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Soulful modernism.

I: Antecedents
   As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Lord
   rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the Lord
   out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain,
   and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the
   ground. Lot's wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a
   pillar of salt.

   Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood
   before the Lord, and, looking down toward Sodom and Gomorrah
   and all the land of the Plain, he saw the smoke of the land rising
   like the smoke of a kiln.
   --(Genesis 19.23-28)


Genesis frames the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in language so matter-of-fact it could be meteorological account, not story. Apocalypse requires only a sentence: in the time it takes to blink dust from your eye, the city is gone. A few more words and Lot's wife has disappeared. Abraham looks back at the dead land through air that still quivers with heat, but the writers of Genesis do not spare a heartbeat to mourn the woman's passing.

The absence of commemoration may be memorial's purest form, but vanishing haunts like neglect. In the Greek narratives that precede Judaism, renewal tempers dissolution. Roses bloom when Persephone rejoins Demeter every summer. The lilt of Orpheus's lyre calls back Eurydice. But the Old Testament refuses Lot's wife the luxury of nostalgia. Obliterated for a backward glance, she is permitted neither reprieve nor the solace of sorrow. Like Ovid's tales, her story involves a metamorphosis, but here there is nothing transformative. In lines of verse that stretch over story the way tendon slides over bone, Ovid shapes the perversely half-human into beautiful form. Extinction translates into alchemy, as bones blur into water and the shine of blonde hair dapples into quaking aspen leaves.

The destruction of Lot's wife, for obvious reasons, involves no such sensuality. Homesickness for a distempered place destroys her, and then God annihilates her memory. Old Testament punishment possesses an elegant symmetry: since the woman refuses to leave without regret, she is rooted to the place from which she took her last look. The lines of prose do not deny feeling; they vaporize it. The soft skin of Idit's upper thigh, the wet warmth of her exhaled breath, the pulse beating in her throat and temple: all harden at once to mineral. The pillar of salt, dried tears, offers only a stone's grief.

This economy of expression is barely comprehensible alongside contemporary effusiveness. Our public performances of desolation, as of delight, are far closer to Greek catharsis than to Judaism's spare aesthetic. The art we create is about display, not concealment; about open-throated mourning, not a blank misery beyond sight and sound. Still, there is something terrifying in the vacancy Abraham witnesses, this still world whose only movement is the noiseless smoke rising from scorched earth. Absolute, its emptiness does not even harbor grief for what is no longer there: the children squatting in a shady corner, playing house with sticks; the intent, downward gaze of a woman scrubbing the dirty hem of a dress; the red-faced baker carrying a tray of loaves away from the stove. As if bowing their heads before God's punishing fire, the writers of Genesis refuse to testify to the remains of human presence. They give us only blackened earth, the smell of fire, and silence.

Old Testament narrative takes the way of blind prophets who have no need for eyes. Its stories require inward listening, not watchfulness. More often than not they hinge upon refusal, or deprivation. With the extinction of Sodom and Gomorrah, tears turn to salt. Grief evaporates with incinerated bodies. Sulfur leaches color from fire's beauty and rain blunts its heat. As readers we are hostage to this writing, refused sight, hearing, and speech. Perhaps an acrid odor hovers, but this we must infer from lines too gaunt to offer sensual evocation. The seared air is a water-absorbing dryness on the tongue, the taste of gunmetal in the mouth. Salt and sulfur: the materials of a star, or the primeval earth.

Such is Jewish artistry with language. The writing is as beautiful and severe as a desert landscape, the land upon which its authors lived and died. Yet it is an aesthetic hostile to visual representation. How could you depict the scene of Idit's death? What palette could color the void? The story of Sodom and Gomorrah tells us as clearly as the story of the golden calf what happens to visual art after the prohibition against image making. The simile that concludes the account, its only embellishment, transforms the hearth into a funeral pyre.

II: Paintings

Fast-forward to another apocalypse, several millennia later. The whistle of a bomb in 1919, and silence. In seconds, a town transforms itself into a volcano. Fragments of metal, flesh, and glass fuse, then rain down to earth. Fire scours the detritus clean. In France, 7 percent of the population goes to war and does not return. Gas masks spare many firstborn sons in the trenches, but still they are not passed over: years later dreams of blood and smoke throttle them nightly. The plague begins in Spain, then smites twenty million across the world. And in Russia? The empire murders its people, and so the people turn upon the empire. Bullets and bayonets in Red Square, country estates burned and ravaged, the winter palace torn apart like a used stage set; this is the spectacle of Revolution. In a basement room in the city of Ekaterinburg at two o'clock one morning, Nicholas the II, a confused Caesar, speaks his final, undignified words--"What? What?"--before he is executed, as luck would have it, by a Jewish member of Lenin's secret police. In the streets, Reds and Whites tear each other's flesh. In the country, Lenin's guards tear up houses and farms looking for grain. And in the villages and towns where Jews live in the Pale of Settlement, the anti-Semitism that permeates the Russian air grows instantly more toxic. "The chosen people of the Bolsheviks" sneers one White officer, as historian Orlando Figes documents in A People's Tragedy. Calls for retribution transform sporadic pogroms into systemic slaughter.

No one more closely approximates the Old Testament despair of this modern devastation than Mark Rothko. His Seagram murals, a series of orange verticals rising up from black, evoke the spare and dignified altars of the ancients. The smoky canvases are the kiln of tragedy, suggesting sacrifice. Dramatic in their bleakness, they are suffused with awe. The cluster of panels the painter created and arranged several years later in his Houston chapel recalls the quiet after destruction. In their almost indiscernible gradations of blue-black, in the filtered light diffused from the ceiling, these canvases evoke a quality of empathy more profound than Holocaust museum or war memorial.

The Dvinsk-born artist's earlier works, rendered in more forgiving tones, possess a sensual brightness equally mesmerizing. At San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, I have contemplated the crimson and indigo rectangles of Number 14, 1960 more times than I can count. Rothko over-painted this canvas with several washes and the forms that shimmer upon its surface seem to float. As I watch, they fill until they absorb my entire field of vision. The smaller blue rectangle rests on the bottom of the canvas like a boat moored in quiet water. The red hovers over it, a vast expanse. The painting invites and distances, the way the horizon line between sea and sky draws you near at the same time that its vastness removes you from its grandeur. The black hue that borders and divides the colored forms blurs in and out of my sight. Its charcoal color feels at once as external as the darkness of space and as intimate as the mind-darkness out of which memory's images momentarily resolve.

If Rothko makes apocalypse intelligible by investing it with human feeling, Marc Chagall recalls us to rapture. Who better envisions Eden than this Vitebsk native? He lived through the Russian Revolution and the First World War and then, as a refugee, survived the Holocaust, yet this artist mostly paints delight. To stand in front of Chagall's work is to be bathed in colored light as resplendent as stained glass struck by sun. Usually joyous, occasionally marked by sorrow (the loss of his wife, the loss of his country), his canvases are rural folk tales enlivened with the cadence of klezmer. In The Promenade (1917), Birthday (1915), and Over the Village (1914-1918), tributes to Bella he painted in the first years of their marriage, secular history bows to sacred time. In place of blood rust, the burnt umber of charred buildings, and the washed-out sepia of war, Chagall selects softly brilliant hues: rose, violet, aquamarine, celestial blue. Color defies the monochrome of waste. The buoyant space of his paintings floats us upward, away from the front, the operating table, the nighttime breadlines lengthening and lengthening in the sub-zero streets.

The tension in Rothko's painting reminds you that you hold your self upright in defiance of the gravity of earth. But Chagall makes you weightless. When you contemplate the busy activity in one of his canvases, you do so from a perch high above the street. Like the figures in his canvases, poised halfway between ground and atmosphere, you begin to relinquish your hold upon the earth. To look at the canvases is to float through the skies above Vitebsk, to fly alongside the Eiffel Tower in a dream of Paris, to dance above a circle of wedding guests, to soar like the ceiling of the Opera, a visual aria lovely as the resonant music rising up from the stage.

Like the angels who appear in his paintings, Chagall creates in us a sense of distracted affiliation with the human activities that proceed on the ground below. Fragments of feeling--love, tenderness, joy--rise upward like the thoughts the visitants of Wim Wender's Wings of Desire hear as they hover over a girl folding shirts in a clothing store or a small boy playing in his room. The angelic gaze is itself a benediction, a quieting of the mind that absolves like a hand placed lightly on the forehead of a sleeper. War, famine, the bile of revenge--this too will pass, the painter reminds us. Chagall paints dreams, the language of space speaking for time, the high-flown perspectives of the canvases carrying us far away from the present.

In The Promenade, finished in the tumultuous moment that is the 1917 Revolution, Chagall makes Russia green again. The artist and his wife are in the foreground. The cityscape of Vitebsk, painted the color of fat summer leaves, creates a low horizon. Debonair as a musician in a black tux, the young Chagall stands facing us. He is smiling. One foot rests upon the edge of a ruby-colored picnic cloth decorated with flowers, where a carafe and a glass of wine also sit. In his right hand, the artist holds a bird. His left, extended heavenward, clasps Bella's hand as if it were the string of a balloon. Fuchsia-colored, serene, she floats above him, her body inclined in parallel with the emerald earth. The opaque sky is tenderer than the jade benediction of grass and houses, gentler than the coral church dome whose soft color Bella's dress curiously echoes. Lovely as a pearl, lovely as Bella, this soft atmosphere makes your own heart rise.

What is it we really see when we look at a painting such as this one? Is it memory that enriches painting? Or something in the canvas that restores recollection? We assume that the power visual artists hold rests in their ability to provoke us by seeing differently--by making things strange. Not so. The new might turn our heads, but what keeps us looking is something deeper, something that resonates with our own visual fields, horizon lines sustained as much from the insight of memory as from sight itself. If a painting works, it haunts us until what we assumed existed outside of us becomes part of our selves. Art reconciles the blurry silhouettes of memory that shadow us as we stand in the noon sun of the present. Its design offers us a way to discipline the fragments of our past that surface ostensibly at random. In this way, looking at a painting allows us to understand, as Hemingway writes in A Moveable Feast, how time can go both "very slowly" and "all at once."

I stare at the Chagall and wonder what visual grammar enables its peculiar arrangement of color and form to speak to me, while a nearby painting, composed like this one of a pattern of shapes and hues, remains inert. A chemistry animates the layers of pigment on canvas, one sense working for five until it trespasses every means by which we understand the world outside ourselves. Neither Chagall nor Rothko possessed Picasso's virtuoso technique, but their canvases provoke a feeling response the Spanish innovator rarely elicits. Gaze at one of his works and you are reminded, none too gently, of the chasm that separates you from the master painter. But Chagall's energy, like Rothko's, is entirely directed toward communication.

The frame of The Promenade blurs into the grainy diffuseness of my peripheral vision and I realize that I am not seeing as much as thinking, hearing, recollecting. Like much of Chagall's best work, this painting returns me to the past as the canvas opens before my eyes in the present moment. In place of the modern wasteland of the Russian Revolution and World War I, a second that refuses to tick past, the Vitebsk artist substitutes an instant of love whose fullness compensates for its transience: quantity stretched to its limit. The two linked figures shimmer on the canvas like midsummer, like a dragonfly glimpsed before its quivering iridescence zooms past your eye, like the dome of sky on a day "serene from the start, almost painfully slowed" as Stanley Kunitz writes after Osip Mandelstam in the poem "Summer Solstice." As with Rothko's Seagram murals, this picture does not evoke a distancing admiration. Instead, its intimacy enraptures. How unlike the fracturing, fragmenting canvases of modernism is its invitation to reflection. Cubism shatters the complacencies of vision only to offer us the jagged sightlines of competing perspectives. Rothko and Chagall provide completion, not division. You look at them not to see the world but to know yourself. Surface beauty they possess in abundance, but their art appeals to the soul.

III: History

What does it mean to dedicate your life's energy to what is considered impossible, a blasphemy, a contradiction in terms? To be a Jewish painter in Russia at the turn of the century was to cast off the religious strictures of familial embrace and to defy the legal prohibitions denying Jews the liberties other Russian citizens enjoyed: the freedom to own land, to attend public school, to live in the city or town of your choosing. Yet Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko remained obdurately committed to visual expression in a culture and a country united perhaps only in this, their refusal to permit any such authority. The Vitebsk native was cheerful, energetic, and gregarious despite his constant impatience with the social life that stole painting time. The Dvinsk youth was the mirror of melancholy, an urbane but essentially solitary person who walked the night streets of New York City like a figure from an Edward Hopper canvas. But both were iconoclasts driven to learn a visual idiom no one around them cared to speak. The early years saw them devoted to a profession so little enamored it did not muster the energy sufficient to ostracize them, yet at their deaths they left behind the canvases familiar to us on the walls of the world's most distinguished museums.

Early twentieth-century Russia was a place nearly impossible to feel at ease in, a country where peasants tilled the land with Stone Age tools while modern warfare technologies ravaged its laboriously plowed surface. The soul-churning years of violence that inaugurated the Soviet regime reached from the Baltic to the Black Seas, from Byelorussia to the Ukraine. Postimperial Russia was a country of negatives, pinched and thin--no wood to heat the frigid winter air, no bread to stop the stomach from cramping. In the five years that followed the 1917 Revolution, ten million died by violence direct or indirect: famine, war wounds, typhus contracted from filthy city water, torture practiced by the Cheka, the state's secret police.

Urban serfs without the consolation of an attachment to the land, Jewish Russians suffered well before the onset of Revolution. In 1879, scapegoated after an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II, those who had managed to move back to the cities were once again expelled from Moscow. Retaliatory pogroms wreaked havoc throughout the 1880s in Vitebsk, Chagall's much-loved cityscape. After the 1905 revolution, soldiers camped in Rothko's hometown of Dvinsk, where his family remained until they left for America in 1913. As an adult Rothko was essentially apolitical, but like many of his generation, he flirted as a teenager in the first few years after his U.S. arrival with the radical arguments his Dvinsk neighbors favored. Long years after his emigration, a residual fear colored his translation of memory onto canvas. Stories of mass graves dug in the woods outside his hometown resolve in the rectangular depths of his mature paintings. Chagall, who stayed in Soviet Russia until 1922, eventually walked the same Moscow streets as writers Maxim Gorky and Anna Akhmatova. But in canvases such as The Burning House (1913) and the 1940 paintings Fire in the Snow and The Burning Village, he remembered the smoke of pogroms thickening the air. Look to the right and left of the tallis-shrouded Jesus in White Crucifixion (1938) and watch the flames rise.

The point here is not simply location, location, location--though place undeniably helps define perception. At the turn of the century (as today, some would say), Russia possessed a doubled and divided sense of self. Tsarist governments removed Jewish residents beyond the Pale because their uneasy minority status reminded the nation of its own inferiority complex. The same admixture of pride and shame that has frequently characterized Jewish identity colored its own character. This country that spans East and West but bridges neither was crippled by self-doubt and derision, by too earnest a cosmopolitanism, and by an obsession with European cultural values. At the same time, the Russians possessed a surprisingly strong sense of their self-distinction as a people. They might well have adopted the breezily ironical interrogative Andre Aciman uses to confirm his Jewishness in the present day. "Are we, or aren't we?" Uncle Vili asks repeatedly in the pages of his nephew's memoir Out of Egypt (1994), in a phrase that confirms rather than undermines his unshakeable satisfaction in being Jewish.

Were they, or weren't they, Russian? Paris sheltered Chagall for most of his life, but Vitebsk was home. New York lionized Rothko, and still this city was not his own. Critics who evaluate the contributions of these painters exclusively in the context of European and American ideas misunderstand their work at its core. With its sophistication and verve, the urbane modernism of Paris and Berlin appeared to both Chagall and Rothko depthtess, passionless, and superficial, devoid of what the Dvinsk native called in his work "measure," the sense of oppositions held in balance. The avant-garde movement of his Western contemporaries, Chagall scoffed in Ma Vie, was a "revolution ... only of the surface." Sarcastically echoing the expression that launched the French Revolution, the artist derided cubism's faddishness by defining its practitioners as self-indulgent Royalists: "Let them eat their fill of their square pears on their triangular tables!" "My art," he continued in his memoir, is "a wild art, a blazing quicksilver, a blue soul flashing." Sounding uncomfortably close to the rabbi whose advice he had scorned in Vitebsk, the artist indicted the West's "technical art," as one that made "a god of formalism." The only correct response to this apostasy, he commented dryly, was "an expiatory bath."

IV: Looking Backward
   Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
   Surely her death has no significance?
   Yet in my heart she never will be lost,
   She who gave up her life to steal one glance.
   --"Lot's Wife," Anna Akhmatova


Defying their families in order to paint, Chagall and Rothko produced work informed by a distinctively Jewish sensibility. In the end, however, their experiments with form and faith cannot be extrapolated from their sense of themselves as Russians. Both claimed the country with a rueful tenderness that never crept into the dispassionate language with which they spoke of their adopted homes in France and the United States. Thousands of miles away from the open space of the northern tundra and the onion domes of the Moscow skyline, removed for decades from the sounds of Russian speech and the taste of pickled cabbage, this land of their birth twined itself around memory until it became synonymous with the map of their physical selves, familiar as the timbre of voice, the length of stride, the twinge in the shoulder that recalled an old muscle tear. Vitebsk, Chagall figured everywhere: in the background and foreground of his canvases, in trees shimmering in the night sky, ethereal figures dancing above church domes and housetops, the pastel colors of starry flowers that act as mnemonics for their perfumed scents.

Home is harder to see in Rothko's abstractions. Yet an unmistakable intimacy lives in the push-me-pull-you tension of his paintings--a resonance not entirely unlike the dark that breathes in the shadowed, triangular recesses of the nineteenth-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya's etchings. Rothko's gauzy rectangles expand and shrink as the contours of his forms glimmer and shine. The paintings--frames without location, questions without context--feel like a doorway to a deeply shadowed past. Something in their living presence brings back my earliest memory, my own home in time, if not in space. Perhaps two years of age, my small child's form stands expectant in front of a similar rectangle of blackness. The door is ajar (Did I open it?). The blurry gloom is infinite (Will I fall off the world if I step inside?). Before the hard earth-smelling objects rain down up my head (potatoes in a cupboard, perhaps), I stare with awe and curiosity at the unbounded darkness. In the present, gazing at Rothko's sentient geometry, I feel as unmoored as I did then, but also at home.

In the context of their country's refusal to embrace them, the nostalgia palpable in the work of Chagall and Rothko is perplexing and touching. In the mind's eye, Russia was the reedy contralto of the clarinet, or borscht and sour cream, the taste of the soil in the purpled roots of beets, the tang of sky in the cloud whiteness of the curdled milk. If only in fantasy, they could enjoy the land's salt and sour: bread, pickles, briny herring. But how could they paint a childhood idyllic only in dreams? Even to choose the medium (Chagall's stained glass? the black and grey acrylics with which Rothko closed out his career?) was to be displaced twice over, to distance themselves beyond the Pale not just of Russia but of the family's sheltering circle. Long before he left Dvinsk in 1913, Rothko had memorized the Hebraic laws that prohibit the making of iconic images. Chaim Soutine, the Belarusian painter born six years after Chagall, was badly beaten by the son of a rabbi whose portrait he had wanted to begin. And Chagall? In My Life, the artist remembered how his father walked half frozen into the kitchen after lifting heavy barrels of herring all day. With stiffened fingers he would draw from his pocket "a pile of cakes, of frozen pears" to pass out to his children with a "brown and wrinkled hand." Yet when the son he loved so dearly asked him for five rubles, the price of a month's art lessons, this man who brought "the evening ... in with him" flung the coins in the boy's face. The painter forgave the insult, but he never forgot "with how many tears and with what pride" he had gathered up the shiny circles.

The absence of images on the walls of Russian Jewish homes was all the more striking in a country whose meanest peasant huts gave pride of place to religious iconography. Portraits of the Madonna and Child, together with representations of the Father-Tsar, graced every Russian home. The iconography of Imperial Russia's first family served as a visible reminder of the ties that had bound serf to landowner to political leader for centuries. Those of us born in the West may find the sanctification of Soviet leaders in official portraits uneasily religious, even hypocritical, but so central was hagiography to the Russian state that the portraits of Lenin and Stalin mandated for Soviet homes simply gravitated to the space made vacant by the Virgin and the Tsar. Such was the context within which the walls of Jewish households stood resolutely bare. For Chagall as for Soutine, to make art was to insult the memory of the people who bore you, to choose the visual rhetoric of the Russian Church over the murmured word of your father's blessing. Consulting one of Vitebsk's rabbis as a young man, Chagall confessed that the "pale face" of Christ had long troubled him. But he received no answers to his questions about faith. Were the Israelites "really the chosen people of God?" Would the rabbi talk to him about his painting, instill in him "a little of the divine spirit?" No. Without a backward glance, he writes in Ma Vie, he "reached the door and went out."

Yet in memory, Chagall returned to his birthplace again and again. Like Rothko's commentary upon Dvinsk, he spoke of Vitebsk in the clear, unshadowed timbres people use when surprised into speaking what is deepest. Such bemused tones reveal the wry acknowledgment that colors speech when we hear our words betray what we have labored to conceal. Orlando Figes concludes Natasha's Dance, his cultural history of Russia, with modernist Igor Stravinsky's strikingly romantic confession of nationalistic faith: "The smell of the Russian earth is different, and such things are impossible to forget.... A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country--he can have only one country--and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life.... I did not leave Russia of my own will, even though I disliked much in my Russia and in Russia generally. Yet the right to criticize Russia is mine, because Russia is mine and because I love it, and I do not give any foreigner that right."

For Moische Segal and Marcus Rothkowitz, home was homely as the given names they buried in Russia before they fled. "Uncanny," Freud called it, this place terrifying not in its strangeness but its domesticity. The atmosphere of Vitebsk and of Dvinsk in which the artists grew to boyhood was familiar as the opaque brightness you see behind your closed eyelids, and suffocatingly close. Living in these insular, mostly Jewish towns was like being suspended on a raft above still water, drowsing on a hot day. (It is just this quality the sentient, wavering forms of Rothko's canvases evoke.) To be home in Russia was to be safely islanded in a sea of peoples and politicians who spoke about you but never to you, identifying you as inassimilable and unredeemed. Locked in a protective and stifling familial embrace, yearning for a different life but still loving this one, the boyhood Chagall and Rothko remembered was one you might as well call sleep.

Indeed, the crowded catalogue that closes Call It Sleep, Henry Roth's stunning novel of immigrant life in the New World, could equally describe the claustrophobic fellowship Chagall and Rothko knew as youths: "It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images--of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone stoops, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him." Russia was beautiful like this, and just as foreboding: summer light darkened by thunderheads. Somnolent but fevered, Roth's prose recalls the languorous energy of Chagall's canvases and the intimate abstractions of Rothko's work.

In the end, something deeper than politics informs their painting, just as it colors the poetry of fellow Russian Anna Akhmatova. This writer remained in St. Petersburg through the terrible years of Stalin's regime, but in "Lot's Wife" (1922-24) she expressed her painful attachment to country in terms the emigrant painters knew all too well. Choosing the vantage of exile to honor the ravaged ground under her feet, Akhmatova revisits the ruins of ancient cities to evoke the funeral pyre Russia has become. The country's wasted population is biblical in its abject misery, each death unremembered. "Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?" she asks, only to answer by calling the woman back to life. In her twentieth-century rewriting of Genesis, Lot's wife remains poised at the moment of departure. Shadowed by uneasiness, she hears the whisper of an imp in her ear: "It's not too late, you can look back still / At the red towers of Sodom, the place that bore you."

Despite her fear of political reprisal and her continuing anguish at the vacancy of the country's gutted heart, Akhmatova heeded this advice. From inside her apartment she watched St. Petersburg die with excruciating slowness while she wrote of Idit's instantaneous obliteration. "Her eyes that were still turning when a bolt / Of pain shot through them, were instantly blind; / Her body turned into transparent salt, / And her swift legs were rooted to the ground." The poet's unforgiving words claw away the erotic veil that beautifies Ovid's Metamorphoses. The mutation Akhmatova gives us freezes the half-human form in the act of its self-destroying glance. Neck arching in a painful turn, her face inclines toward home. Back muscles cramp as her body torques toward the place that bore her.

From Israel's deserts to the cold waste of Siberia is not, after all, so long a trip: Lot's wife is transfixed, as if she were trapped under the clear ice of the Volga, her hair fanned about her face, her milky eyes cataracted by frost. Chagall's country is quick with life, but Russia is a land of winter in the poet's heart. "Evening Room" describes the failure of a love affair as the onset of the barren season: "Water becoming ice is slowing in / The narrow channels. / Nothing at all will happen here again, / Will ever happen." Three years later, "The Guest" possesses the same torpor. "Nothing is different," the poet writes despairingly. "Thin snow beats / Against the dining-room window-pane. / I am totally unchanged."

Nothing changes--but nothing vanishes, either. Like Gorky, Akhmatova was disillusioned and embittered, but she never abandoned home. In the midst of Stalin's purges, Russia remained hers to mourn, and she murmured to the land in her own tongue; obliquely yes, but full of feeling, using the shorthand of intimates. But what words could convey the awkward amalgam of feeling that rose in the hearts of Chagall and Rothko on the eve of their departure from a place that refused to claim them? Dreaming, their ears recognized Russian as their native language. Awake, they heard their Jewish names reviled in its Slavic inflections. As a nine-year-old, Rothko ate breakfast to the sounds of Yiddish and spent his school hours reciting the cheder's Talmud in fluent Hebrew. At thirty-four, as he readied to leave for Paris, Chagall named his life story Ma Vie, but lettered his canvases with Hebrew script. Stalin's regime was a nightmare for Akhmatova, mother Russia punishing unruly behavior with a parent's sanctimonious wisdom. But Chagall and Rothko could not obtain even her angry upbraiding. To the inhabitants of the Pale, the country had nothing to say.

A wry love, a twisted smile, a strange, unhappy happiness: these were the expressions they turned toward Russia. Knowing their affection to be unrequited, they spoke of home with the proprietary, mock-despairing tenderness Zora Neale Hurston adopted to address black Americans in "My People! My People!" a critical but loving chapter of her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. Chagall wrote about his birthplace with similar fond disparagement. The town was "boring," but "like no other," a place he remembered unwillingly but "with emotion." "Enough of Vitebsk. It is finished," he announces near the close of his life story--then resurrects the city's spires and rooftops as the horizon line of his many-colored canvases. Dvinsk was darker for Rothko, a pit dug in forest earth. Nonetheless, as James Breslin notes in his biography, the artist "never felt entirely at home" in Portland or New York. Like Chagall's painting, however, Rothko's work reconciles the limbo of being born Jewish in Russia into expectancy. Indecision becomes transformative: here if nowhere else the painters translate social uncertainty and emotional ambivalence into beautiful and tensile balance. The shimmering deracinated rectangles equivocate between surface and depth only to keep you poised upon their threshold. The hovering figures of Chagall's canvases seem unable to choose between earth and sky and so remain fixed in hesitant permanency at the horizon.

Eventually, the stained glass of Moische Segal, naturalized Frenchman, bejeweled cathedrals in Europe and synagogues in the United States and Israel. The artist crafted tapestries to adorn the Knesset and painted a stunning dream of blue and scarlet on the ceiling of the Paris Opera. Marcus Rothkowitz, new American, but also, Breslin notes, "the last rabbi of western art" (friend Kunitz's affectionate label) painted and repainted the large frame abstracts he insisted upon hanging himself, crafting a signature aesthetic he hoped would elevate painting to the "level of poignancy" he heard in the Mozart piano concertos and symphonies that played in the studio as he worked. Paint was to Rothko what song is to the cantor: the language through which the spirit speaks. The canvases were secular prayer; their radiant translucency the instrument of expression, not its end. Rothko judged the most interesting painting that which "expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees," Breslin recounts. To look--really look--at one of the artist's works is to see through the painting to the emotional understanding that gives it shape. For all their bright sensuality, even the early canvases possess an inward austerity, a contemplative quality that the comparable work of Clifford Still or Joan Miro rarely produces. The arid beauty of Rothko's later work--the series of canvases he created for Harvard University, those he designed for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City, and the paintings he installed at the site in Houston that would become known as the Rothko Chapel--describes a place akin to the land Genesis evokes.

Israeli-American writer Naama Goldstein echoes this spatial logic in The Place Will Comfort You, a collection of short stories whose title could serve to introduce any number of Rothko's canvases. "The first time I set foot there," a character Yona writes of the settlement town Margoah, north of Jerusalem, "I thought I was on the moon. I said so. But the point is, no, exactly the opposite. The point is you're exactly where you belong.... Sure, you're small, but you're a comma, you're a period, you're a necessary part.... You see exactly where you are, and what you are, what you've come from and what you're bringing about. Like Avraham in his time, the same comprehension." Rothko's paintings drive toward a similar ontology. Afterimages, residual traces, they muse upon that early union with the unseen world, Abraham's desire to hurry back "to the place where he had stood before the Lord." Rothko refused Judaism, but like the dim light of the stars we see best from the periphery of the retina, the shimmering dark of his paintings offers the clarity of his averted vision.

On the first anniversary of the October Revolution, Chagall painted the town red--literally--mobilizing artists and craftsmen to make the walls of his hometown dance with his "multicolored animals." But he appropriated the iconography of the Revolution as much to express defiance toward the settled order of Vitebsk's traditional Judaism as toward the Tsarist regime. The green cows and flying horses he pridefully described as "swollen with Revolution" did not impress Communist leaders, who wondered what such surrealism had to do with Marx and Lenin. They were right. In truth, the artist was rebelling against the prosaic, earthbound figures of Moscow's "old Jewish theatre," the Yiddish drama with "its psychological naturalism and its false beards," just as he had earlier defied the old fashioned faith of the rabbis of Vitebsk. Rebellious graffiti artist, he splashed the unadorned walls of the town's Jewish homes with color. "I turned the world upside down in my art like Lenin did Russia," he recollected in Ma Vie. Instead of working toward the Bolshevik political ideal, the painter exploited Soviet iconography to inaugurate a new world in his art. Maverick always and servant never, Chagall turned his defiant energy upon aesthetics just as Lenin, he implied, exerted a similar will upon political life.

V: Home
   Even after his death he did not return
   To the city that nursed him.
   Going away, this man did not look back.
   To him I sing this song.
   Torches, night, a last embrace,
   Outside in her streets the mob howling.

   He sent her a curse from hell
   And in heaven could not forget her.
   But never, in a penitent's shirt,
   Did he walk barefoot with lighted candle
   Through his beloved Florence,
   Perfidious, base, and irremediably home.
   --Stanley Kunitz, "Dante," after Anna Akhmatova


Strangers to the Russian Church and estranged from Temple, Chagall and Rothko viewed their work through the lens of a separation sharp-edged with defiance. Rothko's father had left Russia three years in advance of his wife and children, but he died just six months after being reunited with them in Portland, Oregon. For the rest of his life, Rothko refused unequivocally to revisit the land that had precipitated this abandonment. Though he made three extensive trips through Europe, he never set foot on Russian soil again. Nor did its cityscapes and landscapes appear in his work, even in the earliest figurative canvases. He painted his mother as strong, unyielding, and melancholy. He painted his father not at all. The town of Dvinsk was like the darkness that supported the shimmering bands of color in his work--a force no less sorrowfully present for its willed absence.

Chagall, on the other hand, left his parents and siblings behind when he traveled to Paris in 1922 with Bella. He would spend the next six decades in Europe, save for a sojourn in New York City during the Holocaust. My Life, the memoir he finished that year in Moscow, is as parti-colored as the canvases, by turns affectionate and sad, scornful and sure, but always sustained by longing. At its close, Chagall sounds an exile's spurned love. "Neither Imperial Russia, nor the Russia of the Soviets needs me," he confesses. "I am a stranger to them." Unlike Lot's wife, the artist did not hesitate before the vision of home passes out of view. But it is Akhmatova's Dante he most closely resembles. Insulted as a Jew in Russia, it is still to Russia he gives his final word: "I shall come with my wife, my child. I shall lie down near you. And, perhaps, Europe will love me and, with her, my Russia."

Going away, this man did not look back. Yet if he turned toward Europe, the proprietary caress in the closing line of Ma Vie is more binding than any backward glance. Throughout the course of a long life, Chagall would travel to France and Germany, Mexico and Switzerland, Italy and Scotland. He would walk through Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, and New York. In 1973, a full half-century after his leave taking, he saw Moscow and Leningrad once more. But the face of Vitebsk--"perfidious, base, and irremediably home"--he refused to look upon. Still, in his dream-paintings we recognize the city that nursed him, the place he could not or would not forget, the beloved horizon of home in which the artist recognized not "pain," not "terror," but "strangest triumph."
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Author:Goldman, Anne
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Words:6797
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