Commentary Magazine

Chagall-An Innocent in Paris

The School of Paris, which only yesterday loomed as the unrivaled citadel of modern art, has gradually slipped into history. Its former hegemony over the artistic consciousness of the West is shattered. Its senior living survivors—Picasso, Lipchitz, and Chagall—passed long ago into that peculiar historical limbo reserved for artists who, though honored as celebrities, lavished with commissions, and granted all the prerogatives which modern society can bestow upon its spiritual demigods, are no longer allowed to influence the course of artistic events. Its characteristic forms, which once provoked cries of aesthetic “bolshevism” from the official guardians of culture and tradition, are now firmly established in the musée imaginaire of sophisticated minds the world over. Its success has been complete—one might almost say, too complete, for the distinctive values and assumptions of the School of Paris now seem as distant, as enviable, and as historically determined as the style of life which produced them.

Foremost among these assumptions was a confident belief in the power of art to dominate, transfigure, and ultimately redeem the raw materials of experience. The conviction with which this belief was upheld by the generation that came of age, artistically, in the decade preceding Serajevo gives to the art of those halcyon years an identity—incredibly optimistic and free-wheeling in its intellectual ambition, formal inventiveness, and emotional poise—that stands in sharp contrast to the artistic impulses which derived from both the war and the Russian Revolution. These latter impulses—mainly those of Dada and Surrealism which, in altered and somewhat corrupted form, continue to dominate contemporary sensibility-were born of the sense of crisis that came into existence at Verdun and Petrograd and that, in a reversal of the historical atmosphere which had spawned the Fauvist and Cubist styles, undermined the very notion that art could significantly cope with, let alone master and redeem, the sheer ruthlessness of modern experience.


The career of an artist like Chagall, whose style and entire aesthetic stance were formed in those years before the First World War, but the bulk of whose life and work has been enclosed by the harsher historical climate which followed that war and another still worse in its spiritual devastation, is in some respects emblematic of the fate which the School of Paris has suffered from the period of its greatest artistic glories in 1904-1914 to its subsequent decline into officialdom and senescence. Among the painters of his generation—the generation of Picasso and Matisse—Chagall cannot, of course, be said to occupy a position of the first rank. He is, rather, one of that remarkable group of Parisian “little masters” who made their way to the French capital from the provinces of Europe and who, by submitting their alien culture and diverse experience to the dialectic of French art, helped to make that art the richest and most influential fund of aesthetic ideas in the 20th century.

In approaching Chagall's achievement, then, it is imperative that one bear in mind his status as an “outsider” who belonged to the School of Paris but whose later work, unlike that of certain native French members of the School, underwent a marked and only occasionally abated diminution of expressive power once the personal and historical conditions of its initial thrust were eclipsed. For the crisis which overtook Parisian art in the aftermath of the First World War did not affect all its artists with equal, or equally lasting, force. Frenchmen like Matisse, Léger, Braque, and Bonnard were able, sooner or later, to recover their momentum, and hence to sustain their genius to the end of their lives—even, in the case of Matisse, to produce some of their most magnificent work in their very last years—whereas “foreigners” like Picasso, Brancusi, and Chagall either stopped producing entirely—as in the case of Brancusi—or lapsed eventually into the unedifying visual logorrhea that has characterized the productions of both Picasso and Chagall for a period amounting now to decades.

Chagall's status as an “outsider” also sheds some light on one of the most elusive aspects of his art: his use of Jewish themes, and thus his standing as a “Jewish artist.” Much has been made of Chagall's Jewishness, as if all the questions raised by the Jewish element in his art came equipped with self-evident answers not susceptible of contradiction. It is therefore of great interest that in the mammoth study which Franz Meyer, the Swiss art critic and museum director who is also the artist's son-in-law, has now devoted to Chagall's life and work,1 the use of Jewish materials and motifs has been confronted with unusual cogency and tact. Discussed, moreover, in the very detailed context of Chagall's family background, artistic education, personal associations, and overall development which Meyer's study provides, the Jewish themes and preoccupations that recur at irregular intervals throughout the artist's long and copious oeuvre are given—correctly, I think—a place of secondary importance without in any way being skimped or condescended to.

Meyer remarks at the outset of his voluminous monograph that “the spirit of Jewish mysticism [Hasidism] is one of the fundamental sources of Chagall's art,” but at the same time he is careful to point out the painter's conscious abandonment of the Hasidic traditions of his parents, noting that “he lapsed from the movement in order to paint and only to paint, independent of any movement or any doctrine.” Nearly six hundred pages later, in attempting to sum up the nature of Chagall's accomplishment, Meyer returns to the question, observes once again that the artist's “Hasidic heritage . . . made a quite decisive impact on his fundamental spiritual attitude and is therefore responsible for certain characteristics of his art,” but is again careful to underscore the fact that “Chagall's art is not addressed in any special way to the Jews.” Between his initial observation and his concluding remarks, Meyer recounts in detail the many occasions on which Chagall returned to Jewish themes: there is a particularly fine account of Chagall's work for the Kamerny State Jewish Theater in Moscow, in 1920-21, which involved not only his designs for the plays of Sholem Aleichem but some ambitious murals executed under the general title of Introduction to the Jewish Theater, and of his influence on the Habimah's original production of The Dybbuk. Meyer thus places the reader in a position to judge for himself the role that Chagall's Jewishness played in the evolution of his art, and in the process, thoroughly vindicates his own reluctance to judge that role as being of the first importance.

In order to understand what happened to Chagall's Jewish preoccupations in the course of his artistic development, one needs, I think, to see that development as fundamentally Parisian in its loyalties and objectives. As a child of the shtetl of Vitebsk, educated in the local cheder and brought up on the customs of the Hasidim, Chagall was obviously saturated in a mode of experience that was, in its essential feeling if not in specific dogma, irreversible. But it was precisely in the nature of the Parisian aesthetics to which Chagall submitted his gifts that the specificities of that experience be made to give way, in the order of expressive priorities, to the means by which they could be artistically redeemed. For what ultimately distinguished the School of Paris from the various other European “schools” then in the ascendancy—Expressionism, Futurism, Constructivism, etc.—was the phenomenal degree of aesthetic “science” it brought to bear on any experience that came to hand. The triumph of Cubism was, exactly, the displacement of extra-pictorial experience, no matter how compelling for the artist himself, with the expressive dynamics of the pictorial syntax by means of which it would ostensibly be rendered. Chagall, though he hesitated at going all the way to Cubist orthodoxy and found in the more sensuous and less intellectually exacting Fauvism a style more congenial to his temperament, was nonetheless thoroughly converted to Parisian aesthetics during the crucial years of 1910-14. Thenceforth, his Jewishness, his memories of the shtetl, his Hasidic preference for the mystical over the rational, together with his purely Russian heritage—his training under Bakst and the influence of the Mir Iskoustva (World of Art) group in St. Petersburg—were all submitted to the transfiguring power of the School of Paris.

“The place counts, not the formal theory,” Chagall has said, and the remark has a particular poignancy as one follows Meyer's account of the artist's enforced residence in Russia during the years of war and revolution that followed immediately upon his brilliant initiation into the Parisian art scene. In May, 1914, Chagall traveled from Paris to Berlin to attend the exhibition of his works organized by Herwarth Walden at the Sturm Gallery—an event that marked the painter's debut as an artist of international standing. In June, he journeyed to Russia, intending a short visit. But the outbreak of war, and then the Revolution, forced Chagall to remain in his homeland for nearly a decade. The place did indeed account for a great deal that followed. Severed from the avant-garde milieu he had made his own, becalmed in the parochial atmosphere of his childhood, it was then that Chagall produced the most distinctly Jewish of all his paintings. Moreover, his involvement in the Revolution, which for a time promised to give him a new lease on his avant-garde aspirations, ended in a shambles of bitterness and frustration from which only his work in the Jewish Theater was exempt.

Chagall at first welcomed the Russian Revolution wholeheartedly. For him, as Meyer writes, “it implied an unprecedented, twofold emancipation. As a Jew it made him a full citizen; as an avant-garde artist, a recognized spokesman of the new age.” In 1918, he accepted the post of Commissar for Art in Vitebsk, and vigorously set about organizing schools, exhibitions, and a museum. There was already evident at that early date an undercurrent of party prejudice against the advanced artistic ideas which Chagall avowed and in favor of more traditional, illustrational styles, but ironically, it was not the party conservatives who succeeded in frustrating his program but an avant-garde consisting of Malevich and Lissitsky, who were far more radical in their aesthetic idealism than Chagall ever dreamed of being. When Malevich contrived to change the name of Chagall's school in Vitebsk from the “Free Academy” to the “Supremacist Academy,” to indicate its solidarity with the non-objective, geometrical style which Malevich and his disciples deemed the only proper art compatible with revolutionary culture, Chagall resigned his post and went to live in Moscow. It was there that he did his work for the Jewish Theater. And it was from Moscow, after suffering further humiliations at the hands of the official avant-garde (by this time consisting of Kandinsky, Rodchenko, and the ubiquitous Malevich, who now presided as a committee over the stipends allotted to artists by the state and placed Chagall in the meagerly paid “third class”), that he left Russia for Berlin and then Paris.


When Chagall returned to Paris in September, 1923, he was thirty-six years old. He was a veteran of two of the greatest events of modern times: the pre-war School of Paris, and the Russian Revolution, and was thus in some respects unique among the artists of his generation. He might have been expected to exert a powerful influence on the younger generation for whom the double revolution in politics and art was the pivotal experience of the century. At the least, his painting might have been expected to show an increased range and depth. As it turned out, it was his career rather than his art which prospered. For a brief moment it looked as if he would be adopted as an honorary progenitor of the one movement which promised to unite aesthetic innovation and revolutionary politics—Surrealism—but Chagall was repelled by the antics and ideas of the Surrealist camp, and thereafter kept his distance from all groups, movements, and political alignments.

Upon his return to Paris, Chagall made one alliance that was to stand him in good stead throughout the remainder of his career. He accepted a commission from Ambroise Vollard to execute a series of illustrations for an edition of Gogol's Dead Souls. Thereafter, the etchings which Chagall produced—not only for the Gogol, but for editions of La Fontaine, the Bible, and other works—became the principal repository of his genius. For four decades now, Chagall has remained a consummate graphic artist and his illustrated books, his most important work. Perhaps there is something about this particular visual genre, which explicitly bridges the culture of the past and the art of the present and, in its modus operandi, allows the artist a very personal statement while working at a highly sociable form of discourse, that especially appeals to Chagall's sense of his own position as an artist. Whatever the reason for his success in the graphic mode, he has not been been able to extend it to the various decorative commissions which now come to him as a matter of course—nor, alas, to his painting, which, with its pastry-like surfaces and egregious sentimentality, has been generally deplorable for decades.


It is one of the virtues of Franz Meyer's monograph, which is certain to become the standard work on the artist, that it reminds us of how really glorious Chagall's painting was at its best, in those early Paris years when he was making a new aesthetic equation out of the conflicting demands of his own experience and the exalted ideas of his newly acquired confrères. The voice that speaks to us from the Hommage à Apollinaire, from I and the Village and The Poet, is the voice of a lyricist who has learned to speak of his innermost experience in an idiom that is at once impossibly demanding and thoroughly liberating, an idiom whose very foreignness permits him to take possession of that experience for the first time.

It is a voice that is at the same time almost unbelievably innocent. Chagall's innocence, which in later years turned into something too saccharine to be borne, remains one of the most appealing qualities in his early pictures. But it is a quality that reminds one of his limitations. For Chagall's innocence often seems won at the expense of immediacy. Perhaps this is another way of saying that he was, after all, Parisian but not French. Place his work beside that of Renoir, Matisse, Bonnard, even Léger, and it looks exotic, “Eastern,” dreamlike. It seems to have no commerce with its immediate visual environment; even the city of Paris, when depicted in Chagall's early pictures, looks like the daydream of an alien. Reading Meyer's moving account of both Chagall's life in Paris and his various exiles, one is reminded too of how vulnerable his art has been to the cruelties of history. In this respect, he is representative, and even his failures have an interest. For the course which Chagall's career traces from the shtetl of Vitebsk and the great days of the School of Paris to the era of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler is a kind of allegory on the fate of aesthetic innocence in the modern world. The wonder is not that it has come through wounded and impaired, but that it has survived at all.


* Marc Chagall, by Franz Meyer, translated from the German by Robert Allen, Harry N. Abrams, 775 pp., $35.00.

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