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Chagall, between his roots and his art

His dilemma - Yiddish culture versus his desire to be a modern artist - was never resolved.

By Jonathan Wilson

Schocken Books/Nextbook.

220 pp. $19.95

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Reviewed by Edward J. Sozanski

Marc Chagall was born a Jew, but to what extent did he remain one as he developed into one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century? Novelist and critic Jonathan Wilson, who teaches at Tufts University, answers this question definitively in this graceful and insightful new biography.

Perhaps you didn't think there was a question. Jews worldwide, but especially in the United States and Israel, have accepted the former Moishe Shagal as one of their own. To some, he's the quintessential Jewish artist, fiddling on the roof and floating over the rooftops.

Yet Wilson discloses that a lifelong tension between Chagall's upbringing in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, which he immortalized in his early paintings, and his burning desire to be a modern artist produced in Chagall a pronounced and lifelong ambivalence about his ethnic heritage and his religion.

The evidence has been there all along, particularly in his paintings, but no previous biographer has explored the dichotomy in sufficient depth. Wilson does, and with admirable frankness and clarity.

Chagall was born into an Orthodox family, son of a herring merchant. In Wilson's telling, he began to drift away from Judaism when he was a teenager - as soon as he realized that he wanted to be an artist. For the rest of his life, he alternatively embraced Jewish culture, as when he painted sets for the Yiddish state theater in Moscow in the early 1920s, or acted indifferently toward it.

Wilson cites a number of intriguing examples of the artist's cultural schizophrenia. For instance, in his art, especially the painting called White Crucifixion, Chagall portrayed Jesus as an emblem of Jewish suffering. As Wilson writes:

Chagall's relationship to the figure of Jesus Christ is ultimately mysterious, overdetermined, unclassifiable, and contradictory. It is the Jesus of a Jewish child who grew up in an environment of churches and Russian Orthodox icons; of a Jewish painter both attuned to and rebelling against a two-thousand-year tradition of Christian iconography in art; of a Jew in love with the stories of the Hebrew Bible and yet well-versed in the parables of the New Testament, drawn to the poetry of that book and excited by its gaunt philosophy.

Chagall created painted decorations and stained-glass designs for churches and synagogues, although initially the offer from a French monk of a church commission caused him considerable anxiety. To resolve the dilemma, he wrote for advice to Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel. Weizmann told him to follow his conscience. Eventually he accepted the commission.

Chagall's basic conflict seems to have pitted his sentimental memories of his youth in a Jewish community against his desire to be a progressive artist, an ambition he realized he could not achieve in Vitebsk. And so he went first to art school in St. Petersburg, then to Paris in 1910, where he remained aloof from Jewish artists such as Amadeo Modigliani, Jules Pascin and Chaim Soutine.

Chagall went back to Russia just before the outbreak of World War I, and in 1918, after the Bolshevik revolution, found himself back in Vitebsk as a cultural commissar. But Chagall was too much an individualist and dreamer to become a successful revolutionary. By 1923 he was back in Paris, and except for seven years of exile in America during World War II, remained in France until his death.

Chagall's best period as an artist was the years before 1930 when, as Wilson says, "he harnessed his Yiddish past to modern techniques," thereby "sneaking Yiddish culture into 20th-century painting through the back door."

In a sense, Chagall's art, particularly his romanticizing of life in Vitebsk, was his way of preserving Yiddish culture, with which he identified profoundly. Wilson observes, for instance, that Yiddish was the language in which he was most comfortable, even though he also spoke Russian, French and, presumably, some English.

Though compact - one can read it in an afternoon - Wilson's book is a full biography in terms of illuminating the major chapters in the artist's life and career. It's elegantly written and bluntly honest about some aspects of that life that other biographers have ignored or glossed over, particularly Chagall's seven-year liaison with Virginia Haggard, a British woman (not a Jew) who bore him a son.

Chagall died on March 28, 1985, at age 97, six weeks before a major retrospective of his career was to open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the insistence of his second wife, Valentina Brodsky, he was buried in a Catholic cemetery near his home in the south of France. Even death could not reconcile the cultural schism that lives on in his art.