Review: Chagall: Life, Art, Exile

By Matt Shinn, November 20, 2008
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I and the Village (detail), Comité Marc Chagall, Paris

I and the Village (detail), Comité Marc Chagall, Paris

By Jackie Wullschlager
Allen Lane, £30

Brightly coloured lovers flying over Russian rooftops; synagogues and rabbis; violinists; the odd donkey or two: few artists have a more easily recognisable style than Marc Chagall.

But Chagall is a whole heap of contradictions. He used his art as a means of escaping the small-town Russian-Jewish life of his childhood, only to spend much of his artistic life evoking the very kind of community in which he grew up. He was fascinated by everything that was modern in early 20th century modern art, but was not interested in making the kinds of images that other modern artists were making, preferring to focus on his own, seemingly old-fashioned preoccupations: religion, home, and the transports of love. He succeeded in making modern art out of the lost world of the old Jewish Vitebsk (his "sad and joyful town", pretty much razed to the ground in the Second World War).

Chagall is the painter of nostalgia. He experienced more than his fair share of the turmoil of the first half of the 20th century and had to pack his bags frequently, moving from one European capital to another - Petrograd Paris, Berlin - before finally settling in the States. He knew all about being displaced, in other words, and about having crises of identity, and it was out of that he made his art.

All of this makes Chagall an excellent subject for a biography, and in Jackie Wullschlager, the chief art critic for the Financial Times, he has a biographer of extraordinary skill. She has unearthed a good deal of new material, notably through Meret Meyer Graber, Chagall's granddaughter, who gave Wullschlager access to hitherto unknown letters and papers belonging to the artist. This material throws new light particularly on Chagall's relationship with his first wife Bella - a significant link back to his native Russia.

Wullschlager writes with a fluency unusual in artists' biographies and a nuanced understanding of psychology, which is invaluable given that Chagall is a painter whose inner life forms so much of his subject matter. This is that rare thing: a weighty piece of scholarship which is also a page-turner, bringing to life one of modern art's most interesting and enigmatic figures.

Matt Shinn is a freelance writer and teacher of art history

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011