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Reviewed by:
  • Marc Chagall
  • Seth Wolitz
Marc Chagall, by Jonathan Wilson. New York: Nextbook/Schocken, 2007. 238 pp. $19.95.

This text is no hagiographic study. To the contrary, it seeks to be revisionist if not provocative but is entirely derivative, as the author admits (p. 223), from the labors of Benjamin Harshav in his Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative (Stanford, 2004). This is unfortunate, for Harshav's study must be used with caution (see Shofar, Vol. 23, No. 4 [Summer 2005]: 121–130). The volume, Marc Chagall, appears in the series Jewish Encounters, "devoted to the promotion of Jewish literature, culture and ideas," a collaboration of Nextbook and Schocken, edited by Jonathan Rosen. The series perspective seeks to refresh key Jewish figures and have them serve as mirrors for the fourth and fifth generation American Jews questing for a contemporary Jewish identity. The angle of vision hints of a neo-conservative cast, determined to underline Jewish continuity against discontinuities, and create a strong bond to Israel and Hebraic culture. This text on Chagall is therefore no [End Page 211] contribution to scholarship and perhaps less to popularization so much as to pure vulgarization.

The author's most provocative sally is on the level of Chagall's sexuality. "Although the young Chagall of My Life seems quite unconscious of homoerotic desire not so those around him. . . . Bella's [his future wife] mother had her suspicions . . ." (p. 20). By page 33, the author reads into an unsent letter from Chagall to his friend Victor Mekler "a strong homoerotic element" because of their intense farewell kiss at the railroad station departing Russia. And Yehuda Pen's portrait of Chagall, 1914 "presents a feminized romantic artist" (p. 34), which is the author's unique reading. Besides, in those prewar years Chagall did put on some rouge and mascara. "Chagall did not have the in-your-face macho personality of a Picasso or a Hemingway. . . . Whatever his sexual proclivities as a young man, Chagall exhibited a floating anxiety . . . about his own ambivalent feelings" (pp. 34–35). This speculative reading into Chagall's sexuality, as we see, is limited to a few suspect examples. In fact, intense farewell kisses and hugs at ceremonial departures and arrivals were part of Silver Age Russia, Belle Epoque France, and certainly of secular eastern Europeanized Jews to this day! And in those days, a well groomed European gentleman after shaving sprayed cologne on his cheeks, powdered them, and added a touch of rouge and even mascara to his eyebrows, not to mention how much hair spray! Nor should we forget the mode of Russian futurist poets such as Burlyuk and Mayakovsky, who turned their faces into canvases with gobs of rouge! In today's terms, it may appear effete and not macho, but who knew then of Hemingway or Picasso? And what effect did it have on Chagall's art? The author provides no interpretations or explanations.

The author has also embraced the new popular assertion that the Second Commandment against making graven images did not affect the creation of Jewish art (p. 16)! That Khayim Soutine was beaten up because he drew figures and Sholem Aleykhem's Mottel shocked his horrified family by wanting to be a plastic artist, a traditional Eastern European Jewish reaction stemming from the Second Commandment, is of no account! But that Chagall re-appropriates the Christ figure and uses him as a suffering Jew and representative of all Jews offends the author, who finds Chagall's embrace of the Christ "both disturbing and profound" (p. 139). Uri Tsvi Grinberg, the most Jewish of Jewish poets in Albatros 2 (Warsaw, 1922, p. 3), uses the Jesus image for both ironic and insulting purposes, as did many other contemporary Jewish artists. Recovering the holiest symbol of Christianity back to its Jewish source had powerful iconic meaning, and Chagall was the first to ecumenicalize the image from a Jewish perspective! Why is this so disturbing to the author? [End Page 212]

Chagall's real identity haunts the writer of this putative biography. He is Jewish to Jews, French to Frenchmen and Russian to Russians. At least so the letters reveal. But Chagall was...


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