Chagall is an artist I was somewhat unfamiliar with, though I have gone to art galleries all over the US and Europe. I picked up his self-illustrated auto-biography recently. It is his life story written out as a poem, accompanied by sketches of his humble upbringing, in somewhat surrealist fashion. It recalled memories of things I had learned in my eastern European history class at U.C. Davis. What impressed me much, was this artist’s simple upbringing. Chagall wasn’t good at anything at all, except for art. Worried he would be a failure, he married the first local girl he ever kissed, after growing up in some tiny town. The synagogue was the center of his somewhat insulated life. Meanwhile, his parents scorned him for choosing to be an artist, instead of something more traditional.
Throughout the work, people are ready to kick his ass for being a Jew. Sometimes he runs, other times he claims he is not Jewish. Some lady sleeps with 25 troops , just to get to the store to buy flour. Stores are often ran-sacked. Born in Belarus, he borrowed a friend’s papers to get out of town, and go to Paris and St. Peteresberg. In Paris he scours the Louvre, getting influenced by the great artists. In Moscow, he set up a school where he taught orphans how to be artists. The reach of the USSR permeates throughout his existence, reminding me of how much many Eastern Europeans (like in Czech where I visited before) really hated and resent the Soviet Empire’s domination of their people’s.
Partly, what makes this book interesting is its authors takes on the other great artists, such as Picasso and Matisse. This book shows how he took their influences and blended them together to create his own art form, something critics like Wagner would say amounted to a watering fown of the art form. When Chagall returned home after WWI to Belarus, then he learned he had become famous. Ultimately, his takes on cubism, sculpture, and oil paintings, helped break through traditions, and led to modernism in art. His art had an undertone of yearning and loss, as well as surrealistic elements, which were ahead of their time. At the same time, his artwork seems very humble, always sketching out details of his local upbringing in a small town. He lived in a great age historically, dominated by Trotsky and Lenin. The entire autobiography is written in a somewhat poetic fashion, and is an achievement in originality. After having read this great artist’s take on art. We will next turn towards Richard Wagner’s (more) controversial opinions on art in an upcoming column.