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From Shtetl to Château


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 Jackie Wullschlager’s substantial biography draws on a wealth of unpublished letters still in the possession of his descendants to tell the story of Chagall’s journey from shtetl to château.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. On the poor side of town every householder kept goats, chickens, and a cow in the yard. Rabbis, Talmudic scholars, matchmakers, musicians, and elderly Jewish peddlers who could be seen wandering from town to town with sacks on their backs: the sights and sounds of Chagall’s childhood would become the subject of his art.

Although he ceased to practice religion at the age of thirteen, Chagall’s work is suffused with imagery drawn from Jewish ritual and folklore, particularly from Hasidic festivals and feast days when song and dance were used to express the mystical union of man and nature. Through the joy of Hasidism, his biographer believes, he “transformed the cramped, dull back-streets of his childhood” into a color-saturated “vision of beauty and harmony on canvas.”

The transformative dimension of Chagall’s work is lost to us today, but it is precisely what so impressed his contemporaries. The artist and critic Alexandre Benois, for example, was amazed that a dirty, smelly “Jewish hole” like Vitebsk with “its winding streets, its blind houses and its ugly people, bowed down by poverty, [could] be thus attired in charm, poetry and beauty in the eyes of the painter.”

When Chagall’s ambitious mother bribed a teacher at the local school to ignore the quota on Jewish pupils, she put her son on the long road out of Vitebsk, and eventually out of Russia—not least because the boy, who until then spoke only Yiddish and wrote in Hebrew, was taught Russian and made to use the Cyrillic alphabet. He left school in 1905 without a diploma, but by then he had become obsessed with drawing and determined to become an artist.

Such an activity was unimaginable in a world with no pictorial culture of any kind. “In our home town,” he wrote, “we never had a single picture, print or reproduction, at most a couple of photographs of members of my family…. I never had occasion to see, in Vitebsk, such a thing as a drawing.” When a classmate saw paintings by the teenage Chagall, he blurted out that his friend was “a real artist!” Chagall claimed that he had never heard the word “artist” and did not know what it meant.

All the more remarkable then that his mother managed to enroll him in the only art school in the whole of the Pale of Settlement, the academy in Vitebsk run by a Jewish portrait and genre painter who had studied at the St. Petersburg Academy. Thanks to the solid, traditional techniques taught by Yuri Pen, Chagall learned to draw from plaster casts and to work from a life model. And although he was to reject Pen’s realistic style of painting, he learned from his teacher’s example to find his subjects in shtetl life all around him. In time, Chagall would reconfigure the sights and sounds of his childhood as helium-filled fantasies in which cows sail through the night sky and fiddlers fiddle on roofs. But to do so he had to leave Vitebsk. As Wullschlager shrewdly comments, “Chagall’s art was fuelled by the twin drives to escape and to remember.”

At age nineteen Chagall moved to St. Petersburg, where at last he could see the work of the old masters in the Hermitage, immerse himself in the theater, and form friendships with other artists, writers, and patrons. But he painted the works of his first maturity, Birth, Russian Wedding, and The Dead Man, between 1909 and 1911 not in St. Petersburg but during long stays back home in Vitebsk, as though he needed to reconnect with his Jewish roots before venturing into the unknown milieus of the avant-garde. What makes these pictures modern is Chagall’s crude, childlike rendering of heavily outlined figures and buildings, an early instance of his use of expressive distortion that Wullschlager links to the expressionist theater productions he had just seen in St. Petersburg. To find inspiration in “primitive” (peasant and folk) art was not in itself particularly unusual among progressive artists at this date, but the Jewish themes and the notes of absurdist whimsy are very much Chagall’s own.


Russian art around 1900 feels suspended in a lingering Symbolist twilight, embodied in the work of the World of Art group of painters. Promoted by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, these aesthetes alternated between art nouveau decadence and eighteenth-century nostalgia. Benois, Léon Bakst, and their colleagues preferred painting in watercolor to painting in oil, and scenography or mural painting to working on canvas. Though Chagall tended to dismiss the World of Art painters as aristocratic and effete, on his return to St. Petersburg in 1909 he enrolled in the school where the most famous of them taught.

The lush sets and costumes Bakst was then designing for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes set a gray world alight. His palette of hot oranges, shocking pinks, and boiling ultramarines perfectly suited the bold, Slavic rhythms of Igor Stravinsky’s music and Michel Fokine’s choreography. The last and most sensuous Orientalist of all, Bakst electrified audiences in Paris and London with the exotic costumes and sets he designed for Scheherazade, the ballet with the plot once described as “an orgy followed by a massacre” in which half-naked slaves and harem girls writhed and expired against backdrops painted in colors of unearthly intensity.

Chagall studied with Bakst only for six months, but it was Bakst who set the young artist’s imagination free by cautioning him against refinement and encouraging him to simplify his form and liberate his brushwork. Above all, he taught Chagall about color. “I have a taste for intense colour,” Bakst said, “and I have tried to achieve a harmonious effect by using colours which contrast with each other rather than a collection of colours which go together….” For this, Chagall was grateful. “My fate was decided by the School of Bakst…. Bakst changed my life. I will never forget that man.” And because Bakst had moved to Paris to work with Diaghilev in the spring of 1910, a year later the twenty-three-year-old Chagall followed.

In May 1911, with the financial support of an early patron, Marc Chagall made the four-day train journey from Russia to Paris. Speaking no French and knowing only a handful of Russians, he was nevertheless enchanted with the city. “I seemed to be discovering light, colour, freedom, the sun, the joy of living, for the first time.” A few days after reaching Paris he made his way to that year’s Salon des Indépendants to see the Cubists all Paris was talking about. Only it wasn’t the work of Picasso and Braque that hung in Room 41 of the salon that year, but the “Salon Cubists”—Henri Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, and Robert Delaunay.

Chagall understood instinctively that to become a modern artist he had to abandon traditional perspective, foreshortening, and modeling, and assimilate the fractured geometrical planes and shifting perspectives of Cubism into his work. But at that stage in his life, he could not have known that he was looking at feeble imitations of Cubism, not the real thing. He took Gleizes as his model and enrolled in the school where Le Fauconnier and Metzinger taught.

This is where I part company with Wullschlager, who sees more significance in the work of Chagall’s first French period than I think it merits. In pictures like I and the Village (1912; Museum of Modern Art, New York) or The Cattle Dealer (1912; Kunstmuseum, Basel), faceted planes are used not to create volume or to explore pictorial space but as mannerisms or stylistic tricks to give the flying fiddlers, farmyard animals, and upside-down figures a veneer of modernism. Sure, Chagall added the brash color and fairy-tale imagery, but ultimately these pictures, like Le Fauconnier’s, are pastiche Cubism—in Chagall’s case, an imitation of an imitation. To say as Wullschlager does that Chagall contributed to the history of modern art “an expressive, mystic sensibility that challenged the form-conscious rationalism of Western art” is to admit that what is original about his work is what he painted, not how.

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