Restoring a master

A new biography seeks to redefine Marc Chagall's place in art history
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  March 30, 2009

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When Marc Chagall died in 1985 at the age of 98 he was internationally famous, wealthy, and had lived to see a museum built for him by the French government. He was one of the three most celebrated modern artists in the world, along with Matisse and Picasso. 
CHAGALL: A BIOGRAPHY | By Jackie Wullschlager | Alfred A. Knopf | 608 pages | $40

Jackie Wullschlager, the art critic for the British newspaper Financial Times, has written a new biography of Chagall using access to family archives, letters, interviews with family members, and other material to build a fascinating picture of a truly unusual career.

What emerges from her work is an artist who was confident in his ability, ambitious and ready to reinvent himself time and time again, and who stayed rooted in his past while he strove to make himself into a major artist.

Chagall grew up in Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus but was then part of the Pale of Settlement, the area of Russia where Catherine the Great had sent all the Jews of the Russian empire. His background and surroundings were Hasidic, and the mystical overtones of this deeply orthodox community informed his paintings throughout his career. In that tradition, there's an alternative spiritual reality that co-exists with our normal, earth-bound life, where normal rules of time and space don't apply.

With the support of his mother (strong women were central to his life and career) he began studies with a local painter, an unusual direction for a young man in his community. He eventually went on to St. Petersburg, garnering enough support to make his way to Paris in 1911. There he fell in with the avant-garde, and blended his mystical views of life in Vitebsk with the pictorial fracturing of Cubism and the intense color of the Fauves. While there he developed his popular, dreamlike themes that he used again and again, and which ultimately made him famous.

He returned to Russia to marry his fiancée Bella in 1914 , and got caught up in the revolution. He became the commissar of art in Vitebsk, and started an art school, but his insistence on the importance of an individualistic vision was unacceptable to the Bolsheviks. He was forced out of his position by the ferocious Kazimir Malevich, who insisted that art should be communal and abstract.

He went to Moscow and then on to Germany in 1922, finding that his reputation had grown during his relative isolation in Russia. He had become quite famous, but the German atmosphere was increasingly hostile to Jews and he went on to Paris in 1923, staying in France until World War II forced him to travel to the United States. When he went back to Europe after the war, his work was in great demand.

Wullschlager's access to private papers and records has produced a remarkable portrait of the unusual career of this internationally popular artist. Where he fits in the history of art is another matter.

His work resonates to a wide public because he depicted a mystical, dreamlike alternative reality that was at once familiar and exotic. Donkeys played flutes and fiddlers did, indeed, play on the roof. He also took from the artistic currents of his time and made them into something else, something that was easier to comprehend than the austerities of Cubism or Matisse's inventive use of color.

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