“From Shtetl to Chateau”, Richard Dorment reviews “Chagall: A Biography”

“every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably”–Walter Benjamin

One of my favorite artists has always been Marc Chagall. His piece, “White Crucifixion”chagall_crucifixion_blancais one of his most important paintings that depicts the treatment of Jews through history with a reminder that Christ was Jewish. Sander Gilman has written quite eloquently of Chagall’s manner of depicting the Jewish body, Eastern European mysticism. But this is the diasporic body, a nomad, moving between the lost world of Eastern European Jewry and the depictions of pre-Shoah Jewry in post-Shoah art such as “Fiddler of the Roof” (1964).

Richard Dorment’s review of the perhaps the most comprehensive biography of Chagall to date is well worth the read:

“Although he ceased to practice religion at the age of thirteen, Chagall’s work is suffused with imagery drawn from Jewish ritual and folklore, particularly from Hasidic festivals and feast days when song and dance were used to express the mystical union of man and nature. Through the joy of Hasidism, his biographer believes, he “transformed the cramped, dull back-streets of his childhood” into a color-saturated “vision of beauty and harmony on canvas.”

The transformative dimension of Chagall’s work is lost to us today, but it is precisely what so impressed his contemporaries. The artist and critic Alexandre Benois, for example, was amazed that a dirty, smelly “Jewish hole” like Vitebsk with “its winding streets, its blind houses and its ugly people, bowed down by poverty, [could] be thus attired in charm, poetry and beauty in the eyes of the painter.”

When Chagall’s ambitious mother bribed a teacher at the local school to ignore the quota on Jewish pupils, she put her son on the long road out of Vitebsk, and eventually out of Russia—not least because the boy, who until then spoke only Yiddish and wrote in Hebrew, was taught Russian and made to use the Cyrillic alphabet. He left school in 1905 without a diploma, but by then he had become obsessed with drawing and determined to become an artist.

Such an activity was unimaginable in a world with no pictorial culture of any kind. “In our home town,” he wrote, “we never had a single picture, print or reproduction, at most a couple of photographs of members of my family…. I never had occasion to see, in Vitebsk, such a thing as a drawing.” When a classmate saw paintings by the teenage Chagall, he blurted out that his friend was “a real artist!” Chagall claimed that he had never heard the word “artist” and did not know what it meant.

All the more remarkable then that his mother managed to enroll him in the only art school in the whole of the Pale of Settlement, the academy in Vitebsk run by a Jewish portrait and genre painter who had studied at the St. Petersburg Academy. Thanks to the solid, traditional techniques taught by Yuri Pen, Chagall learned to draw from plaster casts and to work from a life model. And although he was to reject Pen’s realistic style of painting, he learned from his teacher’s example to find his subjects in shtetl life all around him. In time, Chagall would reconfigure the sights and sounds of his childhood as helium-filled fantasies in which cows sail through the night sky and fiddlers fiddle on roofs. But to do so he had to leave Vitebsk. As Wullschlager shrewdly comments, “Chagall’s art was fuelled by the twin drives to escape and to remember.”

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