Love and ExileBook - 2008
'When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.' Picasso said this in the 1950s, when he and Chagall were eminent neighbours living in splendour on the Cote d'Azur. But behind Chagall's role as a pioneer of modern art lay struggle, heartbreak, bitterness, lost love, exile, and the miracle of survival.
Born the son of a Russian Jewish herring merchant, Chagall fled the repressive 'potato-coloured' czarist empire in 1911 to develop his genius in Paris, living alongside Modigliani and Leger in La Ruche, the artist's colony where 'you either died or came out famous'. Through war and revolution in Bolshevik Russia, Weimar Berlin, occupied France and 1940s New York, he gave form to his dreams, longings and memories in paintings which are among the most humane and joyful of the twentieth century.
Their subject, more often than not, is the shtetl life of his childhood, the wooden huts and synagogues, the violinists and rabbis - the lost world of Eastern European Jewry. Jackie Wullschlager brilliantly describes this world, and the characters who emerge from it- Chagall's passionate, energetic mother, his quixotic teacher Bakst, his clever, soulful first wife Bella, their glamorous daughter Ida, his pragmatic final companion Vava, and a tragic panoply of his actor and writer friends murdered during Stalin's regime.
Wullchlager explores in detail Chagall's complex relationship with Russia, and the Russian dimension that he brought to western modernism, showing how, as Andre Breton put it, 'in 1911, under Chagall's sole impulse, metaphor made its triumphant entry into modern painting'. She paints a portrait of a man ambitious, anarchic, charming, suspicious, funny, conflicted, dependent, but above all an obsessive artist- endlessly learning, experimenting, and producing work of singular beauty and emotional depth.
Wullschlager has had exclusive access to hundreds of hitherto unseen and unpublished letters from the Chagall family collection in Paris, which are quoted here for the first time, lending Chagall's own unique voice to this account. Drawing also on numerous interviews with the artist's family, friends, dealers and collectors, and illustrated with two hundred paintings, drawings and photographs, many also previously unseen, this elegantly written biography gives for the first time a full and true account of Chagall's the man and the artist - and of a life as intense, theatrical and haunting as his paintings.