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Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-ChagallJackie Wullschlager, author of Hans Christian Anderson: The Life of a Story Teller (2002) and chief art critic for the Financial Times, paints an enlightening and detailed portrait of Russian modernist Marc Chagall.

The Topic: Marc Chagall invented a distinct, fairy tale cast of characters that appeared in his paintings time and time again—fiddling farm animals, floating brides, flying fish. Wullschlager takes a deeper look into where they came from and more important, what they meant for the modern art movement. Chagall was born in the Jewish settlement of Vitebsk in 1887; his hometown and modest upbringing made a permanent mark on his artistic output. Almost every image fantastically portrayed in his paintings came from this little town, now located in Belarus. However, it was their impeccably timed presentation in Paris in 1911, mere days after the Salon des Indépendants, that permanently cemented his (early) work into the canon of modern art.
Knopf. 582 pages. $40. ISBN: 037541455X

Economist 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Wullschlager … gives us sympathetically and in full a man whom friends and rivals alike remembered for his gentle charm. … Though [she] is fair and never sneering about his painting after he left Russia forever in 1922, she is firm that his art was never as good again."

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The paradoxes of Chagall’s personality only became clearer with time. … Jackie Wullschlager shows us all this and more, in her beautifully produced book." Andrew Motion

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Chagall] is an outstanding biography, combining psychological nuance with critical insight, and its narrative energy does full justice to the drama of Chagall’s extraordinary life and times. … [It provides] an overdue re-appreciation of the work with which Chagall shocked the world between 1908 and 1920, establishing himself thereby as one of the last century’s most original modernists." Mark Archer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"If this biography has a shortcoming, it is its unruly length of almost 600 pages in which Chagall himself sometimes gets lost behind too-detailed descriptions of the supporting players. Yet Wullschlager has a sensitive understanding of his contribution that makes the book especially valuable. This biography presents Chagall’s moving portraits of a vanished age in colors as glowing and haunting as his own canvases." Meryle Secrest

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"In her engaging, almost painting-by-painting biography, she backs up her dislike (drawing on archival letters and memoirs). … After the exit of Virginia in 1952 and the entrance of her Russian-Jewish replacement, Vava, who became Chagall’s wife and bulldog, [the book is] a blur of commissions, exhibitions, murals and stained-glass windows until he died in 1985." Sarah Boxer

Critical Summary

Thanks in large part to her access to a formally closed cache of Chagall’s letters and papers, now belonging to his granddaughter Meret Meyer Graber, Wullschlager offers a thorough, fair, and intriguing look at the life and work of an artist who never really left home, despite permanently leaving Russia in 1922. Wullschlager writes that he "transformed the cramped, dull backstreets of his childhood to a vision of beauty and harmony on canvas." Chagall, a paradoxical figure in modern art, never quite fit into a particular movement, as Wullschlager’s detailed examination of his paintings shows. A few critics seemed to search hard for flaws, and what emerged was the book’s length and, as the reviewer from the New York Times Book Review claimed, a rather too-complete exploration of Chagall’s dreamlike works. This is an excellent biography.