The painter known to the world as Marc Chagall was born Movsha (Moses) Shagal on July 7, 1887, into a poor family living on the fringes of the Russian Empire. When he died ninety-eight years later, he was the last surviving member of the School of Paris and a multimillionaire with a flat on the Quai d’Anjou in Paris and a villa in the South of France.
Swept up in the most momentous events of the twentieth century, including two world wars and the Russian Revolution, his long life was punctuated by dislocation, flight, immigration, and exile. As a young man he managed to arrive in Paris in 1911, just as the city was becoming aware of Cubism, then on his return to Russia watched the ascendancy of Suprematism, in the work of Malevich and Lissitzky. He was able smoothly to incorporate stylistic components from both of these crucial developments in twentieth-century art into his own work without becoming identified with either. He was esteemed by the Surrealists in Paris between the wars but never considered himself a Surrealist, and exhibited alongside exiled European artists in New York in the 1940s without mingling with the émigré community. In his later years he became internationally famous for his stage sets and costume designs, as well as for his decorative work in stained glass, mural painting, and ceiling decoration. His life is a gift to a biographer.
His art, though, is another story. Jackie Wullschlager’s substantial biography draws on a wealth of unpublished letters still in the possession of his descendants to tell the story of Chagall’s journey from shtetl to château. But not for an instant did it convince me that Chagall was a great or even an important artist. He himself believed that by the time of his final departure from Russia in 1922 his best work was behind him, even though he was to live for another sixty-three years. But is there really all that much to respect even in the early paintings? What, finally, did he contribute to the history of twentieth-century art? The more I read about Chagall the artist, the less original his paintings looked, though I must add that the author’s descriptions of his theater and ballet designs rekindled the admiration I have long felt for his work for the stage.
The opening chapters vividly evoke the world of Chagall’s boyhood in Vitebsk, which lay within the Pale of Settlement, the area of western Russia to which Catherine the Great had confined the Jews living in her empire. He was the eldest of nine children born to Yiddish-speaking followers of the Hasidic sect; his parents were poor but not impoverished. Khatskel, his father, hauled crates in a herring warehouse on the banks of the Dvina River; his illiterate mother, Feiga-Ita, ran a successful business selling provisions from home.
Vitebsk (today in Belarus) was a town of rickety wooden dwellings, public bathhouses, unpaved streets, onion-domed churches, and more than sixty synagogues …