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.
His folkloric surrealism never really changed either, and gained a new lease of life in the post-war revival of interest in myst-icism. Formally, he went on reinventing himself. Happiest with big spaces – theatre designs or murals in chapels – he nevertheless took successfully to lithography, which earned him a lot of money.
Jackie Wullschlager, an art historian herself (she is chief critic for the Financial Times), quotes praise for his early radicalism and criticism of his kitsch, while preserving an admirable distance from her subject. On his emotional life she is equally objective. For an artist he was surprisingly uxorious, per-haps because he was so enormously dependent on women. His sensuality was reserved for his art and he appears to have had no mis-tresses. He married Bella, his Jewish sweet-heart and an aspiring actress, and stayed with her until she died in 1943. In need of an organiser and companion more than a lover, he lived for seven years with Virginia, an Englishwoman, but broke with her when she slept with someone else. Unable to live alone, he finally married Valentine Brodsky (“Vava”), a Russian Jewish woman. All three were managerial types devoted to his genius.
Accounts of his relations with other artists, from Bakst to Picasso, enrich the book. The dandyish Bakst admitted Chagall had talent and allowed him into his art school in St Petersburg, but shook him off in Paris as a potential rival. “I’m not crazy about those cocks and asses and flying violinists and all that folklore, but his canvases are really well painted,” Picasso told his lover, Françoise Gilot in the 1950s. After his break with Picasso following an anti-Semitic insult, Chagall inverted the compliment: “What a genius, that Picasso. It’s a pity he doesn’t paint.”
Seeing 20th-century art through the off-centre and, for all his popular successes, the ultimately secondary figure of Chagall throws up intriguing notions about the ancients versus the moderns. Chagall’s old-age self-renewal was more apparent than real, owing a good deal to the post-Holocaust mood of the times.
The decline in the work of so many 20th-century masters in later life – not just Chagall but Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Munch, Vlam-inck, Rouault – inspires illicit thoughts. In art as in politics, insurrection has a cont-inuity problem. You can break up form and trash tradition with brilliant results – but then what? Picasso’s dislocated nudes and Chagall’s flying Jews delight and astonish, but pall in the end. Beethoven’s late quartets and Titian’s mythological poésie, painted in his seventies and eighties, do not.