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by Jonathan Wilson Schocken Books, New York, 2007, 238 pages Reviewed by Joseph Leven

Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson is a fine addition to the library of works about the 20th century Jewish artist Marc Chagall. It belongs to the Jewish Encounters series being published by the Nextbook project and Schocken. This series is designed to produce books on Jewish topics written in a “lively, intelligent, and popular manner”.

Wilson’s biography is a straightforward and easily read work written in a chronological style. Wilson discusses many individual paintings of Chagall’s from an artistic perspective, but he rarely leaves the ordinary reader behind for more than one or two sentences.

This book does suffer from one major flaw. It includes almost none of the dozens of paintings that are discussed. The book jacket refers the reader to a web site where one imagines that the paintings would be available, but that unfortunately is not the case. The web site only leads to a list of many other web sites that contain Chagall paintings, i.e. there is no one location to view the paintings referred to in the book. In a book about an artist’s life this is a major drawback.

To briefly summarize Chagall’s life, he was born Moishe Shagal in the town of Vitebsk in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1887 and lived a long and productive life, dying in 1985 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. In between he had a stint serving the Bolsheviks after the Revolution and narrowly escaped the Nazis in 1942. He lived in Germany and the United States at various times, but mainly he lived in France.

Wilson does a fine job of describing Chagall’s movements from place to place, who the important people were in his life at each stop, his three marriages, his main works, his relationship to other artists, his travels, his growing fame and all else that one expects to find in a biography. What distinguishes this book though is how Wilson keeps returning to the theme of Chagall’s relationship to his Jewishness.

Wilson quotes Chagall as describing himself as: ”I am a little Jew of Vitebsk. All that I paint, all that I do, all that I am, is just the little Jew of Vitebsk.” This statement is amply borne out in his paintings, the majority of which either are centred on the shtetl or at least contain reference to it. On the other hand though, Wilson states: “He appears often as a chameleon figure…His work and his life both reveal a reactive desire to be a Russian to Russians, a Jew to Jews, and a Frenchman to the French”. This finds its greatest expression in the figure of Christ who makes frequent appearances in Chagall’s art. Wilson comes  back to Chagall’s conflicted feelings about his Jewishness many times and leaves us with a much better understanding of  Chagall the man.

All in all Marc Chagall is well written, an easy read and a good introduction to one of the great Jewish figures of the last century.

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