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“When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” As a pioneer of modernism and one of the greatest figurative artists of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall achieved fame and fortune, and over the course of a long career created some of the best-known and most-loved paintings of our time. Yet behind this triumph lay struggle, heartbreak, bitterness, frustration, lost love, exile—and above all the miracle of survival.
Born into near poverty in Russia in 1887, the son of a Jewish herring merchant, Chagall fled the repressive “potato-colored” tsarist empire in 1911 for Paris. There he worked alongside Modigliani and Léger in the tumbledown tenement called La Ruche, where “one either died or came out famous.” But turmoil lay ahead—war and revolution; a period as an improbable artistic commissar in the young Soviet Union; a difficult existence in Weimar Germany, occupied France, and eventually the United States. Throughout, as Jackie Wullschlager makes plain in this groundbreaking biography, he never ceased giving form on canvas to his dreams, longings, and memories.
His subject, more often than not, was the shtetl life of his childhood, the wooden huts and synagogues, the goatherds, rabbis, and violinists—the whole lost world of Eastern European Jewry. Wullschlager brilliantly describes this world and evokes the characters who peopled it: Chagall’s passionate, energetic mother, Feiga-Ita; his eccentric fellow painter and teacher Bakst; his clever, intense first wife, Bella; their glamorous daughter, Ida; his tough-minded final companion and wife, Vava; and the colorful, tragic array of artist, actor, and writer friends who perished under the Stalinist regime.
Wullschlager explores in detail Chagall’s complex relationship with Russia and makes clear the Russian dimension he brought to Western modernism. She shows how, as André Breton put it, “under his sole impulse, metaphor made its triumphal entry into modern painting,” and helped shape the new surrealist movement. As art critic of the Financial Times, she provides a breadth of knowledge on Chagall’s work, and at the same time as an experienced biographer she brings Chagall the man fully to life—ambitious, charming, suspicious, funny, contradictory, dependent, but above all obsessively determined to produce art of singular beauty and emotional depth.
Drawing upon hitherto unseen archival material, including numerous letters from the family collection in Paris, and illustrated with nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, and photographs, Chagall is a landmark biography to rank with Hilary Spurling’s Matisse and John Richardson’s Picasso.
This thorough exploration of celebrated postmodernist painter Chagall begins with his 1887 birth in Vitebsk, a small Jewish town in Russia that he would repeatedly return to, both literally and artistically. He immigrated to Paris in 1911, where he soaked up Impressionism and identified immediately with Gauguin and Picasso's Cubism. Returning to Vitebsk in 1914, moments before the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Chagall was initially prized by the Bolsheviks, who wanted to put him in charge of the visual arts department in the Soviet education agency. Chagall declined, helping instead to establish the Vitebsk People's Art College, but the Bolshevik obsession with "peasant art" and the increasingly ominous political climate sent Chagall, along with his wife Thea and daughter Ida, back to Paris. Though the move proved to be Chagall's big break, the transformation of Vitebsk and general ruin of Russia weighed heavily on him. Chagall's life, talent and times are documented meticulously by biographer Wullschlager (author of 2001's Hans Christian Andersen), producing a complete portrait of an inspiring, complicated artist who merged French and Russian sensibilities, invoked "the concrete village disposition... of Vitebsk and the global cosmic one of Russian abstraction," and suffered as both victim and survivor of Fascism's first wave. 32 pages color illustrations, 155 b&w illustrations.