Chagall by Jackie Wullschlager
A Biography

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Synopsis

“When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” As a pioneer of modernism and one of the greatest figurative artists of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall achieved fame and fortune, and over the course of a long career created some of the best-known and most-loved paintings of our time. Yet behind this triumph lay struggle, heartbreak, bitterness, frustration, lost love, exile—and above all the miracle of survival.

Born into near poverty in Russia in 1887, the son of a Jewish herring merchant, Chagall fled the repressive “potato-colored” tsarist empire in 1911 for Paris. There he worked alongside Modigliani and Léger in the tumbledown tenement called La Ruche, where “one either died or came out famous.” But turmoil lay ahead—war and revolution; a period as an improbable artistic commissar in the young Soviet Union; a difficult existence in Weimar Germany, occupied France, and eventually the United States. Throughout, as Jackie Wullschlager makes plain in this groundbreaking biography, he never ceased giving form on canvas to his dreams, longings, and memories.

His subject, more often than not, was the shtetl life of his childhood, the wooden huts and synagogues, the goatherds, rabbis, and violinists—the whole lost world of Eastern European Jewry. Wullschlager brilliantly describes this world and evokes the characters who peopled it: Chagall’s passionate, energetic mother, Feiga-Ita; his eccentric fellow painter and teacher Bakst; his clever, intense first wife, Bella; their glamorous daughter, Ida; his tough-minded final companion and wife, Vava; and the colorful, tragic array of artist, actor, and writer friends who perished under the Stalinist regime.

Wullschlager explores in detail Chagall’s complex relationship with Russia and makes clear the Russian dimension he brought to Western modernism. She shows how, as André Breton put it, “under his sole impulse, metaphor made its triumphal entry into modern painting,” and helped shape the new surrealist movement. As art critic of the Financial Times, she provides a breadth of knowledge on Chagall’s work, and at the same time as an experienced biographer she brings Chagall the man fully to life—ambitious, charming, suspicious, funny, contradictory, dependent, but above all obsessively determined to produce art of singular beauty and emotional depth.

Drawing upon hitherto unseen archival material, including numerous letters from the family collection in Paris, and illustrated with nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, and photographs, Chagall is a landmark biography to rank with Hilary Spurling’s Matisse and John Richardson’s Picasso.



From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Jackie Wullschlager

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Jackie Wullschlager is chief art critic for the Financial Times. Her books include a prizewinning life of Hans Christian Andersen and an acclaimed group biography of children’s book writers, Inventing Wonderland.
 
Published October 21, 2008 by Knopf. 608 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Arts & Photography, Humor & Entertainment. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Chagall

Kirkus Reviews

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He was living in France when the Nazis attacked, and Hitler pointed to Chagall’s works as instances of decadent Jewish art.

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The New York Times

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Jackie Wullschlager’s sober, dispassionate, well-researched, lavishly illustrated and nearly cuboid new biography of Marc Chagall has the look and feel of a major and desirable book.

Nov 27 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

The New York Times

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The trouble began in 1920, when Chagall, now the head of the People’s Art College in Vitebsk, hired his pal Lissitzky, who, Wullschlager says, had just “come under the spell of Malevich,” the Suprematist painter, and was creating aggressive geometric works like “Beat the Whites With a Red Wedge.”...

Nov 14 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

The Guardian

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Karl With, the German art critic who published a life of Marc Chagall in 1923, began his book with two definitions: "Chagall is Russian" and "Chagall is an eastern Jew (Ostjude)".

Oct 25 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

The Telegraph

Chagall's Russian Jewish world has been explored before, notably by Benjamin Harshav, but Wullschlager has made excellent use of family letters which reveal the crucial importance of Bella in Chagall's life.

Oct 30 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

The Telegraph

So self-pitying that while living in exile in France (Chagall abandoned Russia in 1922) but steeped in despair at being unable to return to his homeland, he wrote to his old art teacher Yuri Pen in Vitebsk asking for news.

Nov 10 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

The Bookbag

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Oct 24 2009 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

San Francisco Chronicle

While there is no shortage of Chagall literature - including a 1918 biography by Abraham Efros and Yakov Tugendhold, Chagall's own 1922 memoir, and an 896-page sourcebook of correspondence, essays and other primary documents - Wullschlager's synthesis feels definitive.

Nov 19 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

Scotsman.com

That work might have come of age in exile, in Paris and Berlin, but its inspiration was drawn from the shtetl: in later life Chagall was no more ready to renounce its memories than he was to return.

Nov 13 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

London Review of Books

the author of a recent monograph on the artist, remembering the reproduction he’d put up on his wall as a student, notes that ‘it did not take long for me to learn that sophisticated art aficionados weren’t supposed to love or even like Chagall.’ The so-called New York intellectuals, most of them...

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Bookmarks Magazine

Jackie Wullschlager, author of Hans Christian Anderson: The Life of a Story Teller (2002) and chief art critic for the Financial Times, paints an enlightening and detailed portrait of Russian modernist Marc Chagall.

Oct 26 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

The Jewish Chronicle

He was fascinated by everything that was modern in early 20th century modern art, but was not interested in making the kinds of images that other modern artists were making, preferring to focus on his own, seemingly old-fashioned preoccupations: religion, home, and the transports of love.

Nov 20 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

Spectator Book Club

Wullschlager notes that the student Chagall tried reddening his lips and darkening his eyes to attract girls.

Nov 08 2008 | Read Full Review of Chagall: A Biography

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