Belarussian Jewish artist Marc Chagall was a pioneer of modernism. As a result I find many – nay, most – of his paintings strange. Michael Dean’s fictionalisation of Chagall’s life contextualises his artwork, and provides explanation of the many symbolisms. So now, I find them …. understandable, but still strange.
The novel is divided into six sections. Part I covers Chagall’s early life in Vitebsk, from 1887 until he left to join the artist’s community in Paris in 1913. Parts II and III cover his life in “The Hive” until his breakthrough thanks to the appreciation of the German dealer, Herman Walden. Parts IV and V describe what happened between 1914-1922 when Shagall was trapped during a fleeting visit to Vitebsk due to the outbreak the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Part VI covers the rest of his life from 1922 until his death in 1985. With only 20 pages covering 63 years, this section does feel rushed, but given that the main focus of the novel is what turned Moyshe Shagall, the humble Jew from an even humbler background into the world famous Marc Chagall, the later successful decades don’t warrant the deep analysis of the formative ones.
The first person narrative by Moyshe Shagall not only allows the man to reveal his innermost thoughts and emotions, it also emphasises the disconnect between the private and the public personas, which at times was not only in his mind, but an actual reality. For instance, when Moyshe Shagall was trapped in Vitebsk struggling at times to find a piece of paper to draw on, never mind a canvas, Marc Chagall – through the paintings that had been left behind in Paris and Berlin – was blazing a trail. The irony being that his paintings were earning lots of money for the dealers and not a centime for the then impoverished and unpaid Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk and Director of the Vitebsk Arts College.
The novel is inhabited by the host of historical figures who came into Shagall’s orbit, and this is where the 1st person narrative enables subjective – and, it must be said, entertaining – assessments. From his bohemian time in “The Hive”, there is an extraordinarily fond portrait of the licentious and consumptive Modligiani, both the man and his art, whereas his ire is reserved, not just for professional reasons for the sculptor Osip Zadkine. Describing the method of the expressionist painter Chaim Soutine, our narrator says that he “painted in a bouillabaisse delirium”.
As an individualist who embraced and incorporated fauvist, cubist, surrealist, and expressionist notes into his works, the time spent in revolutionary Russia was dangerous, especially when his antagonist, Kazimir Malevich, founder of suprematist art movement, was employed – without Shagall having any say in the matter. Shagall’s non-confrontational nature and initial belief that their differences could be overcome made him a sitting duck for Malevich’s revolutionary zeal and malevolent machinations. Hope of reconcilng the painterly ideals between Shagall and Malevich was an act of self-delusion. Political reconciliation between individualism and collectivism wasn’t even to contemplated, and it was only a matter of time before his friends and family are threatened, picked off one by one, and Shagall forced to flee for his life. Parts IV and V were for me the most powerful, particularly after last year’s reading on the Russian Revolution.
The narration isn’t strictly chronological. 4 times Dean jumps forward into the future before coming back to the “present”. These flash forwards are presented as visions, brought by the prophet Elijah, which enable a specific story arc to be completed, such as Modligiani’s life and death. Elijah tells Shagall that 18 Jews are to die, and visions 2-4 identify these. Normally dreams and visions are a turn-off for me, but I found them quite effective in this context; they enable the author to incorporate the horrors of the Jewish persecutions in the C20th in the concision of Part VI. They also show the impact of that persecution on one man without any sentimentality. Shagall lost 18 close friends and family to Nazi atrocities, including his uncle Neuch, the original fiddler on the roof. These losses culminated in the painting that is generally considered his masterpiece and the painting from which this novel takes its name, The White Crucifixion.
I found this such an interesting historical novel. I learned a lot about Chagall’s art, though I would have liked some coloured plates of the paintings to have been included, as I found myself constantly flitting between book and internet. Budgetary issues will have prevented this, I assume. Neither have I included any paintings in this post because I’m unsure of what is copyrighted and what is not, and I’m a bit nervous when it comes to Chagall. Do you remember the episode of Fake or Fortune? that resulted in the Chagall foundation ordering a painting worth £100,000 to be destroyed because it was deemed a fake. I’m making no comment on the actions of the Chagall foundation, but the tumult in the painter’s life and the number of times he had to leave his paintings behind, clearly identified in Dean’s novel, certainly explains why there is an opportunity for shady dealing in unprovenanced “Chagalls”.