Performance artist

Chagall's contribution to Soviet Jewish theater is fully documented in Wullschlager's new biography.

chagall book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chagall book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater Edited by Susan Goodman Yale University Press 256 pages; $65 Chagall By Jackie Wullschlager Knopf 584 pages; $40 Marc Chagall is the best-known Jewish artist of the 20th century. During his long life from 1887 to 1985, he achieved great fame. He became the rich man in the song from Fiddler on the Roof, a play that Chagall intensely disliked. However, his The Violinist, the basis for the fiddler on the roof, became one of his most famous paintings. The set designer Boris Aronson had worked with Chagall at the Moscow Jewish Theater 40 years earlier. At that time, in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet Jewish theater flourished and Chagall, along with other artists, created sets, murals, stage designs and costumes. This modernist work is the basis for an exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum that is on view until March 22, when it will move to San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum where it will be on display until September 7. The excellent book, skillfully edited by Susan Goodman, the curator at the Jewish Museum who arranged the exhibition, is its catalog. Her essay on the Soviet Jewish theater is the first of six first-rate essays that introduce more than 200 colorful illustrations which beautifully demonstrate the creativity of the Jewish artists who brilliantly used their avant-garde competence to complement the experimental stage productions. Included in the catalog are helpful biographies of the artists, a valuable time line that traces the rise and fall of Soviet Jewish theater, a useful glossary and a checklist of the items in the exhibition. There is also a thorough bibliography and information about the essayists. Chagall's contribution to Soviet Jewish theater is fully documented in the new biography written by art critic Jackie Wullschlager. She is almost halfway through her lengthy volume before she gets to the stirring events that began in 1920, when Chagall, his wife, Bella, and their four-year-old daughter, Ida, were living in poverty in Moscow. By that time, he had already received recognition in Paris and Berlin before returning to his Russian birthplace in Vitebsk. Trapped by the outbreak of World War I, Chagall was enormously productive, painting self-portraits and pictures of Bella that were reasonably well received, although wartime hardships made life difficult. After the 1917 revolution, Chagall was appointed commissar of arts for Vitebsk. He started an art college but internal rivalries led to his being ousted. Accordingly, he welcomed the opportunity to become involved as stage designer and muralist for the new Soviet Jewish theater. The seven large canvases that became Introduction to the Jewish Theater turned into what he regarded as the masterpieces of his career. Chagall eventually left Russia, initially for Berlin and then for Paris, where he remained until 1941, becoming increasingly famous and wealthy. In 1931, he visited Palestine, beginning a series of biblical paintings. In 1941, to escape from World War II, Chagall and Bella went to America, leaving Ida behind, although she arrived later with a crate of Chagall's paintings. In 1944, while they were spending the summer in upstate New York, Bella died. After a mourning period during which he did no work, he established a relationship with his housekeeper, Virginia McNeil, with whom he had a son, David. Chagall returned to Europe and settled in the south of France, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1951, he visited Israel, where the differences between him and Virginia were exacerbated. They eventually separated and, later, Chagall married his new housekeeper, Valentina Brodsky, remaining with her until he died. She took over the business side of his work, astutely contributing to his increasing financial success. He worked in new media - stained glass, book illustrations and ceramics, creating his own style of modern art. Chagall's long and tumultuous life is fully and painstakingly set forth in this clear and thorough biography. Taken together, these two books heighten our knowledge about and appreciation for this great artist. The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.