By Jonathan Wilson
Schocken Books, 256 pages, $19.95.
What are we supposed to do with Marc Chagall? Picasso admired him as a colorist, but, on the whole, Chagall is not remembered for his painterly technique. People know him for his subjects — for his off-kilter, dreamy takes on life in a Hasidic shtetl, and for his desperately serious depictions of a very Jewish Christ on the cross. Though he was obviously a Modernist magpie — he poached his compositional tricks from a number of his contemporaries —Chagall was in essence quite conservative. He was a narrative painter, an illustrator and, as Jonathan Wilson is forced to concede in this new biography, he was often an overly sentimental artist. Nevertheless — or because of this — by force of his talent and a certain degree of historical luck, Chagall was, at the time of his death more than two decades ago at the age of 97, the best-known and most widely admired Jewish artist of the 20th century.
Benjamin Harshav’s recent exhaustive and exhausting 800-page documentary account of Chagall’s life has reoriented our view of Chagall and saved the painter from some of the more obvious clichés by locating him squarely in Yiddish. Chagall was a creature of a specific time and place, a man who was never at home in Russian or French, although he lived among the Russians and the French for most of his adult life. (English? Forget about it. In New York, he read the Forverts.)
Following Harshav’s lead, Wilson’s short, affable biography begins with some promising explanations of the painter’s odd super-realism. Wilson points out that Chagall’s paintings — and this was especially true in Chagall’s works in the 1910s and ’20s — frequently offer literal renditions of Yiddish turns of phrase: Those figures flying through the air might really be luftmenchen. What is more, the people in Vitebsk, Chagall’s hometown, really did hang out on their roofs. So Chagall’s apparent whimsy has more than a touch of anthropological accuracy.
Wilson also has a lively sense of Chagall’s contradictions and conflicts. He seems most interested in two things: Chagall’s sexuality, and his fascination with the crucified Jesus. Although Chagall had three great heterosexual loves (he was married to two of them), and although his paintings do seem to celebrate a romantic heterosexual eroticism, Wilson does wonder if the painter was completely straight. Chagall did indeed have a complicated, somewhat homoerotic relationship with the great friend of his youth, Viktor Mekler. And — as Wilson notes several times — Chagall liked to wear makeup. But Wilson does not go all that far with this line of questioning, beyond finding traces of Chagall’s possible bisexuality in certain ambiguously gendered figures and self-portraits.
Wilson takes more trouble trying to tease out Chagall’s deep attraction to the New Testament. His argument that Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” resembles other artists’ attempts to make Jesus’ death an icon of Jewish persecution rings true. It is odd, therefore, that Wilson then claims that Chagall’s abiding fascination with Jesus is “mysterious, overdetermined” and “unclassifiable.” No doubt, but why give up so easily? Perhaps Chagall’s constant recourse to Christian iconography also spoke to the ambiguous and ambivalent place of Jewish artists in the first half of the past century. After all, Chagall harbored a fierce desire to be taken seriously by a largely goyish public. Whatever else his interest in Jesus reveals, it betrays the fact that he, like a number of other Jewish writers and painters on both sides of the Atlantic, was trying to forge a kind of spiritual universalism or, more to the point, a “universal” spirituality, one that would be intelligible to a non-Jewish audience. In fact, this, along with some other features that Wilson finds confusing (Chagall’s lack of religious observance, his willingness to serve the new Soviet state), all show that the painter really makes sense on the left-hand side of the Yiddish dial, a Bundist in spirit if not in name. His humanist universalism came as naturally as his religious particularism did. A contradiction? Of course. But a historically coherent one.
Even so, not all of Chagall’s contradictions can be wished away this easily. Chagall’s makeup — his rouge and his disposition — points to his willful superficiality. His letters are particularly frustrating in this regard. Despite a reflexive contrariness, Chagall tended to write whatever he thought his correspondent wanted to hear. Wilson might call this a “resistance to a fixed identity,” but it also seems to signal a disturbing hollowness. Virginia McNeil, Chagall’s mistress for seven years, said that Chagall “painted love but could not practice it.” Though he tries to temper such judgments, Wilson is too honest a biographer to ignore them. To be sure, his attempts to defend the painter from the evidence are noble, but they are also unnecessary. We do not demand that the subjects of biography be nice, just interesting. And Chagall’s early years — his schooling in Vitebsk and in St. Petersburg, his rough and ready time in Paris and Berlin, his return to Russia, his activities after the revolution and his great work for the Yiddish theater in Moscow — are indeed very interesting. Alas, with Chagall’s flight to Paris in 1923 and his subsequent success, the story thins out and Chagall’s personal limitations become more glaring.
Why should Chagall’s faults matter? The man was still a great painter, wasn’t he? We love the pictures of our lost shtetls, don’t we? Yes, but as Wilson concedes, a good number of these pictures lurch perilously close to kitsch. At one moment, he notes that if someone ever wrote the story of the “vast contribution of Jews to the history of sentimentality,” Chagall would have an entire chapter to himself. Sadly, Wilson does not want to own up to the implications of his insight. Instead, he doubles back and tries to claim that Chagall is not “desperately mawkish” and that he walked “the tightrope that separates sentimentality from deeper, more authentic feeling better than anyone.” This may or may not be the case (and I am not sure that merely being mawkish is really all that different from being “desperately mawkish”), but it begs the larger issue that Wilson raises: Why has sentimentality played such an important role in Jewish art? If there is such a thing as a particularly Jewish aesthetics, what function do sentimentality and kitsch play in it?
A book that really spoke to these questions — and thus squared Chagall’s achievements with his personality, his most celebrated paintings with his least — would open a whole world, one that is no less strange for being our own. While Wilson has not written such a book here, the biography he has produced seems to demand it.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.