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Born into near poverty in Russia in 1887, the son of a Jewish herring merchant, Chagall fled the repressive "potato-colored" tsarist empire in 1911 for Paris. There he worked alongside Modigliani and Leger in the tumbledown tenement called La Ruche, where "one either died or came out famous." But turmoil lay ahead--war and revolution; a period as an improbable artistic commissar in the young Soviet Union; a difficult existence in Weimar Germany, occupied France, and eventually the United States. Throughout, as Jackie Wullschlager makes plain in this groundbreaking biography, he never ceased giving form on canvas to his dreams, longings, and memories.
His subject, more often than not, was the shtetl life of his childhood, the wooden huts and synagogues, the goatherds, rabbis, and violinists--the whole lost world of Eastern European Jewry. Wullschlager brilliantly describes this world and evokes the characters who peopled it: Chagall's passionate, energetic mother, Feiga-Ita; his eccentric fellow painter and teacher Bakst; his clever, intense first wife, Bella; their glamorous daughter, Ida; his tough-minded final companion and wife, Vava; and the colorful, tragic array of artist, actor, and writer friends who perished under the Stalinist regime.
Wullschlager explores in detail Chagall's complex relationship with Russia and makes clear the Russian dimension he brought to Western modernism. She shows how, as Andre Breton put it, "under his sole impulse, metaphor made its triumphal entry into modern painting," and helped shape the new surrealist movement. As art critic of the" Financial Times, " she provides a breadth of knowledge on Chagall's work, and at the same time as an experienced biographer she brings Chagall the man fully to life--ambitious, charming, suspicious, funny, contradictory, dependent, but above all obsessively determined to produce art of singular beauty and emotional depth.
Drawing upon hitherto unseen archival material, including numerous letters from the family collection in Paris, and illustrated with nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, and photographs, "Chagall" is a landmark biography to rank with Hilary Spurling's "Matisse" and John Richardson's "Picasso.
The reality and fantasy of Chagall
In popular culture, Russian-born, French modernist painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is like a colorful, phantasmagorical "Fiddler on the Roof" of the art world. Chagall is typically equated with sweet, sad, nostalgic shtetl culture, but with the curious additions of flying people and improbably placed goats. Jackie Wullschlager's Chagall: A Biography will undoubtedly change this view. With access to new material (some recovered from Soviet archives), artworks, translations and insights into the use of language (especially Yiddish), Wullschlager, chief visual arts critic for the Financial Times, has created a massive, groundbreaking work that heroically strives to paint the whole Chagall picture, at last.
Chagall, like the Wandering Jew of legend, seems to be right there at the crux of things, present at every great historical crisis. But Chagall not only suffers the curse of bearing witness to the momentous, breakneck passage of the 20th century; he also bestows the permanent blessing of translating history into the mythic sphere of his imagination.
Here are just a few of the epochal moments in which Chagall found himself a participant: in Paris at the birth of High Modernism, alongside and in direct collaboration with other painters, poets and composers; in Vitebsk at the transformation of old Russian life into revolutionary Soviet art; in France, on the brink of deportation to Auschwitz; in postwar New York as the touchstone for the new generation of American Modernists; in Israel, at the realization of a Zionist dream with the creation of his famous stained glass windows. Wullschlager leads readers through this fruitful wandering year by year, and creates a narrative examining influences from family, lovers, friends, teachers, students, patrons, life and Chagall's own restless spirit.
Although Chagall's prolific works extend over most of the 20th century, Wullschlager admits that his best was already behind him by the year 1920. What makes the first modernist breakthrough so extraordinary that it takes the rest of a man's life to sort out the consequences? In this new biography, Wullschlager offers the most thorough investigation of that question thus far.