Chagall's Curious Legacy

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Whatever Happened to Marc Chagall?" by Michael J. Lewis, in Commentary, Oct. 2008.

THINK OF MARC CHAGALL (1887-1985), and what immediately comes to mind is a large, colorful canvas filled with whimsical symbols from his Jewish childhood in the Russian city of Vitebsk--a fiddler or a pair of lovers or a cow (sometimes all at once) cavorting on the roof of a rough-hewn peasant house or, just as likely, floating through the air in a dreamy dance. When Chagall died, at 97, he was acclaimed as the last survivor of the pioneering Modernists and the world's preeminent Jewish artist. But Michael J. Lewis says that Chagall was a "straggler in the march of Modernism" whose best work was already behind him by the end of World War I.

Born Movsha Shagal into a Hasidic Jewish community that did not value visual art, the artist was raised in modest circumstances; his "remote, pious father toiled in a herring warehouse, and his mother ran a small grocery business from their home," relates Lewis, a Williams College art historian, drawing on a new biography by Jackie Wullschlager, the art critic at Financial Times. Early on, Chagall studied with Yehuda Pen, a "realist who painted plein-air scenes of Jewish life" and later in St. Petersburg with Leon Batsk, a ballet set designer. Though the young Chagall resisted his tutors' attempts to rein in his artistic style, Batsk left an impression on the painter, "who learned to place his figures on the canvas as if they were stenciled cutouts, their eloquence made up almost entirely of their expressively straggling silhouettes."

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By 1911, Chagall had charmed several benefactors into financing a move to Paris. There he was dazzled by the chromatic intensity championed by artists such as Henri Matisse and Odilon Redon. "Many of Chagall's Paris works were updated versions of paintings he had made in Russia, transposed into Fauvist or Cubist keys" Lewis says. Indeed, "recycling earlier compositions and themes would become a lifelong habit, and is one of the great peculiarities of his career. …