Whatever your view of Chagall - and he divides opinion more than most modernists - this is a splendid book. Even if you agree with critics who said that every worthwhile picture he did was painted before 1922, when he fled Soviet Russia, and that from then till his death in 1985 it was all essentially repetition, his life was so evocative of so many eras that his biography is captivating in itself. Here is an artist who was born in Tsarist Russia in the town of Vitebsk in the Jewish Pale in 1887 and who died four years short of the end of Soviet Communism. His triumphs and travails in between map the century's artistic life. He studied and starved in St Petersburg, where as a Jew he was not allowed to live. By 1912, he was in La Ruche in Paris, an artist's squat where he was befriended by Anatoli Lunacharsky, later Kommissar for Culture after the October Revolution. It was he who put the administratively incompetent Chagall in charge of a highly politicised art school in Vitebsk, from which he was to be ousted by Comrade Kazimir Malevich, the fanatical abstractionist who fomented a student revolt against Chagall's stubbornly representational painting style.
That in itself is a terrific tale. Then came his flight from Soviet Russia to Germany, then France, then on to America when war came again and Pétain began rounding up candidates for the Holocaust. Finally, he settled in France in the late 1940s, his spiritual home one might have said, were it not that he continued to hanker after Jewish Vitebsk, even when it was obliterated by the Nazis, or Russia, even when it was barbarised by Stalin, who murdered a number of his Jewish friends.
Artistically, he was equally hard to classify. He assimilated elements of cubism while de-nouncing it as "a new slavery", unhealthily close to abstraction. For him, painting was a "state of soul", rather than geometric patterns suggestive of a society dominated by science. With his hallucinatory colours, airborne animals and lovers floating above roofs, the French decided that he was a surnaturel, à la russe. And so he remained. For all his love of France, and a visit to Moscow in 1971 under the auspices of the then fearsome Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva - after which his works in Soviet museums were once again hidden from view - he never quite abandoned his claim to spiritual superiority, Russian-style.