A brisk and very sympathetic biography of the celebrated painter by fiction-writer Wilson (An Ambulance Is on the Way, 2005, etc.).
This recent entry in the publisher’s Jewish Encounters series both benefits and suffers from brevity. The author provides some careful, even artful descriptions, but the absence of reproductions is unfortunate; that old saw about pictures and thousands of words still holds true. Because Chagall (1887–85) lived in so many places, his biographer arranges most chapters by location. We learn about the painter’s birth in the Belorussian town of Vitebsk, his education in St. Petersburg and Paris, his return to Vitebsk to marry Bella Rosenfeld, the love of his youth, their moves to Berlin, Paris, Vilna and elsewhere. Wilson swiftly relates the Chagalls’ 1941 flight from occupied France to Spain and then New York City, rightly chiding Chagall for his curious reluctance two decades later to help the man who arranged their escape. The text records Bella’s tragic death, her widower’s two brisk remarriages and his relationships with his two children. Ably charting Chagall’s rise to superstardom, the author addresses controversies surrounding his subject. He offers interesting thoughts on the Jewish artist’s continual use of images of Jesus and the crucifixion. To the prevalent suggestion that when the big bucks started arriving, Chagall softened, painted with bright colors and coasted, Wilson replies: Not so.
At times too brief, but written with clarity and compassion: a portrait Chagall would have enjoyed.