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Portrait of an Artist

How Chagall—”the little Jew from Vitebsk”—became an art star

Robin Cembalest
March 06, 2007

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To some, he is the most famous of the Jewish artists. To others, he is the most Jewish of famous ones. Modernists celebrate him for fusing the Yiddishe sensibility of his provincial Russian birthplace with the urban genre of Cubism and the poetic disjunctures of Surrealism. Postmodernists praise him for pointing a way out of irony. Yet for the general public, Marc Chagall remains nothing but a painter of Fiddler on the Roof-style kitsch and sentimentality.

These contradictions have long intrigued Jonathan Wilson, a writer and critic who teaches English at Tufts University. After completing his novel A Palestine Affair, which was based partly on the life of Anglo-Jewish painter David Bomberg, Wilson began thinking about some of Bomberg’s Jewish peers, such as Modigliani, Pascin and, in particular, Chagall. The result is Marc Chagall, a biography out this March. The seventh title in the Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook and Schocken, it presents the artist as a multifaceted, sexually ambivalent sophisticate who transcends the folkloristic stereotype.

When you were in college in 1968 you had a poster of Chagall’s 1917-18 painting Double Portrait with Wineglass on your dorm wall. Then you learned that the artist was not considered cool. Fast forward several decades. In the introduction to Marc Chagall, you write that the artist is “more political, harder and edgier than conventional wisdom would have us believe.” When did you come around to this opinion?

Two events: the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991 and the publication in English in 2004 of Benjamin Harshav’s monumental translations of Chagall’s letters made available a trove of material, artistic and written, previously accessible only to those with keys to various Soviet basements or those who read Yiddish. Chagall’s life in the immediate post-revolutionary period in Russia was both fascinating and fraught and does not comport with stereotypical portraits of him as an airy dreamer. For example, it now seems quite likely that Chagall, while working in his capacity as a Soviet commissar, evicted a Jewish family from their home in Vitebsk in order to establish an art school in the building. On the plus side, the marvelous murals that Chagall executed for Moscow’s Yiddish theatre in 1920, hidden for decades by Soviet authorities, have once again seen the light of day and have circulated, since the end of Communism, to museums worldwide. All in all Chagall’s voluminous correspondence and autobiographical writings reveal a man trying to ride the turbulence of history in the 20th century, and aiming to confront and represent it, and not, as we might imagine, to avoid trouble and politics by taking to the air.

As you put it, Chagall was a “chameleon,” a wandering Jew who assumed different personalities in his native Yiddish and his adopted French and who “resisted a fixed identity whenever one seemed to be on the point of closing around him.” How have the “many faces” of Marc Chagall affected his image as an artist?

Chagall is claimed by the Russians as a Russian artist, by the French as a French painter, and by the Jews as a Jewish artist. At different times in his life he ran into trouble with all three groups. The Soviets thought him decadent (as did the Nazis), some conservative French critics found him too Jewish—certainly too Jewish to be illustrating La Fontaine’s fables or painting the ceiling of the Paris Opera—while more than a few Jewish critics have been disturbed by his obsession with Jesus and his multiple contributions, via stained-glass windows, to church decor. Chagall saw himself, self-effacingly, as “a little Jew from Vitebsk” but also, self-aggrandizingly, as a world-historical figure. His identity as an artist absorbed his contradictions; his studio was undoubtedly his temple and in it his relationship with his work, erotically charged (he liked to paint in the nude) allowed him to transcend both national and religious affiliations.

Chagall is the iconic Jewish artist of the 20th century. A huge chunk of his oeuvre deals with his religion, his culture, and his people. When he was first invited to make work for a Dominican church, he was so conflicted he wrote to France’s chief rabbi and Israel’s President Chaim Weizmann for advice. Of course he later went on to make work for several Christian venues, but that was hardly as controversial as his depictions of Christ, whom he painted mainly as a crucified shtetl Jew. You describe his relationship to the figure of Jesus Christ as “ultimately mysterious, overdetermined, unclassifiable, and contradictory.” You suggest that the imagery is tied into the difficulty of creating an artistic response to the enormity of the Holocaust.

Chagall—who attended cheder from the age of three or four until his bar mitzvah, after which he entirely abandoned his Jewish education—loved the stories of the Hebrew Bible, but he also held the profound belief that Jesus was a great Jewish poet and prophet who had sadly and detrimentally been excluded from Jewish history. In this view he was, perhaps, ahead of his time. The Jesus who appears in Chagall’s painting and who haunted his imagination (so much so that Chagall once paid a visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the hope of getting some clarity on the matter) is indeed frequently depicted as a shtetl Jew and, by extension, as a symbol of Jewish martyrdom, but sometimes he appears, for example on some of Chagall’s ceramics, as a conventional Christ. Fascinatingly, Jesus sometimes morphs into a Chagall self-portrait, in which Chagall’s own name is substituted on the cross where we might expect to find INRI. Undoubtedly Jesus was a ragged figure swinging quite violently through Chagall’s imagination and he was already doing so well before the Holocaust. When it came to the Holocaust Chagall reached out, like no other artist of his time, to the crucified Jesus as a figure to embody the slaughter.

How do Chagall’s depictions of Jesus differ from other modernist depictions of Jesus by Jewish artists that you mention in the book?

While Louise Nevelson and Adolph Gottlieb, among others, produced one-off “Modern Christs” that could be interpreted as symbols of Jewish suffering in the time of the Holocaust, Chagall executed at least ten major Crucifixion scenes between 1941 and 1944. At any time of his life, when Chagall’s emotions were in turmoil, in love or abject misery, he was as likely (or more likely) to turn to Jesus as to King David, Moses, or Elijah in order to find an objective correlative for his feelings.

He made some of his worst art in Israel, in your estimation. Why would that be?

That’s a hard question. Chagall first visited Palestine in 1931 and made many subsequent visits. My speculation is that, while he very much wanted to feel at home in the Jewish State—in his letters to Jewish friends, he sometimes refers to the Israeli government as “our government”—he remained uninspired there. I would explain the blandness of the work that he produced on his visits as emerging from a peculiar combination of guilt and a fear of provinciality. Chagall painted like a tourist while he was in Palestine and then Israel, while his younger contemporary Reuven Rubin, who had made aliyah, painted like Chagall. Chagall was an established international figure in the art world by 1931, a position that he probably imagined would be threatened if he moved to the Middle East. It might have seemed to him like a return to the provincial world of Vitebsk. Tel Aviv, with a Jewish population considerably smaller than Vilna’s at the time, was hardly Paris. Nevertheless Chagall wanted to show how he carried Israel in his heart and so he painted the Western Wall, and Rachel’s Tomb, and a temple in Safed, but he did so, it seems to me, out of a desire to appease some imagined Jewish audience (I want to suggest his parents, but I won’t) rather than from his own strong artistic impulses. The result was paintings that are almost unrecognizable as “Chagalls.”

You write that he walks the tightrope between sentimentality and authentic feeling better than anyone except Yehuda Amichai. How so?

The “how” is tricky, you can never see how either the great artists or the great magicians perform their tricks, unless they deign, like Nabokov, to strip the stage and show you. Perhaps the explanation can only be parsed through reader or viewer response. When you read Amichai, or look at Chagall’s greatest paintings, you are transported to a place that borders the towns of Schlock and Sentimentality, you can see them, but you never cross into them. Instead, you get love in a warm climate.

Also, you relate his modernist approach to his native folkloristic culture to the writing of Gabriel García Márquez. Those are not exactly two artists whom I would link, except through Communism, sort of.

I believe that they have a great deal in common (Chagall, by the way, while a Soviet plenipotentiary, never joined the Communist party) and I might want to add Zora Neale Hurston into the pot. All three absorbed their local folk cultures into their work in ways that produced a strikingly new autonomous aesthetic. They were, and still are in Márquez’s case, all ethnographers from the inside. The realist form is clearly unsuitable to depict a culture where fable, superstition, and religion interact in wondrous ways, as it suggests an order in the community that doesn’t exist. Through Chagall, through Márquez, through Hurston, we get, if you like, the indigenous mind rather than the colonizing mind of the dominant culture. Their strength works against the merely picturesque: no more quaint old market vendors, instead, levitating figures and talking animals in a Cubist world. Chagall was undoubtedly the first magic realist.

You discuss Chagall’s youthful use of makeup—how he rouged his cheeks, wore eye shadow, painted his lips—and you look at a certain gender confusion, suggesting he may have been involved with men. Has this been ignored?

It hasn’t exactly been ignored, maybe elided. In Marc Chagall and His Times Benjamin Harshav describes his early days in Paris as “a period of frustration and confusion, fraught with sexual, artistic and religious ambivalences.” Fragments from two 1910 letters reveal that Chagall’s relationship with Viktor Mekler, whom he had first met in Vitebsk and with whom he met up again in Paris, had a powerful homoerotic element. Chagall’s autobiography reports his propensity to make up his face, which he explains, oddly, as his way of attracting local girls. Certainly, some matrons in town, especially Bella Rosenfeld’s mother (Bella was to become Chagall’s first wife) were perturbed. I don’t know that there is “more.” Chagall spent four years in Paris, from 1910 to 1914 (from the ages of 23 to 27) and we know almost nothing of his sexual life in that period. The assumption has always been that he remained faithful to his true love, Bella, who was home in Vitebsk. I do think that a closer look needs to be taken at the androgynous figures, frequently self-portraits, that populate Chagall’s paintings. The “sexual ambivalences” that Harshav alludes to are certainly on display there.

Chagall is not shy about using sexually charged imagery. You suggest it’s more disturbing and powerful even than Picasso’s.

The sexuality on display in some of Chagall’s paintings is, as my students would say, weird. He’s known of course for his lovely representations of romantic love, but when he does turn his imagination to sex the results are strange. For example, in The Dream (1927) a semi-naked woman arches back along the length of a creature with a horse’s body and a rabbit’s head. Possibly the woman is strapped down, perhaps she has been ravished already, or she is on her way to a ravishing. In The Rooster (1929) a female figure rides and embraces a rather happy-looking giant cockerel. The mythological tradition provides a precedent—we might think of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan—but Chagall’s references are obscure in that regard, if not in Freudian terms. His painting The Ass and the Woman (1912) was removed from display at the Salon D’Automne because the judges considered it to be pornographic, not because of the erotic embrace that it configures between a woman and a Minotaur with whom she appears to have recently performed fellatio, but on account of a penile oil lamp-cum-opium pipe in the bottom right hand corner. Either way it’s a wild piece of art.

Then, there are his self-portraits, which you note are more plentiful than anyone except maybe Rembrandt.

My knee-jerk response is that of course it has something to do with the consummate narcissism of the artist. But I don’t think that Rembrandt was particularly enamored of himself and while those who knew Chagall rarely accused him of false modesty, it seems to me more likely that Chagall viewed the self-portrait, certainly later in his life, as a way to stave off old age, control the ravages of time and preserve his image as he liked to remember it. There is something extraordinarily touching in his last work, a lithograph titled Toward the Other Light (1985) . Here Chagall represents himself as a young painter at his easel, winged as if ready for flight. An angel reaches down, ready to carry him off. A young man in the painting, who also resembles Chagall, reaches out through the frame of the painting on the easel to offer his doppelgänger a bouquet of flowers. At the end Chagall’s art gave something, a bunch of flowers, back to the artist after all that he had given us.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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