Extract from an article in Issue 17, December 10, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report
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Marc Chagall has been called 'the fiddler on the roof of modernism,' as the provider of an emotional alternative to the cold formalism of much early 20th-century art
First the bad news. This is a biography of a highly prolific artist, yet inexplicably there is only one reproduction, a color frontispiece, in the book. A few black-and-white biographical photos are sprinkled throughout, but when the author interprets the works themselves, the reader is stranded.
If color reproductions are too expensive, it would have been simple and cheap for the publishers to put up a website featuring those works mentioned in the book, thus enabling readers to follow Jonathan Wilson's cogent discussion and judge for themselves.
All the rest is good news. The book is written in tight, unpretentious prose, which gives the general reader an easy-to-digest study of a complex artist. His writing is as spare and disciplined as Chagall's canvases are florid and rambling. He should be praised for avoiding a hagiographic approach, such as that taken by Chagall's son-in-law Franz Meyers in "Marc Chagall, Life and Work," published 21 years before the artist's death, in 1985, at the grand old age of 97.
For many modern critics, including Wilson, the art produced in his early years in St. Petersburg and Paris before World War I and the Russian Revolution is Chagall's finest, fueling a theory that his greatest work was done at a time when he was poor and struggling.
Born Moishe Shagal in 1887 in Vitebsk, now in Belarus, he had his first art education in the studio of a local painter, who taught him not much more than the rudiments, but instilled in him a love of Jewish folklore. He became an art student in St. Petersburg in 1907 and moved to Paris three years after that.
It was during those early years that he adopted the fanciful subjects that became his trademark: cows jumping over the moon, fiddlers on the roof, using dark, solemn colors to reflect the superstitious, isolated life of Jews in the Pale of Settlement.
World War I intervened just after Chagall settled in Paris, and he returned to Vitebsk where the Soviets made him commissar of the arts and founder of the People's Art College and Art Museum. When conditions permitted, he moved back to Paris in 1923 to resume his career.
As his circumstances improved, his art became less innovative. According to Wilson, Chagall began years of, well, fiddling with his subjects rather than breaking new ground like his Parisian contemporaries.
"It did not take me long to learn that sophisticated art aficionados weren't supposed to love or even like Chagall," Wilson states at the outset. "With cloying figures, dangerously close to kitsch, Chagall mastered the mechanics of sentimentality and ritualized tearful responses."
To a large extent, it was a question of public demand. In Paris he found a public hungry for sentimentality and hope. Chagall eagerly began to supply what Wilson calls "endless bouquets to a public eager for whimsical beauty." His efforts earned him the epithet of "the fiddler on the roof of modernism," as the provider of an emotional alternative to the cold formalism of much early 20th century art.
Secure in his niche, Chagall revisited themes and ended up with predictable sentimentality. So committed was he to his early works that following WWI, he attempted to recreate many that had been lost during the conflict, relying on photos, magazine articles and memory. He asked collectors for permission to copy or at least see those of his works that had survived.
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