Chagall's Curious Legacy

Chagall's Curious Legacy

An art historian considers the accomplishments of Marc Chagall, perhaps the most famous Jewish artist of the 20th century, but one whose best work was already behind him by the end of World War I.

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3m 41sec

The source: “Whatever Happened to Marc Chagall?” by Michael J. Lewis, in
Commentary, Oct. ­2008.

Think of Marc Chagall (1887–1985), and what immediately comes to mind is a large, colorful canvas filled with whimsical symbols from his Jewish childhood in ­the Russian city of Vitebsk—­a fiddler or a pair of lovers or a cow (sometimes all at once) cavorting on the roof of a ­rough-­hewn peasant house or, just as likely, floating through the air in a dreamy dance. When Chagall died, at 97, he was acclaimed as the last survivor of the pioneering Modernists and the world’s preeminent Jewish artist. But Michael J. Lewis says that Chagall was a “straggler in the march of Modernism,” whose best work was already behind him by the end of World War ­I.

Born Movsha Shagal into a Hasidic Jewish community that did not value visual art, the artist was raised in modest circum­stances; his “remote, pious father toiled in a herring warehouse, and his mother ran a small grocery business from their home,” relates Lewis, a Williams College art historian, drawing on a new biography by Jackie Wullschlager, the art critic at Financial Times. Early on, Chagall studied with Yehuda Pen, a “realist who painted ­plein-­air scenes of Jewish life,” and later in St. Petersburg with Léon Batsk, a ballet set designer. Though the young Chagall resisted his tutors’ attempts to rein in his artistic style, Batsk left an impression on the painter, “who learned to place his figures on the canvas as if they were stenciled ­cut­outs, their eloquence made up almost entirely of their expressively straggling silhouettes.”

By 1911, Chagall had charmed several benefactors into financing a move to Paris. There he was dazzled by the chromatic intensity championed by artists such as Henri Matisse and Odilon Redon. “Many of Chagall’s Paris works were up­dated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist keys,” Lewis says. Indeed, “recycling earlier compositions and themes would become a lifelong habit, and is one of the great peculiarities of his career.” Still, Chagall’s “uncanny gift for coining fresh and haunting symbols, with the rubbery logic of dreams,” impressed the ­avant-­garde crowd that surrounded him in Paris. The poet Apollinaire pro­claimed his canvasses “surréel” (a term that found its way into the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924), but Chagall resisted inclusion in that club. According to Lewis, he “did not like their exaltation of the arbitrary and the random, feeling that his own personal language of symbols was meaningful and thor­oughly sincere.”

Following the Russian Revo­lu­tion, the Bolsheviks sought to make use of Chagall’s growing inter­nation­al fame. He declined a position as Soviet commissar of visual arts, but agreed to take a similar local position in his native Vitebsk, where he spoke out, somewhat naively, in support of personal expression. In 1922 Chagall decamped from Russia, eventually winding up in France, where he began “very assiduously to market himself,” Lewis says, pub­lishing his autobiography at age 36. Chagall worked in a cocoon, protected and sometimes directed by his wife, Bella, and the women who suc­ceeded her after her death in 1944. While commissions kept coming—“stained glass for the cathedrals of Rheims and Metz, a Dag Ham­mar­skjöld memorial at the United Nations, the great ceiling mural in the Paris Opera”—Chagall’s painted work, Lewis contends, remained limited by the same characteristics that define all folk art, “the ­filling-­in of blank spaces with auxiliary figures, the strange shifts in scale that show hierarchical importance rather than recession in depth.”

But if Chagall’s “gifts were limited, he exploited them intensely and with unusual urgency of feeling.” Lewis believes that the early works mark Chagall as “a minor master on the order of a William Blake or an El Greco,” and that he “has earned a permanent place in the pantheon of artists who have spoken deeply about the secrets of the human heart.”

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