on Jonathan Wilson's Marc Chagall

Chagall arrived in Paris from Belorussian Vitebsk in 1911 and set up his studio in La Ruche, the now famous art colony, alongside fellow Jewish painters Modigliani and Soutine. But he always got along better with his poet friends, such as Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, than with other painters. “In 1911, and through Chagall alone, metaphor made its triumphal entry into modern painting,” wrote the Surrealist poet André Breton. Chagall embraced Cubism and chased Picasso like everyone else. But the poets immediately sensed that Chagall, bounding out of the backwaters of Eastern Europe (with its folk-art traditions) and the Jewish Pale of Settlement (with its Hasidic legends and parables), was taking the next step in painting.

Making pictures of landscapes, nudes and still lifes, the Cubists were exploding form and extolling the force of sheer color, but their works were usually based on traditional transactions between the eye and the object or scene. In contrast, Chagall’s pictures not only delivered dream-like or visionary imagery, but seemed to emerge from the inside out, the images dropping auspiciously into place. The poets relished how Chagall’s work more directly signified the irrational nature of the psyche.

chagall.jpgJonathan Wilson’s brief, perceptive and affable biography of Chagall may not add a significant dimension to our appreciation of Chagall, but its spirited concision and thematic inclusiveness make it a perfect introduction to the life and works of the enigmatic artist. An accomplished novelist, Wilson is the latest literary figure to be intrigued by Chagall, and his enjoyment is apparent in the often casual tone he takes with the reader in his asides along the way. Chagall, he implies, is someone who approached problems and created solutions we can all understand and find pertinent. Framing our understanding is Wilson’s preoccupation with Chagall’s Jewishness and the role it played in his art.

One of the many virtues of Marc Chagall is its willingness to leave certain questions open, since the ambiguities in Chagall and his work, including his Jewishness, make closure of many issues irrelevant and impossible. In his 1931 autobiography, My Life, Chagall wrote, “Were I not a Jew, with the content that I put in the word, I would not be an artist at all.” (One wonders what he meant by “content.”) Wilson proceeds here by depicting episodes and works that underscore the complexity of Chagall’s identity. “It seems that Chagall exhibited a dual consciousness,” writes Wilson. “All his links to the past pressed daily upon his attachment to and enthusiasm for the liberating present.” Chagall’s reservoir of Jewish mythic imagery was inexhaustible; his use of that elemental imagery was obsessive and repetitive. But Chagall’s relationship with Jewish institutions was tenuous, and his assessment of his people’s awareness of the value of art was harsh.

“We possess absolutely no art connoisseurs, while we do have many specialists in Yiddish literature,” he wrote in 1929. If belonging, and not believing or behaving, is the key determinant of one’s Jewishness, then the speculation about Chagall by some Jews through the years, especially in light of his crucifixion imagery, has been, “Is he one of us?” Wilson keenly comprehends that Chagall was an artist, first and foremost, and that “nothing mattered so much to Chagall as the battles that he staged between what went on in the world and what happened on his canvases.” Perhaps Chagall’s Jewishness is prominent in most considerations of him simply because of his stunning precedence. Although Wilson downplays the obvious historical brevity of Jewish artistic accomplishment from the Enlightenment to the early 1900s, no Jew had managed to discover his individual expression in pictures with such spent force and impact until Chagall.

Thus, Wilson makes us speculate about the exact nature of the provocative pressure Chagall puts on us. The fidelity of Chagall’s imagery to a symbolic code suggests the responsibility of maintaining continuity. But in a free society, the reverence of those symbols must accommodate the liberty to revise. Wilson’s book is important precisely because the mainstream of contemporary Jewish culture in America, in thrall to the sentimentality of Chagall’s rooftop fiddlers, is still not comfortable with those liberties and revisions. Both eager to please and protective of his identity, Chagall is partially responsible for how we strive to misunderstand him.

Wilson spins a taut and spare tale of Chagall. His terse descriptions of the paintings and other works, inserted shrewdly throughout the life narrative, illuminate the solutions Chagall devised to balance form and content. His summations and assessments, dropped in effortlessly along the way, are authoritative and thoughtful. Noting that Chagall specialized in “representations of real or powerfully imagined love and serenity,” Wilson comments, “He walked the tightrope that separates sentimentality from deeper, more authentic feeling better than anyone, except perhaps the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.”

chagall2.jpgIn the work of a great artist, all things occur at once: mythology and memory, the confusion of the present, and the dream of a third way. Wilson’s Chagall, vacillating between earnestness and clownishness, behaved throughout his life in ways that could protect the vulnerable and mysterious core of his creativity. In a letter written in the late 1940s, after the death of his beloved wife Bella, he wrote, “Without love we see all the chaos into which art and life periodically descend.” Love was the unifying if somewhat diffuse spirit of his art. Yet his most striking and moving formal solutions manipulated chaos and made it pleasurably visible. Although the paths into Chagall ultimately circle back on each other, Jonathan Wilson’s book, perhaps accompanied by a volume of Chagall’s works, takes us as far as we can go in a most economical and deft fashion.

Schocken Books, 2007, 240 pp., $19.95

[Published in Tikkun, November-December 2007]