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Life, work, and times brought vividly to life
on 1 May 2010
A splendid book. The portrayal of Chagall the man and of his family life are excellent, and the author has of course been helped by Chagall's own fascinating autobiographical writings. The interpretations of his paintings and etchings are very good - especially on the tension between and/or fusion of Russian and French, Jewish and Christian influences. The cultural and political background and how Chagall responded to them are very well described, particularly the artistic-cum-ideological struggle with Malevich on the one hand and socialist realism on the other during his years in the Soviet Union. We get vivid pictures of the Russian émigré communities in Berlin, Paris and New York. There is a good deal on what happened to other artists, especially Russian ones, during those terrible years.
The allocation of pages is about right also and reflects the importance of his art at various stages of his life: 245 pages on the 22 years - his most creative ones - of his career in pre-war Russia, his first stay in Paris, and his time in war-time and then Soviet Russia; 100 pages on the 21 years of his second stay in France; 50 pages on his seven years in the United States; and about 60 pages on his last 37 years back in Europe during which his art tended to be rather formulaic, with little that was new or creative. Wullschlager dates this deterioration to the death of Chagall's wife and muse Bella in 1944, who, in particular, represented his link with his Russian past; and in this last section she concentrates heavily and interestingly on Chagall's private life, devotes relatively little space to his paintings and then tends to comment on how inferior (though "enduringly popular") many of them were. But he was ready to work in new media - ceramics, tapestries, lithographs and, above all, stained glass.
Chagall was immensely prolific, and it is understandable, if frustrating, that only a relatively few of the very many paintings the author discusses can be illustrated in the book. Many of them are not even illustrated in the massive tome written by Franz Meyer about his father-in-law. With patience many of the missing ones - but certainly far from all - can be found on Google Images. There are 32 colour plates and 159 black and white illustrations (74 of Chagall's works and 85 photographs of people and places).