Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Introduction to Marc Chagall

Jonathan Wilson
June 03, 2008
She loved Chagall
and wasn’t ashamed of that.
—t. carmi, “In Memory of Leah Goldberg”

In 1968, when I was in my first year at university, I had a cheap poster of a Chagall painting, Double Portrait with Wineglass, on the wall of my dormitory room. The airborne figures, a young man and woman floating above a Russian town, the woman with a sexy slit in her low-cut white dress (possibly a bridal gown), the young man in a bright red jacket with his head tipsily displaced to one side of his body and grinning like Harpo Marx, embodied for me precisely the kind of secular, whimsical, neoromantic sensibility that, at eighteen, I found so compelling. The poster, in my imagination, went right along with E. E. Cummings’s poem that began “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond / any experience, your eyes have their silence” and Elvira Madigan, Swedish director Bo Widerberg’s movie about a doomed tightrope walker. I did not, at this stage of my life, have much or any use for the “Fiddler on the Roof” Chagall: his Praying Jew, for example, a more or less straightforward earthbound representation of the Rabbi of Vitebsk wearing his phylacteries (a painting which I later discovered Chagall long prized as his “masterpiece”), appealed to a conservative sentimentality that I associated, rightly or wrongly, with my parents’ generation and the crowds packing in to see Topol or Zero Mostel as Tevye. If I were a rich man I would have bought one of Chagall’s dreamy garlanded canvases,inspired by his trips into the French countryside, rather than, say, The Violinist, which featured an actual fiddler on the roof and which I considered a lachrymose work formed by a nostalgia-tormented shtetl-locked mind. But, of course, I knew nothing of the social context of any Chagall painting, and almost nothing of his personal history. As with so many writers and artists whom I came across in my formative reading and looking years—Kafka, Bellow, Soutine—the salient thing I knew was simply that they were Jewish.

It did not take long for me to learn that sophisticated art aficionados weren’t supposed to love or even like Chagall. His lovers and his rabbis, his massive bouquets and his violins were equally dubious, equally cloying, not kitsch, but living somewhere dangerously close to that ballpark.

In the last few years a fresh interest in Chagall’s work, partly attributable to the resurfacing of paintings long hidden in the vaults of Soviet museums, has spawned a number of blockbuster shows. The “new” work, which includes a series of outstanding murals created for the Moscow State Yiddish Chamber Theater in 1920, has led inevitably to a reassessment of the “old” work.

Chagall’s oeuvre, when seen in its entirety, seems altogether more historical, more political, harder and edgier than conventional wisdom would have us believe. There is, too, strikingly and unavoidably, a long Jewish story to be told through Chagall’s work. His career spanned two world wars, the Russian Revolution, and the birth of the state of Israel, and his work directly addresses these transforming events through the prism of a Jewish consciousness. Chagall’s perceptible ambivalence about his role and status as a Jewish artist only deepens the content of the story: drawn to sacred subject matter, he remains defiantly secular in outlook; determined to “narrate” both the miraculous and tragic events of Jewish history, including the Nazi Holocaust, he frequently, almost obsessively, chooses Christ as his central symbol of martyrdom and sacrifice, in full knowledge that, even when wrested from their Christian context, images of Jesus are tough for a Jewish audience to swallow. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, Chagall (without converting) found his resting place almost a century later in a Catholic cemetery in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. Aptly, his stained-glass windows adorn both churches and synagogues. His story, then, as told through his paintings, drawings, lithographs, book illustrations, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries, sculptures, windows, and the acts of his life, repeats both the twists and turns and the pulls and tugs of so much Jewish life in the twentieth century: the serpentine vagaries of history, a nostalgic attachment to the spiritually charged but circumscribed pre-Nazi Eastern European Jewish past, and the magnetic attraction of assimilation into an uninhibited secular present.

Jonathan Wilson, the director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, is the author of, among other books, the Nextbook Press biography of Marc Chagall.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of eight books including the novel A Palestine Affair and a biography, Marc Chagall. He recently completed a novel, Hotel Cinema, about the unsolved murder of Chaim Arlosoroff.