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In search of Marc Chagall: review essay.

Marc Chagall: On Art and Culture, edited by Benjamin Harshav, translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 225 pp. $49.50.

Marc Chagall and His Times, A Documentary Narrative, by Benjamin Harshav, with translations by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. 1026 pp. $39.95.

The two volumes constitute a major ingathering of the verbal culture of Marc Chagall across the twentieth century. In pursuit of his subject, Professor Harshav collected every scrap of letters, poems, essays, notes, autobiographical writings, musings, bills, etc. in Yiddish, Russian, French, Hebrew, and English. He also harvested letters and private communications from Chagall's wives, friends, daughter, collectors and art dealers with the intention of illuminating the complexity of a major plastic artist of the twentieth century. Professor Harshav's own multicultural life shadows in its way the geographical movements and cultural growth of Chagall as the artist moved physically, psychologically, and culturally through traditional and secularizing Eastern European Jewish life and culture, Russia of the Silver Age and the Soviet Union, France of the Belle Epoque, the Inter-war years, Vichy, and post World War Two. Harshav pursued the Chagallian pilgrimage to Mandate Palestine and later Israel and even followed to America and captured Chagall's wanderings among the Yiddish cultural emigre milieu in New York and the elite Anglo-American world.

Harshav's tireless labors have brought together in chronological order the written artifacts of Chagall's verbal communications. He and Barbara Harshav have cleanly translated them into English and published most of these manuscripts for the very first time. They have performed thereby a most notable accomplishment as Kulturtraegers opening to cultural historians, art historians, post-colonial comparatists, Jewish Studies specialists, etc., the scattered writings of Marc Chagall and his contemporaries.

The volume, Marc Chagall: On Art and Culture, gathers together in chronological order 1. the public addresses and communications of the plastic artist and 2. the translation of the first published critical study by Efros and Tugenhold on Chagall's art, written in Russian, which attempted to contextualize Chagall's works as the unique expression of the Jewish Imaginary of Eastern European Jewry. This important short study provided European critics in the Inter-War years--via German translation--some fuzzy perspective on Chagall's art without much iconographic help.

In the Introduction of On Art and Culture, Harshav provides a biographical overview of Chagall's life and then proceeds to contextualize and interpret his presence in terms of the Eastern European Jewish world in flux just before the Revolution. Then Harshav proffers his explication of Chagall's multicultural personality. From Part 1 to Part 6, following the chronological order, Harshav presents before each selection a short authoritative commentary which guides the reader to observe in the text what Harshav considers important. This scholarly approach follows the style of positivist literary history manuals which dominated lycees and Gymnasiums in pre- and post-World War One Europe. The presentation of facts is generally unerring. References are minimal and often allude to other scholarly essays on Chagall by the editor himself. Harshav has a perspective that brooks little contradiction. He presents himself as the authorative figure with his knowledge of all these languages, his own life experience as one of the last native Yiddish speakers from Vilna, the crown site of Yiddishism, his own Hebraic and Slavic cultural experiences, and his intuitive understanding--himself a published poet and distinguished scholar of poetics and linguistic theory. Harshav, therefore, considers himself a guide to a lost world of which he holds the keys (any previous interpretative efforts being comparative failures), and, given this plethora of new documents, implies that his presentation should be taken as authoritative. Few would argue with his credentials. These volumes are a labor of love and perhaps his magnum opus. The two volumes are intended as a work of art, and the parallels of the seven parts in chronological order reveal how conscious he is that these two volumes are really a diptych of his grand ceuvre on Chagall which will become a triptych with the publication of The Art of Marc Chagall, which will treat the iconography and interpretations of the paintings.

Both volumes are constructed in seven main parts following the key movements of Chagall in his long life.
M.C.: On Art & Culture [Public       M.C. and His Times [Personal
   Writings]                            Writings]
Introduction (pp. 1-27)              Introduction (pp. 1-20)
1. In Revolutionary Russia: 1918-    1. Roots (pp. 21-85) + Chagall's
     1922                                 Autobiography (1924)
2. In Paris Between the World Wars:  2. Struggling Artist: 1900-1918
     1918-1941                       3. Art and Revolution: 1918-1923
3. World War II and the Holocaust:   4. France Between Two World Wars:
     1941-1950                            1923-1941
4. Revival: 1951-1960                5. Refugee in the United States:
5. Beyond Painting: 1952-1966             1941-1948
6. The Last Years: 1967-1985         6. Return to France: 1948-1952
7. The First Book on M.C.: 1918      7. The Last Thirty-Three Years:
                                          1952-1985


Marc Chagall and His Times contains the main bulk of Chagall's unpublished writings and provides Harshav with the main thrust of his presentation of the artist. On Art and Culture functions as an adjunct volume--albeit published first--recapitulating the positions of Harshav vis-a-vis Chagall as a man of intense Jewish origins and a multicultural life now witnessed in these collected lectures and public statements published for the first time.

The subtitle of the major volume, A Documentary Narrative, actually covers both volumes and establishes the legitimacy of his enterprise. Harshav seeks "a new reconstruction of Marc Chagall's life and consciousness based ... on letters and original documents" (p. vii) and providing "the voices of Chagall and his contemporaries" interrelated with "my own [Harshav] narrative voice" (p. ix).
        The book can be read as a nonfictional novel, written by an
        omniscient author who presents the characters and lets them
        speak for themselves. It is not just a book about Marc Chagall,
        but a book about the times and places he lived in; large chunks
        of history and particularly Jewish history are reflected in it.
        (p. ix)


This tongue-in-cheek intention of creating a "nonfictional novel" in this Documentary Narrative runs into a serious problem: generic dissonances. Harshav clearly intends his labors to produce a masterpiece which should supersede if not replace Marc Chagall, the existing major biographical work by Franz Meyer, a magisterial tome (1964) written with the direct help of Meyer's wife, Ida, Chagall's daughter, who obtained for Meyer total access to the living figures and available documents. But Meyer's biographical work, despite Chagall's living and creating until 1985, has a focus and an interpretative intention which still holds weight today. Meyer dutifully assembled a massive bibliographical reference list which reveals how thorough he was for his time. Meyer functioned in a generic form, the biography of a master artist, and integrated the artwork of Chagall into the biographical study. Meyer followed the mid-century scholarly tradition of l'homme et l'ceuvre. Harshav separates that integration--to his detriment--by placing the study of the ceuvre in his forth-coming book and devoting the Documentary Narrative to l'homme. Harshav does provide a complete chronology of Chagall and has--see above--divided the artist's life story into seven parts which follow his geographical displacements as a Diasporic Jew. Harshav's use of seven parts in each volume reveals his Hebraic humor, as seven in Jewish numerology is a number of completion (God knows!) and implying here: the definitive study. But Harshav is like a chef who provides the ingredients and tells the reader to cook the dish himself! Meyer produced a focused masterful work; Harshav leaves us with one thousand pages of ingredients without either a focused interpretation or a bibliographical reference list to bring us up to date from 1964 to the present.

The Documentary Narrative is neither a full-fledged biography nor a successful nonfictional novel with Bakhtinian voices playing one against the other. Indeed, the hidden novelistic genre imitated here appears to be the epistolary novel of the 18th century. These two volumes come closer to what the New York Public Library classifies in its catalogue as Correspondence and Writings of Marc Chagall. Only a third of all the collected letters were translated, but the selection appears to be judicious. Harshav and his wife have done a yeoman's labor of translating and introducing them. In the role of scholar/editor, Harshav has indeed produced for the first time a two-volume critical edition of selected letters and writings of Chagall and his contemporaries with a most useful introduction: the placement of Chagall in his childhood Jewish milieu, Vitebsk, and the uniqueness of this Eastern European Jewish shtetl existence.

This Introduction and first chapter of Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative provides a useful overview of the Jewish reality in Tsarist Russia circa 1900. Harshav paints with a broad brush, as if this area were totally unknown to the Western world. He is correct that art historians who cannot read Russian or Yiddish do not have his lived knowledge, but by 2005 we have available to us anachronistic interpretations of earlier periods regarding Chagall's origins and influences which have evolved since at least 1990. The explosion of Jewish historiography focused on Russian Jewry has opened the eyes of the art historians of Chagall, Gentile and Jewish, to the gaps in their knowledge, and they have compensated for their linguistic inabilities by seeking out help. Harshav's effort can be appreciated, nevertheless, for marking clearly the anthropological uniqueness of this subaltern Jewish culture by underlining the social, religious, cultural, political and economic factors at play and Chagall's emergence from this milieu and subsequent negotiations and accommodations to russificatsie and France's mission civilisatrice. Harshav overburdens his text no doubt by arguing that "the Jews in Russia had their own social and cultural empire within the empire of power" (p. 33). A Jewish "Empire" would have indeed been a gute beshore [glad tidings] to my bemused grandparents' ears and to all other contemporary Russian Jews. That "dense network of Jewish ... institutions, unified by one religion, the myth of their own ... different history and worldwide dispersion ... sanctified texts, a universe of folklore" was fractured seriously by modernity despite "political ideologies and Jewish parties, secular literature and newspapers" (p. 33). Harshav's cri de caeur for this slaughtered culture only emphasizes how much Chagall was part of this "empire," yearned for it, but was quasi-detached from it in his maturity, for this "empire" made little room for the visual arts--about which Chagall laments continually in his letters.

It is regrettable that Harshav did not continue his narration and proffer his interpretation of the vagaries of Chagall's existence as a Jew and artist throughout the century. He had the chance to enter deeply into the problematics of Jewish identity and the encounter with Western Enlightenment through the life and work of Chagall. He would have brought an insider's deep understanding of the ambivalence at play: the attractions and revulsions of the Other's culture, Slavic or French. Chagall serves as a perfect model of the Third World artists who flood Paris, London, or America today creating hybridic art works unappreciated at home and not really understood in the new host nation. But what does Harshav repeat ad nauseam: how ignorant Chagall really is! Without saying the Yiddish/Hebrew term, amhorets, ignoramus, Harshav sneers that Chagall does not know how to write correct Yiddish and had no knowledge of Hebrew. Indeed Chagall had only five years of schooling. He was basically self-taught in Russian, the language of his intellectual exchanges among his Jewish colleagues. Instead of wondering how this genius emerged and gave expression to the shtetl imaginary and created even an artistic Zedde [grandfather and ancestor], a Shagal, who painted the 18th century Mohilev synagogue, thus giving to himself and all Israel some artistic yikhes [inheritance], Harshav acts atavistically as a member of the zaydene yidn [silk Jews=elite] disturbed that such talent could emerge from a herring dealer, such proste-yidn [crude=plain Jews]! Harshav's attitude in fact, reflects sadly the underside of shtetl culture, its class consciousness and belief that each one should know his place. He, of the hekher fenster [upper class], expected Jewish artists and creators to know their sacred writings--and in the original tongue!--and poor Chagall depended on the Yehoash Yiddish translation of the Bible sent as a gift from Yosef Opotoshu for all his undertakings! From the point of view of the educated Jewish elite, it is obvious that Chagall knew little of classical rabbinic Judaism. But that makes his perspective so worthy of study: Chagall reflects shtetl folk Jewish life, its mix of deep faith fused with elements of the surrounding Gentile folk culture. [Spit three times if you catch a cinder in your eye.] Harshav eschews the tensions beween the shtetl classes and the ferocious ideological struggles between the traditionalists and the modernists. Chagall's beloved first wife, Bella, was a jeweler's daughter with education, and her family hardly appreciated her desire to marry this upstart painter. Chagall knew pain from his own folk! And there can be no small irony that Chagall's second wife, Vava, who emerges as a minature Lady Macbeth, cutting off David McNeil, Chagall's love child, alienating Ida, his only daughter, to take over the finances, burying Chagall himself in a Christian burial site, giving the entire Chagall inheritance to her bachelor brother, etc., this Vava was a Brodsky from Kiev! And Chagall must have been tickled pink even in his old age to think he married into the Brodskys, the Jewish Rockefellers of Russia, who dominated the sugar market. Presenting letters but not giving an integrated narrative makes all Harshav's assemblage of letters seem underused.

If one hopes to find artistic letters like those of Delacroix or Van Gogh, one will be disappointed. The letters of Chagall are in fact of no interest if one seeks to learn of his artistic concerns, his obsessions or deeply felt artistic credo. He rarely talks to anyone about his private thoughts. Rather, these 1000 pages of letters display the distance of Chagall from other people, Jews and Gentiles. He trusts no one, but like Marcel Proust he uses letter-writing as a distancing device. He flatters, he repeats how "we must soon meet again," he asks about children, he sends regards, he regrets constantly that he cannot be with you for this celebration or that sad event, but on what he really thinks about art, or even politics, he is mum. Harshav insists that Chagall is a multicultural, multiperspectival person. I am less than convinced. He was an ambitious man and artist and realized quickly that neither the Jews nor even the Russians had as much to offer as the French. He also realized that Russia, for better or for worse, was his "homeland," at least Vitebsk, which he mythologized rapidly. For all his seemingly "simple ways," he did get a solid fellowship from Vinaver in Saint Petersburg to go to Paris, and he certainly knew to how to meet Sonia Delaunay and find the entrance into the world of Apollinaire and Cendrars. There are no letters from this fertile Parisian period in La Ruche when all the glorious 1908-1914 era produced his greatest works! There are few letters and only some public writings from Vitebsk during the Revolution which contain mainly Bolshevik correct rant. Why he flees Vitebsk and later the Soviet Union is hardly treated in all its complexity. What good is a Documentary Narrative on Chagall that does not point all this out?

The letters reveal that Chagall is basically, from 1923 on, a stateless Jew who clings to France where he feels somewhat at home and there is no other alternative. He was no Zionist despite his love of the idea of Israel. His roots were in the Diaspora, Vitebsk, and the glorious freedoms of life in Paris. And he was not alone in this! Most of the School of Paris was Jewish, Eastern European Jews who could not sell a single canvas in the "old country" and in France and abroad sold most of their art to Gentiles. This too should have been a chapter in the Documentary Narrative.

The most arresting letters are not Chagall's letters but those of Virginia Haggard, Chagall's lover after the death of Bella in the United States in the war years. Perhaps Harshav could not bring himself to write about this very sad hour in Chagall's life and his dependence upon Virginia, he, a twenty year older man, with his new-found vigor. She certainly tried to fit in, a Gentile young lady with a famous father, as her letters prove to the Yiddish writer and friend of Chagall, Yosef Opotoshu. To read her letters, a goodly number, Harshav seems to be on her side of the story. Their break-up was traumatic. The ultimate victim was the love child David. Harshav says little about this figure, the one living representative of this whole affair and Chagall's only living child.

Chagall's letter exchanges with his collectors reveal the patricians' world, their patronizing tone when they are annoyed, their cajoling and fawning on Chagall when they are after something. The affected co-equality is reduced to drinks chez nous or a dinner party and inquiries into the health of the children. Chagall is not taken in. Chagall, I believe, knew people, and that is why he was actually so successful socially when he needed to be. He was a loner who had his private vision: his art was where his life was lived. The rest counted for little. He knew he had to sell paintings to keep body and soul together and he had a definite streak of vanity and competition vis-a-vis his rival painters, especially Picasso. But that does not appear anywhere in his letters or writings. Chagall's letters to the collectors are cordial but with no more than the usual good forms of civility.

Harshav has published the letter exchanges of John U. Nef with Chagall and others connected to Nef who helped bring Chagall to America in 1958. These letters do show the attentions of Nef, but Harshav misses the more revealing aspects. I happened to attend the celebrated visit of Chagall to the University of Chicago in 1958 and sat next to him translating the English into French as we chatted back and forth in Yiddish, which both pleased and amused Chagall. John U. Nef as head of the Committee on Social Thought organized this remarkable seminar on Chagall, which was the major intellectual event on campus and in Chicago that year. I remember when Mircea Eliade jumped up one day and shouted, "Maitre! You have fused the Jewish and Christian worlds on your canvas!" The whole seminar rose as one and suddenly were applauding wildly. Chagall looked stunned and finally stood up, bowed and sat down. He leaned over to me in Yiddish and said: ikh farshtey gornit! [I don't understand a thing he is saying]. (Mircea Eliade, philosopher and author of The Eternal Return, a key text in those days, it turns out during the War years in Bucharest wrote antisemitic comments in the newspapers.) Chagall was a "catch," and Nef took full advantage of this famous artist, requesting favors of him constantly. But Nef, a good friend of T. S. Eliot, reflected his age. His atavistic thinking never took the form of Eliot's moments in Gerontion, but in an age of the numerus clausus at American universities, Nef concealed his patricianal social antisemitism. Thus he alludes to Chagall in his letters always in terms that either make him French or universal. Never is the forbidden word of his identity ever evidenced in his letters. Later Nef requested Chagall to create a mosaic for him, which Chagall obliged, and at the dedication, 1971, we have John U. Nef's telling words:
         Thus, through this mosaic, you bring a piece of France to the
         United States in the most harmonious and brilliant way. But
         much more: you bring your unique imagination. It is neither
         French--your adoptive country--nor American--the country of
         your asylum during the war--nor even Russia--the country of
         your birth. It is universal. (p. 940)


What a brilliant chapter Harshav could have written using Chagall's letters and experience on social antisemitism in the academy and in Chagall's American and European life even after the Holocaust.

Chagall was inevitably never secure. He played Zelig of Woody Allen, bending and changing his interests and origins according to his audience. He did this with his Autobiography. Each new translation proffered a reshaped Chagall. The same with his letters: To the Russians and Russian Jews he did not know, he was always mourning that, he, a good Russian artist was not loved in the homeland. To Zionists and Yiddish writers, he continually lamented that he wanted to help set up a Jewish Art Museum and actually did go to Vilna and Tel Aviv in this effort, but he was not about to give away his art gratis, even to cajoling Jewish cultural institutions. To President Weitzman of Israel he writes: "With my ancestors I shall always be bound to my people." To his French correspondents, it was always: Vive la France! The land of art and freedom, his adopted home and citizenship--finally!" My whole being lives in France, where I came in my youth to live and work" (p. 762). His later public writings seem to follow his private letters. The Yiddish ones lament the Holocaust and reveal a necessary hope for the future. The French ones underscore how France is the country of art.

One might have thought that his multiple letters to Yosef Opatoshu, his favorite Yiddish writer and the one artist with whom he felt close--at least he says so in his writings--might reveal some inner thoughts and artistic concerns. Only rarely does Chagall mention a word about Jewish writers. He likes Perets Markish, the murdered poet who rewrote Chagall's Autobiography into elegant Yiddish, whom he considered more imaginative than Abraham Sutskever (p. 763). He dislikes Sholem Asch, whom he considers a sellout to the Gentiles, but his fury can be felt when he was attacked by Yiddish intellectuals concerning his Christ figures: "It is bitter that someone wants to teach me Jewishness and confuses me with Sholem Asch. The barking of Mayzel and Zeitlin and others chill me" (p. 719). He had very warm exchanges with Sutzkever, but it is an older artist cultivating a younger one and vice versa, for Chagall illustrated Sutzkever's Siberia and Chagall wants Sutzkever to check what is going on about his planned Hagadah illustrations. "Please sniff it out" (p. 713).

I believe that Chagall was profoundly lonely and Bella was his only real love and attachment to someone and something in life besides his brush and canvas. These letters for the most part are bread and butter expressions of thanks and social forms of remembrance with good form but hardly more. We see a man who must protect his privacy and time. In a rare moment he states: "I want just to work. How many years will it take me to make something big?" (p. 717). He is frustrated that his grand plans were not coming to fruition.

These fourteen hundred pages of Chagall's writings reveal little about why one might normally read Chagall's letters: to discover the wellsprings of his art, to discover a human being pulsing with creative ideas. They are only of possible Zeitgeist interest dealing with the Jewish artist as outsider and the commodification of art in mid-twentieth century. These texts are waiting for someone prepared to write a new biography integrating Chagall's life and its direct ties to his art works as a documented narrative with a clear thesis and intention. The Harshav volumes must be judged at this moment as an idiosyncratic collection of Chagall's writings. As an interpretation of Chagall's life and times, these volumes are incomplete and noble ruins.

These volumes appear only in paperback. They are not really printed as a normal volume by Stanford University Press with its imprimatur. These volumes seem photocopied, double-spaced, and not up to the standards of volumes of such magnitude of intention that Stanford University Press regularly publishes. Even the reproductions of photographs or rare Chagall prints and other visual aids seem less than satisfactory for a significant press publication. One has the sense that Stanford University Press sought the cheapest means to publish these volumes, expecting only a minimal number of purchases. This attitude disgraces both Chagall and Jewish Studies and insults the Harshavs, who deserve the normal university press treatment given any major study of a significant artist.

Seth L. Wolitz

University of Texas at Austin
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Title Annotation:Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative; Marc Chagall: On Art and Culture
Author:Wolitz, Seth L.
Publication:Shofar
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:4082
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