small and large, sometimes with his own name in Hebrew letters above the head of Jesus, where the acronym INRI would customarily appear in traditional Catholic art, and a Jewish tallith (prayer shawl) wrapped around the loins in "White Crucifixion" (1938). None of his appropriated symbolism seems to have prompted hostility, and his later years were replete with commissions from Catholic and Protestant churches and organizations.

It is ironic and noteworthy that Chagall's work was first appreciated and sold well in Weimar Germany during the 1920s, though his dealer there basically cheated the artist of money he desperately needed for survival, part of a recurring pattern in his early years. A second irony is that Apollinaire and the Surrealists acknowledged Chagall as a kind of precursor, even founder, when they emerged on the scene in 1923-24, a role that Chagall rejected. For much of his life Chagall could not fully control his own identity and destiny.

Wullschlager provides a gripping account of Chagall and Bella's desperate escape from Marseilles to the United States in 1941 by way of a precarious train to Lisbon, where they waited an agonizing month for a ship to New York. There they were met by Pierre Matisse, the artist's dealer son, and settled in, though Bella's health declined steadily. Chagall refused to learn a word of English. Although he drew and painted, including the lyrical "Double Portrait With Wineglass," in which the exuberant artist seems to ride on his young bride's shoulders, there was little market for his work during the war. Being in America did, however, provide him an opportunity to paint large stage sets, and that experiment with work on a vast scale would become crucial for his increasingly major works in glass, paint, and ceramic after the war, including the fabulous four seasons mosaic that he later designed for Chicago in 1972-74. In 1948 he returned permanently to France.

I find Wullschlager's judgment somewhat harsh when she repeatedly insists that Chagall did his best work early on. It's true that the major motifs, stylistic devices, and intense coloration all appeared early. But Chagall steadily revised and at times even reinvented his themes as he became exposed to works by old masters in museums around the world. Visiting the Louvre early had been an eye-opener for him, and that experience recurred often with refreshing results. Although it cannot be said that Chagall repeatedly grew and changed the way Picasso did, neither did anyone else.

Michael Kammen is the author of "A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture."

CHAGALL: A Biography By Jackie Wullschlager

Knopf, 582 pp., illustrated, $40

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