'A Fiddler on the Roof of Modernism'
March 14, 2007

The problem with art biographies is that they tend to contain very little art. You cannot quote a painting the way you can a novel, a letter, or a line of poetry. To compensate, art biographers toss in everything about an artist but the kitchen sink — the models and the mistresses, the comrades and the critics. But without direct contact with the work — the reason we are reading the biography in the first place — can an art biography ever really describe the heart of its subject's life? And I'm not talking about including a few color reproductions.

In just more than 200 pages of "Marc Chagall" (Schocken, 256 pages, $19.95), Jonathan Wilson solves this problem with an artfully written art biography that captures its subject in the same kaleidoscopic palette as Chagall painted. This is not a biography that settles on describing an artist's life. It is a book that looks out from the artist's work — the literalization of an oeuvre.

"The man in the air in my paintings ... is me," Chagall said to an interviewer in 1950. "It used to be partially me. Now it is entirely me. I'm not fixed anyplace. I have no place of my own." In the air, floating over the mundane non-essentials of an artist's life, that's where Mr. Wilson finds Chagall.

Mr. Wilson filters his story through a Jewish lens. His biography is just one of several dozen new and forthcoming books on "Jewish Encounters" published by Schocken/Nextbook in a series edited by Jonathan Rosen. Rather than limiting the narrative, Mr. Wilson's focus reveals Chagall in high relief. As an artist, Chagall discovered a unique resonance between the modern Jewish Diaspora and the modernist condition. Born Moishe Shagal in 1877, in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, Chagall utilized the color-and-line principles of the French avant-garde to document the "twilight of a Jewish world."

In life, as in his art, Chagall floated over adversity. He skirted the race laws of Imperial Russia to study art in St. Petersburg. He made his exit of the Iron Curtain just as Kazimir Malevich's "Suprematist Academy" was moving in on his Vitebsk Free Academy. He took his last step on Vichy soil, with the help of Varian Fry and other American supporters, just as the Reich was sealing up the French borders.

Chagall also floated over distinctions that might have hemmed in more Earth-bound personalities. "His work and his life both reveal a reactive desire to be a Russian to Russians, a Jew to Jews, and a Frenchman to the French," Mr. Wilson writes. In his paintings Chagall often incorporated the figure of Jesus, whom he saw as the embodiment of Jewish suffering as a stand-in for the artist and, after the war, the Shoah. "[T]he Holocaust takes place on the streets where Chagall grew up and Jesus, frequently wearing a tallith (prayer shawl) around his waist, is repeatedly crucified there." Mr. Wilson argues that as a Jew working in Christian iconography, Chagall was like Irving Berlin, his painting "White Crucifixion" like the song "White Christmas." For Chagall, this meant imagining a "pre-Christian Jesus" who was "a great poet, the teaching of whose poetry has been forgotten by the modern world," as the artist said to Partisan Review in 1944.

In subject matter, Chagall drifted between the ascetic parameters of high modernism and the nostalgic sentimentality for a lost home. For art purists, this has been the one fact that grounds Chagall's reputation. The critic Robert Hughes once called Chagall "the Fiddler on the Roof of Modernism." But Chagall was more than a mere Jewish Surrealist, as Mr. Wilson writes, "preserving it in schmaltz." A novelist and literary critic, Mr Wilson himself floats above the etiquette of art biography to write magical paragraphs like this one:

A book marking the vast contribution of Jews to the history of sentimentality ... has yet to be written. But in it Chagall would surely have his own chapter, not because his paintings are desper ately mawkish (and after all, sentimentality is not the attribute only of weaker artists — think of Dickens or Renoir) but because he walked the tightrope that separates sentimentality from deeper, more authentic feeling better than anyone, except perhaps the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

Mr. Wilson begins his book with the acknowledgment that "sophisticated art aficionados weren't supposed to love or even like Chagall. His lovers and his rabbis, his massive bouquets and his violins were equally dubious, equally cloying, not kitsch, but living somewhere dangerously close to that ballpark." Two hundred pages later, Mr. Wilson returns his subject from the dustbin of college poster art to the skies above Vitebsk, where Chagall belongs.