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Marc Shagall

Marc Shagall

Fiddler on the roof of modernism

Marc CHAGALL: 1887-1985

“He grabs a church and paints with the church,” wrote a poet

of the cubist era, Blaise Cendarrs. “He grabs a cow and paints

with the cow… He paints with an oxtail (With all the dirty

passion of a little Jewish town).” “Soutine? Stangely enough, no:

Marc Shagall.”

Cendrars’ rhapsody reminds one how different the late decades of that

hugely productive painter were from his early ones. One does not think of

late Chagall in terms of the “dirty passion” and “exacerbated sexuality”

that struck his (mostly Gentile) friends in modern painting’s golden age,

Paris before 1914.

Instead one thinks of an institutionalized, not to say industrialized,

sweetness: the Chagall of the blue, boneless angels, the muralist of

Lincoln Center and the fresco painter of the Paris Opera, the stationed-

glass artist who flooded interiors from the U. N. headquarters in New York

City to Reims Cathedral in France to the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical

Center in Jerusalem with the soothing light of benign sentiment. His quasi-

religious imagery, modular and diffuse at the same time, would serve (with

adjustments: drop the flying cow, put in a menorah) to commemorate nearly

anything, from the Holocaust to the self-celebration of a bank. When he

died at the age of 97 at his home near Nice, Chagall’s career had spanned

more that three—quarters of a century of unremittingly active artmaking.

He was seen by an immense constituency of collectors and museumgoers as

an artist of the 20th century. He had a lyric, flyaway, enraptured

imagination, allied to an enviable fluency of hand; the former could waken

into marzipan poignancy, the latter into routine charm. He left behind him

an oeuvre of paintings, drawings, prints, book illustrations, private and

public art of every kind, rivaling Picasso’s in size, if not always in

variety or intensity. The number of novice collectors who cut their milk

teeth on a Shagall print (Bella with bouquet, floating over the roofs,

edition size 400, later moved to the guest bedroom to make room for a large

photorealist painting of motorcycle handlebars) is beyond computation.

Chagall may have given more people their soft introduction to art dreams

then any of his contemporaries. He was the fiddler on the roof of

modernism. If he sometimes paid his spiritual taxes in folkloric sugar, it

may not matter in the long run – for at Chagall’s death one consults the

paintings of his youth, whose wild eccentric beauty is indelible.

Chagall’s was a textbook case of the way some artists receive their

subject matter, their grammar of signs, in childhood. He was a child of the

Russian ghetto, born in the town of Vitebsk in 1887; his father was a

herring packer, his grandfather a cantorand kosher butcher, his uncle an

amateur violinist. The imagery of music and shtetl folklore, mingled with

the face of his childhood sweetheart (and further wife), Bella Rosenfeld,

furnished the unaltering ground of his work for 80 years, long after the

close-knit and weak little societies it represented had been incinerated by

Hitler. “All the little fences, the little cows and sheep looked to me as

original, as ingenuous and as eternal as the buildings in Giotto’s

frescoes,” he reminisced in the ‘20s.

He developed his wry and sweet visions in the two great forcing houses

of modernism between 1900 and 1925: Paris and Russia. As a student in St.

Petersburg up to 1910, he came under the wing of Diaghilev’s designer Leon

Bakst; an enlightened Jewish patron, Max Vinaver, sent him to Paris that

year. He took a studio in a rickety building near the slaughteryards and

found that his neighbors were Soutine, Legel and Modigliani. Back in Russia

by 1914, Chagall waited out World War I (and was plunged into the

Revolution) in the company of Tatlin, Malevich and Kandinsky.

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – especially for a young artist,

eager to absorb what this supreme moment of untainted modernism offered. In

cubism, he felt, the subject was “killed, cut to pieces and its form and

surface disguised.” Chagall did not want to go so far, but the flattening,

reflection and rotation of cubist form gave his early paintings their

special radiance and precision. In “Paris Through the Window”, 1913, we

enter a rainbow world, all prismatic light and jingling crystalline

triangles. It is full of emblems of stringent modernity: the Eiffel Tower,

a parachutist. a train upside down but still insouciantly chuffing. It owes

a lot to his friend Robert Delaunay, who made abstractions of Paris

windows. But the picture is plucked back from the analytic by its delicious

strain of fantasy: a cat with a man’s head serenading on the sill, a Janus

head (Chagall himself, looking forward to modernism and back to the

village?) displaying a heart on his hand. He was unquestionably a prince of

tropes. “With Chagall alone,” said Andre Breton, leader of the surrealists,

“metaphor made its triumphant entry into modern painting.” And though the

procession that followed its entry had its tedious stretches, involving

some fairly shameless plucking on the heart-strings, the best of Chagall

remains indispensable to any nondoctrinaire reading of the art of the 20th