Jonathan Wilson’s intimate look at this most enigmatic artist is just the introduction a non-specialist like this reviewer needs for moving from a first encounter with Chagall’s work to a deeper understanding of his life and person. I suspect the veteran Chagall watcher will also find more than a little in Wilson’s pages that will enrich his understanding or throw fresh light on ambiguities that are worthy of further inspection.
Wilson’s method is to follow Chagall around from city to city and lover to lover. Evidence for this is seen in the titles of the book’s seventeen chapters. All but three of them simply present the name of one of Chagall’s places or one of his women. So, for example, ‘1. Vitebsk, 2. St. Petersburg, 3. Paris, 4. Bella … 12. New York, 13. Virgina (Haggard), 14 Orgeval …’ The three exceptions (6. Yiddish Theater, 15. A Problem of Conscience, 17. Blessings) explore matters of deep thematic importance that lie close to the soul of Chagall and his art.
So does Wilson periodize Chagall’s life in helpful ways. We travel with an artist as he moves from context to context in a world where it seemed impossible for him to own any one of them completely or to deny any one finally. Chagall emerges as a conflicted human being, unable fully to rank the places and the people that have shaped him, unable to leave any place behind, certain to live simultaneously as Russian, as Jew, as Frenchman, as quasi-American, as on-again, off-again Zionist, as an artist who was himself never other than a work in progress.
If Chagall failed to integrate these stages-of-residence, he at least combined them. For example, Wilson writes that …
Chagall, whether he believed that he was doing so or not, sneaked Yiddish culture into twentieth-century painting through the back door. Hardly anyone, with the exception of the odd French anti-Semite, noticed what was happening because the vibrant visual expression of his paintings carried the stamp of the modern and not the stigma of a dying language. Sadly, Chagall’s genius spawned a host of artists who specialized in Jewish kitsch, whereas Picasso’s had an impact on almost every great painter who came after him.
And again …
It was Chagall’s great talent as an artist to absorb influences without becoming a slave to them. He was not an intellectual, and he powerfully resisted ideologies and theories while, magpielike, stealing what he fancied from the various isms that surrounded him. This characteristic preserved Chagall’s artistic integrity in Paris but inevitably got him into trouble in Russia after the Revolution.
Along the way, Wilson touches repeatedly upon Chagall’s fascination with Jesus, this crucified Jew who frequents the artist’s canvas in a way that has generated multiple explanations, sadly none of them coming directly from Chagall’s own lips or pen.
Here is Wilson himself on the question:
Chagall, in what was perhaps an even more radical gesture, appeared to reach back to a pre-Christian Jesus, a man who has not yet been granted the powers of miracle and redemption, and is rather an ancient Jewish martyr presented as a symbol of contemporary Jewish martyrs. In so doing Chagall risked alienating those members of his Jewish audience for whom the simple presence of Jesus Christ in a painting signaled betrayal and oppression rather than their opposite … Chagall’s appropriation of the Crucifixion of Jesus as an icon of Jewish suffering is not entirely uncommon among Jewish writers and artists in the twentieth century. It occurs, for example, in the work of the Yiddish novelist Pinchas Kahanovich (known as Der Nister, The Hidden One), in Scholem Asch, to chilling effect in Elie Wiesel’s Night, and in Yehuda Amichai’s remarkable poem ‘The Jewish Time Bomb’. Whatever its degree of surprise to a Jewish audience, Chagall’s decision to paint a Crucifixion scene in 1938 is hardly out of keeping with his own obsessions, for, as has already been noted, his relationship with ‘Christ as a poet and prophetic figure’ was deep and long-lasting.
Wilson does not elevate the great man more than the evidence allows. He is wry about the massive and vulnerable ego that does not so much distinguish Chagall from his peers as it identifies him with them. He can just as easily register Chagall’s well-earned reputation as an attentive and caring teacher as he can quote this observation by one of the artist’s wives:
‘(H)e painted love but he didn’t practice it,’ Virginia Haggard remarks of Chagall in her memoire, more in sorrow than in anger.
Writing as he does for the Jewish Encounter Series, Jonathan Wilson is particularly perceptive on the dynamics of Chagall’s Jewishness, both as the artist lived this identity and as others (both Jews and non-Jews) perceived and interacted with it.
In the end, Wilson’s life of Chagall appropriately humanizes the man, recording in his final pages Chagall’s wistful observation in a speech before the Israeli Knesset that ‘I tend to look with some sadness at everything—friend or foe.’ Wilson has done us the service of introducing us to an artist who tended more than he declared, who brought his abiding enigma into his art and so illuminated our own unshakeable paradoxes, nuances, and mixed identities as we engage the very bright and deeply brooding blue art of Marc Chagall.