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Chapter One: Vitebsk
Marc Chagall was born Moishe (Movcha) Shagal in the run-down Pestkovatik neighborhood of the Belorussian town of Vitebsk (population 65,000) on July 6 (not July 7 as he claimed—he preferred the number 7) in 1887. He was born dead and brought to life by someone who speedily dipped him in a pail filled with cool water. Not far away a fire raced through the town, destroying 125 shops, 268 wooden houses, and 16 other buildings. Fire and water: a sturdy elemental beginning for a painter.
If baby Shagal’s startled eyes had been able to take in his surroundings, or if his body had been able to levitate with the ease of the figures in his adult paintings, he would have seen close to his birthplace the walls of both the town’s local prison and its lunatic asylum. Already in place too, as if waiting for him, were the neighborhood rooftops on Pokrowskaya Street, the animals in the street, the onion-domed churches, Torah-clutching rabbis, women with baskets, men burdened with the yoke not of the Torah but of milk-filled buckets, and perhaps even someone playing a fiddle and leading a wedding procession.
The characters, creatures, and buildings to be found on the outskirts of Vitebsk, where most of its Jewish population lived, and that were to become Chagall’s obsessive lifelong subject, were not, however, the whole story of the town. For Chagall frequently chose to collapse broad Vitebsk where it sat on the confluence of the Vitba and Dvina rivers into a narrow frame and reconstruct it in his memory as a landlocked shtetl, a small Jewish village more like Lyosno, some thirty miles away, where his maternal grandparents lived.
The Vitebsk that Chagall’s paintings gave the world has been accepted as a representation of a lost Jewish world that can be happily regarded with nostalgia. And indeed it is. But a visitor in 1887 alighting in Vitebsk from a train en route from Odessa or Kiev to St. Petersburg, or from Riga on the way to Moscow, would have searched long and hard for a fiddler on the roof. Instead, he or she would have seen the impressive Uspensky Cathedral, or the new railway bridge, and, if in search of music, might have headed for one of the city’s other imposing buildings that functioned as temporary homes for the visiting theater companies or famous musicians who gave concerts there.
Sometimes these local Vitebsk landmarks appear in Chagall’s art (as in Double Portrait with Wineglass, 1917–18), but they are not its important symbolic sites. Throughout his painting career Chagall insistently brought the world of big history to the little streets of his old neighborhood as he knew it in early childhood: the Holocaust takes place on the streets where Chagall grew up, and Jesus, frequently wearing a tallith (prayer shawl) around his waist, is repeatedly crucified there. If he is not bringing history to Vitebsk then Chagall is carrying Vitebsk with him, as in a suitcase of the mind, wherever he goes. He has only to unpack his imagination, peer out of his window in Paris, and there are Pestkovatik’s tiny houses, shops, and stiebls (small, one-room synagogues) lining up sideways under the Eiffel Tower.
Much of what we know of Chagall’s early life is to be discovered in his memoir My Life, written when Chagall was only thirty-five during a tumultuous year that he spent in Moscow from 1921 to 1922. Like Chagall’s paintings, however (and the text is accompanied by a number of Chagall’s etchings and drypoints), his writing tends toward the ahistorical, and proceeds via anecdote and association. There are no dates to set parameters for the reader; instead there are charged descriptions of individuals, rhetorical flourishes, lyric passages, sentimentalized recollections, and a considerable amount of self-aggrandizement. The latter is quite understandable for an artist with a singular and established reputation who had, at his time of writing, been packed off by the local Soviet Narkompross (People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment) to teach drawing to two colonies of war orphans in Malakhovka on the outskirts of Moscow. But I am getting ahead of the story.
“My father’s clothes shone with herring brine,” Chagall writes in My Life; “he lifted heavy barrels and my heart used to twist like a Turkish bagel as I watched him lift those weights and stir the herrings with his frozen hands.” Poor laborers in the herring business worldwide, even those without a heartfelt attachment to the circumscribed rubrics of Hasidic Jewish life, have rarely shown great enthusiasm for the life of high art. Sachar Shagal was no exception. This father of eight had other aspirations for his eldest son along the familiar “paying job” lines. However, when the crunch came and Chagall needed money to enroll in a St. Petersburg art school, Sachar reached deep into his pockets, produced the necessary rubles, and mischievously rolled them under the kitchen table for his son to scramble after. In his memoir Chagall recalls this moment of combined joy and humiliation with a wave of the hand: “I forgive him it was his way of giving.”
As if to confirm this exculpation, Chagall’s 1914 portrait My Father is decidedly empathetic. This watercolor on paper, which presently hangs in St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum, presents a stoop-shouldered figure with trouble in his eyes. He sits in his kitchen, a glass of tea and lumps of sugar on the table before him, a cat and an old babushka to his left. The herring brine shine is not visible on his royal blue jacket or matching cap. In his outfit he resembles Van Gogh’s postman. In the top right-hand corner we can clearly see the bolt on the door. Behind his left shoulder, through a window, sheets are hung out to dry. Chagall’s father was fifty-one and his son twenty-seven when this painting was accomplished. Chagall had already been to Paris, achieved some fame if not fortune, and returned. The father is in a reduced place, and the sense of a life sacrificed to hard labor is palpable. He is similarly downcast in the 1911 pen-and-ink sketch My Father, My Mother and Myself, where, by contrast, Chagall’s mother wears a superb hat and a cheerful smile.
As an accompaniment to his memoir (or perhaps it is really the other way round) numerous paintings and drawings completed by Chagall in his early twenties also tell the story of his childhood in Vitebsk, including Sabbath (1910), Our Dining Room (1911), Village with Water Carriers (1911–12), and The Village Store (1911). But perhaps none of them unlock the past with such a ripple effect as The Dead Man (1908). Chagall executed this important painting when he was a twenty-one-year-old student in Leon Bakst’s class at the Zvantseva Academy in St. Petersburg.
The specific inspiration for The Dead Man is a memory of childhood that Chagall records in My Life. “Suddenly . . . well before dawn . . . a woman, alone, running through deserted streets.” The woman’s husband is dying and she implores the neighbors, who include young Chagall, to save him. “The light from the yellow candles, the color of that face, barely dead . . . The dead man . . . is already laid out on the floor, his face illumined by six candles.”
From a biographical rather than a pictorial point of view, what intrigues in this painting are its departures from Chagall’s inspirational memory. In The Dead Man “deserted streets” are no longer deserted. Instead we see, in addition to the screaming woman, not only the body laid out but also a preoccupied street sweeper (grim reaper?) plying his predawn trade. Most significantly, Chagall has moved the action that in life he witnessed indoors to the outdoors, and the corpse, displaced into the street but still surrounded by six burning candles, now strikes a decidedly un-Jewish pose.
If artists have one big job, it is to move what is inside to the outside, to reveal secrets, and in so doing to allow us to discover who we are. At the beginning of his career, Chagall crossed a number of necessary boundaries with The Dead Man, which is at once an attempted farewell to Vitebsk and a lamentation; a recording and transgression of the Jewish world he knew so well. Moreover, the striking disproportions in the painting, in which figures are larger than houses, points as much to the disproportionate weight of childhood on Chagall’s imagination (a mismatch that, as for most of us, was to be lifelong) as it does to the influence of the neoprimitivist style in vogue at the time.
Like so many great artists, Chagall retained a persistent obsession with the place that he needed to leave behind in order to create his art, and there is little difference in this regard between Chagall’s relation to Vitebsk and that of James Joyce to Dublin or Philip Roth to Newark.
In The Dead Man we also find the inevitable fiddler on the roof, and a word about that emblematic Chagallian figure is appropriate here. The first rooftop violinist in Chagall’s oeuvre is not the least bit contrived. He’s simply a guy in a hat (no beard) on a roof playing what one assumes is mournful music. Or perhaps, like the street sweeper, he is indifferent to the dead man and the grieving woman below him. A large boot indicating a cobbler’s shop hangs from the eaves of his roof (Chagall has written that his Uncle Neuch “played the violin like a cobbler”), but the fiddler’s location is not magically realistic. It was not at all uncommon for shtetl and town residents alike to take to their rooftops, sometimes out of fear and sometimes for fun. Chagall’s grandfather, for example, liked to climb up on high to chew a few carrots and watch the world go by.
But without doubt the fiddler is an important figure for Chagall: that local musician in Vitebsk’s poorest neighborhood was probably Chagall’s first apprehension of a performing artist; a creative individual who has both distance from the emotions that he excites and a commitment to technique. The fiddler is also a gypsy wanderer, a musical peddler whose art eases his passage between disparate worlds. There is a great seduction in vagabond heels.
If the fiddler was a part of Chagall’s sentimental education, so too was his local synagogue. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Chagall’s father wrote an instructional “Weep” in his wife’s prayer book next to certain passages. Feiga-Ita, like the other wives in the assembly, followed orders: “When coming to the sign ‘Weep,’ ” Chagall writes, his mother “would begin . . . to shed divine tears. Their [the women’s] faces would redden and little moist diamonds would trickle down, drop by drop, sliding over the pages.” This anecdote tells us something about Chagall’s early introduction to the mechanics of sentimentality, but it might also be read as a useful allegory of Chagall’s relationship with his audience when he is not at the top of his game: an appeal for a ritualized lachrymose response to work that carries the memory of suffering or joy without necessarily representing it fully.
But perhaps it is better here to focus on Feiga-Ita herself. For when it came to her son’s career, this loving and lovable daughter of a kosher butcher in nearby Lyosno, who ran a small grocery store by day and her Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe household in her off-hours, was not always so dutiful. In the face of her husband’s early opposition, she encouraged Chagall to indulge his talent even while she remained baffled by it. And when, probably at around the age of thirteen, Chagall implored her, “Mama . . . I want to be a painter,” she brought him, against her own better instincts (she thought clerking might be a good profession), to the local art school run by Yehuda Pen. It was there at “Artist Penne’s School of Painting and Design” that Chagall took his first significant steps toward mastery.
Yehuda Pen had sectioned off one room in his central Vitebsk apartment and opened his School of Drawing and Painting in November 1897. Like Chagall he had grown up in a large and struggling Jewish family. His gift for drawing had become apparent in cheder (Hebrew school) as he decorated Purim rattles and the title pages of books. As he grew older he became known in his local town of Novo-Alexandrov for his sketches of local inhabitants, including mounted Cossacks. Pen’s mother (his father had died when he was four) disapproved of his calling; unlike Feiga-Ita Shagal, she was indifferent to her son’s talent, so she left him to make his own way in the world. The obvious stopgap direction for Pen when he needed money was house or sign painting— the latter a job that would also be Chagall’s for a while. Indeed, the trajectory of Pen’s early career matches that of Chagall in numerous ways, but precedes it by some twenty-five years.
Until the 1917 Revolution Jews did not have the “right of residence” in St. Petersburg but were confined to their Pale of Settlement. This presented a significant problem if you wanted to achieve any kind of higher education. As Chagall was to do later with dire consequences, Pen lived illegally in St. Petersburg (he bribed his “yardkeeper”) and managed to enroll in the Academy of Arts. A stellar student, Pen graduated in 1885 with the prestigious Silver Medal. He was then lucky enough to find a patron in Baron N. N. Korf, who invited him to work on his estate outside Kreizburg, not far from Vitebsk. Pen stayed five years, and shortly after a brief unsuccessful return to St. Petersburg he was lured to Vitebsk by members of the town’s local Jewish intelligentsia, who both encouraged him and lent him the financial support necessary to open his art school. The young man who was to become his most famous student showed up nine years later.
Like Chagall, Pen emerged from a Hasidic milieu, and a great deal of his work records its figures and structures. While he sometimes worked from photographs, Pen preferred to use models and to draw or paint from life. For the most part his oil paintings are technically sound and essentially conservative naturalistic genre portraits: Portrait of a Jew in a Black Cap (ca. 1900), An Old Woman with a Book (Chumash) (ca. 1900), and Letter from America (The Artist’s Mother) (1903) hold no surprises. Nonetheless, his influence on Chagall, even as a force to be challenged rather than emulated, should not be underestimated.
“Yes, he has some ability,” were Pen’s first words to Chagall’s mother, after he had glanced through Chagall’s “portfolio,” which consisted of works copied from the magazine Niwa. Chagall’s unspoken response, as he remembers it, was combative. “I feel instinctively that this artist’s method is not mine. I don’t know what mine is. I haven’t time to think about it.” Chagall’s “method,” as it eventually emerged, revealed a quite different absorption and internalization of the Hasidic world familiar to both pupil and teacher. Pen, schooled in a rigorous late-nineteenth-century academy, approached his subject matter no differently from any number of painters addressing their outside worlds. The inner life of the Jews that Pen chose to represent, albeit a brave choice of subject (at the St. Petersburg Academy Jewish students were generally treated with suspicion and hostility, and they tended to keep to themselves), affected his method hardly at all. A Hasid pictured bathing a horse in Bathing Horse (1910) is, more or less, what it says it is.