The Elusive Marc Chagall

With his wild and whimsical imagery, the Russian-born artist bucked the trends of 20th-century art

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Returning to Vitebsk in 1914 with the intention of staying only briefly, Chagall was trapped by the outbreak of World War I. At least that meant spending time with his fiancée, Bella Rosenfeld, the beautiful, cultivated daughter of one of the town’s wealthiest families. Bella had won a gold medal as one of Russia’s top high-school students, had studied in Moscow and had ambitions to be an actress. But she had fallen for Chagall’s strange, almond-shaped eyes and often knocked on his window to bring him cakes and milk. “I had only to open the window of my room and blue air, love and flowers entered with her,” Chagall later wrote. Despite her family’s worries that she would starve as the wife of an artist, the pair married in 1915; Chagall was 28, Bella, 23. In his 1914- 18 Above the Town (one of his many paintings of flying lovers), he and Bella soar blissfully above Vitebsk.

In 1917 Chagall embraced the Bolshevik Revolution. He liked that the new regime gave Jews full citizenship and no longer required them to carry passports to leave their designated region. And he was pleased to be appointed commissar for art in Vitebsk, where he started an art school and brought in avant-garde teachers. But it soon became clear that the revolutionaries preferred abstract art and Socialist Realism— and how, they wondered, did the comrade’s blue cows and floating lovers support Marxism-Leninism? Giving up his job as commissar in 1920, Chagall moved to Moscow, where he painted decorative panels for the State Jewish Chamber Theater. But ultimately unhappy with Soviet life, he left for Berlin in 1922 and settled in Paris a year and a half later along with Bella and their 6-year-old daughter, Ida.

In Paris, a new door opened for Chagall when he met the influential art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned him to illustrate an edition of the poetic classic the Fables of La Fontaine. Chauvinistic French officials cried scandal over the choice of a Russian Jew, a mere “Vitebsk sign painter,” to illustrate a masterpiece of French letters. But that blew over, and Chagall went on to do a series of resonant illustrations of the Bible for Vollard.

Increasingly alarmed by Nazi persecution of the Jews, Chagall made a strong political statement on canvas in 1938 with his White Crucifixion. Then 51 and in his artistic prime, he por- trayed the crucified Christ, his loins covered with a prayer shawl, as a symbol of the suffering of all Jews. In the painting, a synagogue and houses are in flames, a fleeing Jew clutches a Torah to his breast, and emigrants try to escape in a rudimentary boat. Not long after, in June 1941, Chagall and his wife boarded a ship for the United States, settling in New York City. The six years Chagall spent in America were not his happiest. He never got used to the pace of New York life, never learned English. “It took me thirty years to learn bad French,” he said, “why should I try to learn English?” One of the things he did enjoy was strolling through Lower Manhattan, buying strudel and gefilte fish, and reading Yiddish newspapers. His palette during these years often darkened to a tragic tone, with depictions of a burning Vitebsk and fleeing rabbis. When Bella, his muse, confidante and best critic, died suddenly in 1944 of a viral infection at age 52, “everything turned black,” Chagall wrote.

After weeks of sitting in his apartment on Riverside Drive immersed in grief, tended to by his daughter, Ida, then 28 and married, he began to work again. Ida found a French-speaking English woman, Virginia McNeil, to be his housekeeper. A diplomat’s daughter, and bright, rebellious and cosmopolitan, McNeil had been born in Paris and raised in Bolivia and Cuba, but had recently fallen on hard times. She was married to John McNeil, a Scottish painter who suffered from depression, and she had a 5-year-old daughter, Jean, to support. She was 30 and Chagall 57 when they met, and before long the two were talking painting, then dining together. Afew months later Virginia left her husband and went with Chagall to live in High Falls, New York, a village in the Catskills. They bought a simple wooden house with an adjoining cottage for him to use as a studio.

Though Chagall would do several important public works in the United States—sets and costumes for a 1942 American Ballet Theatre production of Tchaikovsky’sAleko and a 1945 version of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and later large murals for Lincoln Center and stained-glass windows for the United Nations headquarters and the Art Institute of Chicago—he remained ambivalent about America. “I know I must live in France, but I don’t want to cut myself off from America,” he once said. “France is a picture already painted. America still has to be painted. Maybe that’s why I feel freer there. But when I work in America, it’s like shouting in a forest. There’s no echo.” In 1948 he returned to France with Virginia, their son, David, born in 1946, and Virginia’s daughter. They eventually settled in Provence, in the hilltop town of Vence. But Virginia chafed in her role, as she saw it, of “the wife of the Famous Artist, the charming hostess to Important People,” and abruptly left Chagall in 1951, taking the two children with her. Once again the resourceful Ida found her father a housekeeper— this time in the person of Valentina Brodsky, a 40- year-old Russian living in London. Chagall, then 65, and Vava, as she was known, soon married.

The new Mrs. Chagall managed her husband’s affairs with an iron hand. “She tended to cut him off from the world,” says David McNeil, 57, an author and songwriter who lives in Paris. “But he didn’t really mind because what he needed most was a manager to give him peace and quiet so he could get on with his work. I never saw him answer a telephone himself. After Vava took over, I don’t think he ever saw his bank statements and didn’t realize how wealthy he was. He taught me to visit the Louvre on Sunday, when it was free, and he always picked up all the sugar cubes on the table before leaving a restaurant.” McNeil and his half sister, Ida, who died in 1994 at age 78, gradually found themselves seeing less of their father. But to all appearances Chagall’s married life was a contented one, and images of Vava appear in many of his paintings.

In addition to canvases, Chagall produced lithographs, etchings, sculptures, ceramics, mosaics and tapestries. He also took on such demanding projects as designing stainedglass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah-HebrewUniversityMedicalCenter in Jerusalem. His ceiling for the Paris Opéra, painted in 1963-64 and peopled with Chagall angels, lovers, animals and Parisian monuments, provided a dramatic contrast to the pompous, academic painting and decoration in the rest of the Opéra.

“He prepared his charcoal pencils, holding them in his hand like a little bouquet,” McNeil wrote of his father’s working methods in a memoir that was published in France last spring. “Then he would sit in a large straw chair and look at the blank canvas or cardboard or sheet of paper, waiting for the idea to come. Suddenly he would raise the charcoal with his thumb and, very fast, start tracing straight lines, ovals, lozenges, finding an aesthetic structure in the incoherence. Aclown would appear, a juggler, a horse, a violinist, spectators, as if by magic. When the outline was in place, he would back off and sit down, exhausted like a boxer at the end of a round.”

Some critics said he drew badly. “Of course I draw badly,” Chagall once said. “I like drawing badly.” Perhaps worse, from the critics’ point of view, he did not fit easily into the accepted canon of modernity. “Impressionism and Cubism are foreign to me,” he wrote. “Art seems to me to be above all a state of soul. . . . Let them eat their fill of their square pears on their triangular tables!”


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