Book review: Chagall: Love and Exile

by Jackie WullschlagerAllen Lane, 608pp, £30


EVEN BY MODERNIST STANDARDS, his paintings are extraordinary: dreamlike dramas, fragmentary folk tales, unfathomable allegories. An irresistible – often childlike – charm, an ingenuous audacity in the use of colour, and yet the suggestion too of something deeper, more disturbing.

Distinctions between the high and low, the classical and the popular traditions, have little bearing on these enigmatic works. The most elusive of artistic talents, Chagall was also the most evasive of characters, but this superb biography finally pins him down.

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The man who emerges here was as much an escapologist as an artist, frantic to leave his ow+n background behind. The French name was the affectation of a young metropolitan in a hurry, but in reality he was twice an outsider: Moyshe Shagal was both a Russian and a Jew from the Pale of Settlement. His home city of Vitebsk, he wrote, was "a place like no other; a strange town, an unhappy town, a boring town". The upbringing he had there was not obviously an artist's: put-upon father Khatskel worked long hours in a herring warehouse; matriarch Feiga-Ita ran a grocer's store. "He is without a doubt a great artist," Chagall's daughter Ida was to say, "but ... it took also a genius to get out from that family."

Yet the yearning to escape was never more than half the story. As Wullschlager reveals in her wonderfully evocative treatment of his childhood, life in the shtetl was – with all its monotony and parochialism – utterly secure, as cosy and heartwarming as a production of Fiddler on the Roof. At least, it was for the favoured son of a large family. "Moshka" was always a mama's boy, a fact that he himself saw as central to his genius. "An artist is tied to his mother's apron strings, humanly and formally obsessed by her closeness," he asserted. As a generalised observation on the creative condition, this surely leaves much to be desired, but in his own case it definitely has the ring of truth.

"If I have made pictures," he confided, aged 79, "it is because I remember my mother, her breasts so warmly nourishing and exalting me, and I feel I could swing from the moon."

Who would want to outgrow such comfort? If Chagall was, we're told, "dismissive" of Freud, this may well have been because he sensed that the Viennese sage would have immediately got his number. His first wife and eternal muse, Bella Rosenfeld, saw right through him too – but loved him anyway; his second wife, Vava, was the manager he needed in his old age. It was Virginia Haggard, his housekeeper-companion for some years after Bella's death in 1944, who came up most painfully against his human limitations. "He painted love," she noted bitterly, "but he didn't practise it." Sympathetic but clear-sighted, Wullschlager more or less endorses that view: "The painter of the great themes of birth, love and death spent much of his life avoiding personal confrontations with all three."

Despite his best efforts, Chagall was unable altogether to give the history of his century the slip. Deftly sidestepping the First World War, he found himself in Vitebsk for the tumults of 1917. One particularly memorable chapter here evokes the blink-and-you-missed-it moment when the Revolution seemed genuinely to be offering to liberate Russia's artists, with Chagall an extremely improbable commissar. Even in America, there was no escaping the realities of the Second World War.

For all his evasions, though, a certain integrity shines through. Had he really been just another provincial on the make, we wouldn't have had the work whose development is so beautifully presented and so illuminatingly examined here. That work might have come of age in exile, in Paris and Berlin, but its inspiration was drawn from the shtetl: in later life Chagall was no more ready to renounce its memories than he was to return.

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At a time when European artists were going in for warlike rhetoric (the avant garde) and portentous system-building (Surrealism), it's hard to think of Chagall's output in heroic terms. Yet, in his quiet way, he resisted every compromise. And when others, in Wullschlager's words, "fled reality" for abstraction, he remained true (in his fashion) to figurative forms. He was clearly cut out more to be a witness than a maker of history, yet his work remains one of the most haunting artistic records we have of a terrible epoch. In the end, it was in exile that he found himself; in escaping his immediate circumstances that he made his way to the very centre of his own art and of his age.