The Wandering Jew

Chagall was the most Jewish of Jewish painters, even when he was designing windows for churches.

chagall book 88 298 (photo credit: )
chagall book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Yes, yet another biography of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). This one is a wonderfully easy read and sums up a long and complicated life. In fact it is altogether the best since Sidney Alexander's monumental biography I reviewed back in 1978. Alexander was the first to reveal details of Chagall's relationship with Virginia Haggard McNeil and Valentina "Vava" Brodsky, the latter a convert to Christianity who buried Chagall in a Catholic cemetery, beneath a huge stone cross. Chagall, a thoroughly secular Jew, was the most Jewish of Jewish painters, even when he was designing windows for Catholic cathedrals and churches. He constantly recreated his hometown of Vitebsk as a shtetl that had never really existed (it was actually a large town and the capital of Belarus), though his earliest drawings are documents of the simple, poverty-stricken Jewish life of his childhood there. As Ziva Maisels has pointed out, many of the details in his works are his visual translations of Yiddish expressions. Yiddish was and remained his first language, the only one in which he was truly fluent. His constantly recurring images are of lovers (himself and his first wife Bella and later of the lovely Virginia), of shtetl farm animals, biblical images and self-portraits. Chagall was always his favorite subject and he perennially painted and drew himself (he had an interesting and handsome face); and as Wilson reminds us, occasionally painted his own face with makeup, well into his 60s. There were also periods of Russian soldiers, Wandering Jews and bearded rabbis, biblical images and circus extravaganzas. Chagall is often accused of peddling shopworn kitsch, but the fact is that he rarely repeated himself, always finding new solutions to make his paintings and prints work. In Paris between 1910-14 he produced a great body of original work that was in the forefront of modern art; some 200 Chagalls were exhibited by Hewarth Walden in Berlin in June 1914. Chagall went from Berlin to Vitebsk to his sister's wedding. The outbreak of World War I forced him to remain in Russia. In 1915 he married Bella Rosenfeld and worked as a clerk in the Office of War Economy and later, as Commissar for Art in Vitebsk, opened an art school there. All the while he was painting and exhibiting. No fewer than 45 Chagalls were included in the pioneering Moscow show of the Jack of Diamonds group in 1916, the year his daughter Ida was born. Chagall opened his school in 1919 and made the mistake of hiring modernists Malevich and Lissitzky as teachers. Malevich despised Chagall's "Jewish folklore," and as soon as Chagall was away fund-raising, took over the school, calling it the Suprematist Academy. But Malevich himself was soon forced to turn out Communist folklore. His school lost, Chagall moved his family to Moscow and in the cold of 1920 began painting, gratis, his chef d'oeuvre, the mural panels for the Moscow Yiddish State Theater. One of them depicted a fiddler on a roof, providing the title of the mawkish hit musical more than four decades later. Stalin closed the theater and murdered its star, Solomon Mikhoels, but the superb panels miraculously survived and were recently exhibited worldwide under the watchful gaze of platoons of Russian minders. The young Chagall was a perennial shlimazzel. Returning to Paris with Bella and Ida in 1923 he was shocked to learn that all the wonderful early works he had left behind in 1914 had vanished during the war; some were used to build rabbit hutches. All the many works he had left with Walden in Berlin also disappeared or had been sold. Walden returned him the sales money; but German money was then worthless. He much later had better luck getting crates of his work out of Occupied France, largely thanks to an American consul and a courageous official of the American Relief Committee who rescued Chagall from a Vichy lockup in Marseilles. Bella, Ida and Chagall arrived in the US in 1941 but when Bella died in 1944 of a neglected infection, Chagall was distraught, a lost soul. The following year the attractive and unhappily married Virginia Haggard McNeil became Chagall's housekeeper and very soon his lover. Their son, David, was born in 1946 but, in accordance with French law, was registered as David McNeil. The same year Chagall was honored with a retrospective at MOMA and in 1947 with another in Paris. In 1948, Chagall and Virginia (who was fluent in French) returned to Paris. In 1951 they visited Israel as the guests of president Zalman Shazar. I recall Virginia, a lost soul, tagging along in the rear of dignitaries surrounding the master. It was Chagall's second visit to what he called "our government" but his ambivalent heart was in France. In April 1952, a fed-up Virginia decamped with a Belgian photographer even older than Chagall. She wrote of him in a memoir "he painted love but did not practice it." But Chagall could not live alone. Less than three months later he married Valentina Brodsky, an attractive London milliner of Russian Jewish origin. Chagall was unaware that she was a closet Christian but Wilson suggests that he soon accepted the fact and that, to him, she was basically a yiddene. Vava was evidently what is known as a piece of work. She quickly divorced and remarried Chagall on terms more favorable to herself. She ran his social life, his accounts, censored his mail (eliminating Yiddish publications) and encouraged his designs for cathedral windows. She had a plan: to turn Chagall into a French artist and a "universal" rather than a Jewish one and in this she was aided by Andre Malraux and Jack Lang. She also displaced Ida and for a while foiled Chagall's attempts to get close to his son. Chagall described himself as her prisoner, but the prison was one he enjoyed. He went to his studio every day and was left to work in peace. Chagall was never happier than when he was just drawing on a piece of paper. However, it was during the three decades of Vava that Chagall was encouraged to design huge projects to be carried out by others. The stained glass windows made for the nearly invisible synagogue at Hadassah and for a number of cathedrals were crafted by the amenable young Charles Marq. Chagall's brilliantly successful ceiling for the Paris Opera (1963) slyly incorporated a Jewish wedding scene, a dig perhaps at the numerous French anti-Semites who opposed the commission. Vava's disapproval notwithstanding, Chagall constantly worked Judaizing details into his church projects and his crucified Christ was clearly Jewish. His biblical themes were poetic; one of the greatest of them is his cavalcade rendered on a huge gobelin tapestry for the Knesset. And there's a Chagall museum of biblical themes run by the state in the South of France. Chagall's fecundity into his late life was amazing. He designed murals for theaters in Chicago and New York, and also decor and costumes for ballets. His windows adorn a church in England. While much of Chagall's late work is of lovers and bouquets, there were exceptions like his Fall of Icarus, painted in 1975 when he was 88, which depicts the winged youth falling into a teeming shtetl. The Jews watch in consternation but another group dance in delight: these, say Wilson, are the anti-Semites, of whom Chagall was always very much aware. A holder of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor who had donated so many works to France, he complained that whatever he may contribute, a Jew cannot win. Chagall died aged 97. Among his grandchildren at the funeral in the Catholic cemetery were Ida's charming and clever daughters Meret and Bella; and David McNeil. At the conclusion of the service an unknown young man in a skullcap stepped forward and recited the Kaddish. Author Wilson, an author and literary critic who once lived for a while in Jerusalem as the tenant of Lilik Schatz (a painter, by the way, not a sculptor) lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his Jewish family. He acknowledges a great debt to the research of Benjamin Harshav. His excellent book is the seventh in the Jewish Encounters series published by Schocken Books in collaboration with Nextbook, all edited by Jonathan Rosen. Another dozen such books are planned.