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by Jonathan Wilson
What Isaac Bashevis Singer did for literature, Marc Chagall did for art: brought a still-living folklore into the visual and presented it to a Europe which no longer had a folklore. The country sensibility of gut reaction, of human instinct, was introduced anew to an urbanized world as Chagall translated Yiddish fantasy and verbal metaphor into visual imagery. This Jewish artist from the shtetl of Vitebsk, a backwater village in czarist Russia, brought Europe exciting new imagery at the very time it lacked and needed such images. It was a critical infusion, and one that author Jonathan Wilson fails to capture in this new biography, whose close focus on its subject all but eclipses any impression of his wider importance as an artist in enlivening Western culture with the expressive traditions of the Jewish world.
Wilson traces Chagall's life chronologically and as framed by location, from his birth in 1897 in czarist Russia, through a turbulent existence as an artist pursuing his calling in St. Petersburg, surviving the Russian Revolution and the coming of Soviet rule, then following his fortune, despite deep disappointments, in Berlin, Paris, and the United States. Tiny, rural Vitebsk, much as a more sophisticated Chagall tried later to escape it, was his font and source of the imagery which would later reappear throughout his life's work. Both Vitebsk itself, and the fund of Yiddish stories and turns of phrase of his heritage, were the fabric on which he based his inner repertoire of fiddlers, cows, floating figures, and the homes and residents of small-town Jewish life. Marc Chagall touches promisingly on this wellspring of Chagall's artistic vitality in the opening chapters. But the focus on the artist as a product of place soon shifts the narrative off into what becomes a mere recounting of Chagall's experiences in one location and another. The result is a welter of individual personal currents in the artist's life, currents left to the reader to gather into some summation of the man and his work. Among them are Chagall's struggles with Jewish identity, hints of an ambiguous sexuality, and a longtime insecurity as the flip side of a correspondingly demanding artistic ego.
Among the more penetrating impressions are those which pierce that ego and give hints at the persistence required in his attempts to forward himself as an artist. That Chagall, a young Jewish boy in rural, turn-of-the-century Russia, was able to become an artist at all was a remarkable feat of perseverance. His first art teacher, Yehuda Pen, had himself been required to obtain his education by living illegally outside the Jewish settlement, something Chagall was later to do as well. The dictates of a modern Western artist were not always in alignment with the conservatism of traditional Jewish life, nor the restrictions upon Jews of the czarist and later Soviet state. Chagall's persistence in exercising his art reveals a tenaciousness in light of such tremendous opposition, the artist continually forwarding himself and his painting in the face of indifference and even hostility. Occasional minor discussions of the artist's works form a further bright spark in this biography, but are hamstrung without illustrations to support them. The details Wilson highlights need to be not merely read about, but seen to be understood, appreciated, and viscerally felt, and one must go to other sources to seek the paintings mentioned here.
Though it posits the artist's life and career as exemplifying Jewish experience in the 20th century, Marc Chagall never steps back far enough from its subject to give a good impression of the artist in such context against the backdrop of the times. Its memorable moments focus on the minor and the personal. In the end the impression is of Chagall drifting from place to place, disconnected from his surroundings much like one of his own curious, floating figures.
--Katherine R. Lieber
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