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From Shtetl to Château

Compare Chagall’s two versions of Birth—the first painted in Vitebsk in 1910, the second in Paris in 1911. In the first version, the setting is a wooden shtetl house painted in a somber palette of muddy red, sour yellow, and brown. Linear perspective leads the eye to the triangle formed by dark red bed curtains parted to reveal a naked mother lying on bloodstained sheets, a grim midwife holding a newborn child, and a father cowering under the bed, while in the background neighbors and a rabbi look in at the window and push through the door.

The Cubist version is painted in harsh primary colors. Now the blood-soaked mother is only one focus of attention in a much more diffused and brightly colored composition. Chagall opens up the closed interior by turning the walls and floor into flat geometric planes, so that our eye zigzags in and out of space as though we were looking at a picture painted on a folding screen. But by scattering a dozen or more tiny figures across the canvas, he dissipates the picture’s pictorial cohesion and dramatic impact. Now the roof seems to have come off, and the house has morphed into a fairground or circus where figures tumble from the sky and farm animals sit down to dinner.

But to what purpose? Cubism isn’t particularly suited to narrative or genre, but Chagall doesn’t yet know this. What is more, in their Cubist paintings Picasso and Braque effaced their own personalities and tended to avoid the direct expression of emotion or autobiography. Intense feeling, if it appears in a “true” Cubist portrait or still life, is expressed obliquely, embedded in the very texture of the picture. Chagall’s version of Cubism could almost be called the polar opposite of the real thing.

Both versions of Birth show that the arrival of a child in a poor Jewish household was a semipublic event accompanied by community ritual and rejoicing. But the brutal 1910 version of Birth is the more coherent and, for me, therefore, the more powerful. Here is Wullschlager’s commentary on the Cubist version of the picture:

This is birth as psychological reality: the sense of the indissolubility of life and death, and that for each individual woman birth is at once miracle, symbol of hope, and frightening physical ordeal.

As criticism this isn’t helpful because, as so often when Chagall’s admirers write about his work, it focuses on the subject, not the handling of color, line, draftsmanship, composition, space, and so forth.

Why, then, did discriminating critics like Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars write with such appreciation about Chagall? One answer is that Chagall timed his arrival in Paris perfectly. The Ballets Russes’ productions of Scheherazade and The Firebird had just enthralled Parisians, who were experi- encing a craze for all things Slavic. Chagall’s pictures, Wullschlager writes, “looked like strange, exotic intruders into Parisian art.” To this observation I would reply, “exactly”—this is what blinded his contemporaries to their crude constructions, heavy attempts at humor, cringe-making whimsy, and fundamental lack of originality. Then too, both these critics wrote loyally about Chagall’s paintings but they rarely said anything penetrating or significant about them. To Apollinaire, for example, Chagall is “an extremely varied artist, capable of painting monumental pictures, and he is not inhibited by any system.”

The same critic used the word “surnaturel” to describe Chagall’s work, but Chagall didn’t know what it meant, and I must admit that as applied to Chagall’s paintings, which have nothing to do with the exploration of the unconscious, neither do I. Beginning in 1913 Chagall built up a devoted following in Germany, where collectors saw his color-drenched fantasies and use of distortion as having something in common with Expressionism. But if one compares Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes with Chagall’s nostalgic fantasies of life in the old country, it is hard to understand why.

In June 1914 Chagall returned to Russia for what he thought would be a three-week visit and found himself trapped by the outbreak of war. Instantly the hard-edged Cubism of the first Parisian period vanished in favor of a softer and more integrated style sometimes described as Cubo-Futurism. In pictures like the monumental Jew in Red (1914), it is as though the fragmentation of form that characterized the Cubist phase had simply never happened. And soon enough, a new stylistic mannerism appeared that enabled Chagall to fill the void left by Cubism.

As revolutionary fervor mounted in the years 1915–1917, Kazimir Malevich’s first Suprematist paintings brought art closer to abstraction than it had ever come before. The fierce purity of Malevich’s geometric designs in black, white, and unmixed primary colors perfectly expressed the radical impulse to symbolically wipe the social slate clean by eliminating representation of any kind. Ultimately this Lenin among artists would paint the series of white squares on white grounds that are among the most influential works of the twentieth century. “I say to all,” wrote Malevich,

Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant. We, suprematists, throw open the way for you.

The power of Suprematism lay in its elimination of individuality, of expression, of memory, and of the past.

Just as Chagall had arrived in Paris on the crest of the first wave of Cubism, so now he returned to Russia as Suprematism swept the old art away. The difference was that this time the new art movement made his folksy imagery—indeed imagery of any kind—instantly passé. And just as he had assimilated Cubist form without, I think, necessarily understanding it, so now he appropriated Suprematist style without having the slightest idea that for Malevich abstraction was a means toward the elimination of the self in order to achieve a higher level of spiritual experience.

Chagall wasn’t an explorer and he wasn’t an intellectual. In The Apparition (Self-Portrait with Muse) of 1917–1918 he adds Suprematist circles of silver and blue to what is basically a traditional Annunciation, with Chagall taking the place of the Virgin Mary and substituting a figure representing his personal muse for the Angel Gabriel. The glad tiding the angel brings to the painter is the arrival of a new art inspired by the Russian Revolution. Chagall takes circular forms that in Malevich signify spiritual transcendence and turns them into the angel’s feathered wings. Where Malevich pares down, Chagall fills the background with the paraphernalia of the artist’s studio. The effect is certainly decorative—all cloudy blue-gray curlicues and shimmering white disks—but it is hard not to feel that Chagall has taken something profound and searching in Malevich and turned it into stylistic embellishment. And it is almost endearing to see that, far from aspiring to subsume his identity into the whole, Chagall here sees the entire Russian Revolution from the perspective of how it will affect his work.

At the beginning of the Revolution the avant-garde actively worked with the government. Chagall prospered under the Bolsheviks. In 1918 the state bought ten of his paintings and appointed him commissioner of arts for Vitebsk. The following year he became director of the Vitebsk’s People’s Art College. By the spring of 1919, however, he had begun to realize that the individualism and egotism of his art was anathema to Bolshevist thought. The sculptor El Lissitzky, an infinitely more committed and ideologically driven revolutionary than Chagall, brought the ranting Malevich to the school as a professor. Malevich and Lissitzky then set about turning it into a stronghold of Suprematism. Using time-honored tactics of the far left, their first step was to denounce Chagall’s art as bourgeois and decadent. Next they took over the school, firing the entire staff, rechristening it the “Suprematist Academy,” and terrorizing the students into accepting their collectivist aesthetic. In a foretaste of what would happen to artists and intellectuals under Stalin, the Chagall family was given twenty-four hours to vacate the rooms they occupied in the school. In June 1920 Chagall left Vitebsk for Moscow with his wife Berta (later Bella) and infant daughter Ida. He was penniless.

Yet again Chagall’s timing was miraculous. One of the characteristics of progressive Russian art at this time was its close association with the stage. Just as Chagall arrived in Moscow, the impresario Aleksai Granovsky brought his Yiddish Chamber Theater, a modernist company specializing in radical productions of Yiddish plays, to the city. At once he commissioned Chagall to work on the sets, backdrops, and costumes for an evening of three plays about shtetl life by the classic Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem. In the last months of 1920 Chagall locked himself in the auditorium of the theater for forty days to paint the murals that are now universally regarded as his greatest artistic achievement. These theater murals are on view in an exhibition devoted to the Russian Jewish theater at the Jewish Museum in New York City until March 22.*

There are seven in all—including four large upright panels depicting the archetypal Jewish characters of the folk musician, the wedding jester, the Torah Scribe, and the wedding dancer, who also symbolize the arts of music, drama, literature, and dance. These paintings are unlike anything Chagall had done before because they combine monumental scale with simplified form. Realizing that the audience needed to take them in from a distance and also that they should not compete with the stage sets, he seeks clarity in the composition and suppresses extraneous decoration.

For the first time, Chagall now used the whole stage as his canvas. As Wullschlager explains:

When the curtain, decorated with goats, rose on the first night, the audience gasped at the eerie effect by which the actors, painted by Chagall and moving in exaggerated staccato bursts…, looked identical to the portraits of them in the largest mural: both were Chagall’s creations, the only difference being that the live ones spoke, the painted ones stayed silent. The theatrical effect was utterly original…. The audience came as much to be perplexed by this amazing cycle of Jewish frescoes as to see Sholem Aleichem’s skits…. Ultimately, the [evening] was conducted, as it were, in the form of Chagall’s paintings come to life.

And here, I think, we come to the one aspect of the visual arts where it is possible to speak of Chagall’s genius. He is a stage designer comparable to Bakst in the way he uses radiant color and fantastic costumes as thrilling complements to music and dance. Though the Moscow Yiddish Theater never employed him again, and in the 1930s the French never appreciated (or perhaps never realized) that they had a designer of such talent living in Paris, he came into his own in the 1940s when he was living in New York and Léonide Massine commissioned him to design the scenery and costumes for the New York Ballet Theater’s new production of the romantic ballet Aleko, based on the Pushkin poem with music by Tchaikovsky. Once again, he painted the costumes and sets by hand to create a spectacle the dance critic Edwin Denby considered far more interesting than the music or the choreography. Wullschlager writes:

From now until the end of his life, Chagall would be irresistibly drawn to a stage, a ceiling, a wall, a cathedral window…. In America,…he embraced the large scale as the new country reawakened possibilities, dormant since Moscow’s murals, that would shape the rest of his career.

One of the joys of my own childhood was the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Magic Flute with sets and costumes by Chagall. Though I don’t share Wullschlager’s enthusiasm for his later murals for the Paris Opera and the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center (more soft-focus, blowsy sentimentality), in this, at least, we agree.

Unlike his enemy Malevich, Chagall got out of Russia with his wife and daughter, arriving via Berlin in Paris in the summer of 1923. The numerous flower and circus paintings of the next decade and the illustrations for Dead Souls, The Fables of La Fontaine, and the Bible, which he worked on throughout the 1930s, are visually appealing, but ultimately they feel unimportant. In them you have no sense that Chagall is breaking new ground or attempting to renew his sources of inspiration.

The story of Chagall’s escape from Vichy France in April 1941 with the help of the determined young American diplomat Varian Fry could have been lifted from the script of Casablanca, and Wullschlager tells it so well that you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next. And she adds a coda. Twenty years later, when Fry asked all the artists he had helped during the war each to donate a lithograph to be published in a book that would be sold for charity, Chagall alone refused, only finally donating a work after Fry’s death. That Wullschlager bothers to tell this story is in itself an indication of her growing disillusionment with her subject.

With the death in 1944 of his remarkable first wife, Bella, whose loving and stabilizing presence fostered Chagall’s creativity, we can add his name to twentieth-century art’s roll call of egotistical monsters. Bella’s successor, Chagall’s British-born companion Virginia Haggard, would leave him, but not before he had beaten her to the ground with his fists. Within days, Chagall found the woman who was to be his second wife, the dreadful but canny Valentina (Vava) Brodsky. With Vava in charge of his sales, Chagall became a rich man, but also an object of contempt to both Picasso and Matisse, his neighbors in the South of France. Wullschlager tells this fascinating story with unflagging verve. Her impeccable research brings into focus the colorful cast of supporting characters with whom he shared the dramatic upheavals of his life. But I don’t think his art deserves a biography this good.

  1. *

    Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919–1949,” the Jewish Museum, New York City, November 9, 2008–March 22, 2009; and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, April 25–September 7, 2009. The catalog, by Susan Tumarkin Goodman and with essays by Zvi Gitelman, Benjamin Harshav, Vladislav Ivanov, and Jeffrey Veidlinger, is published by the museum and Yale University Press.

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