SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 135 - February 2010

Beyond the pale

Marc Chagall is a key figure in modern art, working with artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Malevich and many others. As a Jew living under the Russian tsar, he suffered the systemic anti-semitism of that regime – a great influence on his art. What is often overlooked, however, is the effect of the Russian revolution, and Chagall’s connection with the workers’ state it ushered in. ERIC SEGAL reviews the latest biography of this important artist.

Chagall: Love and Exile

By Jackie Wullschlager

Allen Lane (2008), £30

CHAGALL: LOVE AND EXILE, by Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic of the Financial Times, is a well researched and detailed look at the life, artistic development, and the emotional, historical and political journey of the artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985). The book raises a number of questions for anyone who enjoys and appreciates paintings which represent the pre-revolutionary cultural struggle against the tsarist regime of a people imprisoned in the ‘Pale’, where Chagall was born and brought up, and the post-revolutionary stand against creeping socialist realism.

Wullschlager, however, joins a long list of current writers who attempt to understate the significance of the Russian revolution and, intentionally or otherwise, to disentangle Chagall’s life and art from the revolution and its subsequent degeneration into Stalinism. She looks at his paintings from the standpoint of a wealthy hedge fund manager, as future investment potential.

Chagall was a Jewish artist, and his modernist paintings were inspired by Jewish life under the heel of tsarist Russia, and by the Russian revolution. The acquisition of a chunk of Lithuanian and Polish land, known as the Pale, by tsarist Russia included a significant number of Jewish people settled in small towns and villages. The perimeters of this area excluded Jews from settling, and certain cities such as Riga and Sevastopol were forbidden to Jewish settlement – unless they were wealthy Jews, of course. Jews required certificates to travel to other cities such as St Petersburg, the capital of Russia until 1918.

Exclusion from the general social and economic life in Russia led to the development in the Pale of Jewish manufacturing industry, such as tailoring and cabinet making, and the creation of a number of Jewish institutions. For socialists, the most important organisation historically was the Bund (the General Jewish Workers’ Union – in Lithuania, Poland and Russia) which played an important role in the organisation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). The Bund was to lose its way, however, and at the historic 1903 conference of the RSDLP the Bund was expelled for insisting that it alone should organise Jewish workers. This conference saw the RSDLP split into the Bolsheviks (simply meaning: majority) and Mensheviks (minority).

Jews were excluded from Russian schools and universities, so the Russian language was an unattainable aspiration for poor Jews in particular. For many, their sole language remained Yiddish. This inability to communicate with the outside world compounded the discrimination and persecution they suffered. This was exacerbated by the pogroms – racist attacks by the Black Hundreds (state-sponsored, anti-semitic gangs). This persecution was to lead many Jewish youth, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, to take a revolutionary stand. Is it any wonder that the social turmoil and state-imposed isolation of Jewish youth from day-to-day Russian society drove the young Chagall to use his ability to paint to communicate Jewish life through the medium of colour and metaphor to the world? Chagall did not join the Bolshevik Party. But this does not mean that he was not part of the revolutionary movement.

Early life

MARC CHAGALL WAS born Movsha Shagal in Vitebsk on 7 July 1887. His father was a manager in a herring factory and his mother rented houses. He attended a religious school until his mother bribed the headmaster of a Russian school to allow Chagall a place. He soon came to the conclusion that he wanted to be an artist – unusual because Jews were not supposed to replicate images of living things. His mother took her son to a Jewish artist, Yuri Pen, who taught the aspiring artist for a short while.

Chagall met Victor Mekler, another art student whose father provided Chagall with a merchant’s certificate allowing them to travel to St Petersburg at the end of 1906 to study art. Chagall was virtually penniless. He mentions a room that he shared with a typographer who would return home drunk at night and try to violently force himself on his wife. Chagall said: "I realised then that, in Russia, Jews are not the only ones who have no right to live, but also many Russians, crowded together like lice in one’s hair".

The backdrop to their journey was the dramatic revolution of 1905. The events in St Petersburg, led by Trotsky as the president of the soviet, must have inspired the young artists. It is impossible to disentangle the development of the artist from the developing socialist revolution in Russia, yet the events of 1905 are reduced to a few lines by Wullschlager.

Chagall enrolled in art school in St Petersburg and devoured the works in the art museum. But he was easily diverted from the plaster heads that he was supposed to copy and was attracted to the art of the future and the theatre. Leon Bakst, who prepared the sets and costumes for the ballets of the Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, and was a friend of the dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, took Chagall under his wing.

Chagall returned to Vitebsk on a number of occasions to visit his future wife, Bella, the daughter of wealthy Jewish jewellers. Bella was an outstanding student, winning a place at a Moscow school in 1910 to study literature, history and philosophy. Her sister, Chana, was a revolutionary socialist. Chagall was working furiously and his paintings, Birth, and The Dead Man, represented a new and vibrant turn. He was arrested on return to St Petersburg due to the expiry of his merchant’s pass and said that, in prison, "here at least I have the right to live".

In 1911, Chagall left for Paris where he gorged himself on exhibitions of Henri Matisse and the fauves, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat, and Pablo Picasso and cubism. He mixed with the "artistic bohemia of every land" (including the then journalist and future commissar of education and culture after the Russian revolution, Anatoly Lunacharsky) in La Ruche, a beehive shaped building in Montparnasse. He became friends with the poet, Blaise Cendrars, who was to have such an impact on his modernist concept of art. Chagall described Cendrars as "waves of sunshine, poverty, rhymes. Threads of colour. Of liquid flaming art. Enthusiasm for pictures scarcely conceived. Heads, disjointed limbs, flying cows".

Chagall experimented with cubism and Russian cubo-futurism but retained his individualist method of painting. He continued to paint from his memory of Vitebsk, communicating the life of Jews in the Pale through his colour and Jewish motifs. André Breton, the founder of the surrealist movement, said of Chagall: "His great lyrical explosion happened around the year 1911 when solely through Chagall the metaphor made its triumphant entry into modern painting".

Life-changing revolution

CHAGALL RETURNED TO Vitebsk in 1914 to marry Bella with the intention of returning to Paris. The outbreak of war, however, shaped his artistic future. Vitebsk became a frontier town through whose streets passed the wounded and refugees fleeing from war, and soldiers on their way to battle. State-sponsored anti-semitism flourished with the threat to shoot a million Jews for alleged spying. Chagall painted soldiers, beggars, old Jews and his family members.

The abstract style of suprematism confronted his style. His work was displayed next to the suprematists, Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova and Olga Rozanova, at the Jack of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow. Malevich claimed that, "suprematism must be seen as anticipating the revolution in the economic and political life of 1917". Chagall continued, confident that his paintings reflected his experiences and life.

Chagall, who was working as a civil servant in the war office in Petrograd (as St Petersburg was renamed at the start of the first world war), wrote: "Soldiers fled from the front. War ammunitions, lice, everything is left behind in the trenches… Freedom roared in their mouths. Oaths hissed. I don’t stay either. I desert my office, inkwell and all the records. Goodbye! I, too, along with the others, quit the front. Freedom… I ran to Znamensky Square, from there to Liteiny [the war office], to Nevsky [Petrograd’s main thoroughfare] and back again. On all sides rifle fire. Guns were made ready. Arms put in order… Something was about to be born. I was living in an almost semi-conscious state". These are the thoughts of a worker and artist experiencing the revolution.

Trotsky wrote, in his masterful History of the Russian Revolution: "The lack of bread and fuel in the capital did not prevent the court jeweller Fabergé from boasting that he had never before done such a flourishing business". However, strikes, food riots and mass desertions of soldiers across Russia proclaimed the need for revolution. The socialist revolution led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was the decisive and most significant act against the war and capitalism.

Following the revolution, Lunacharsky became Bolshevik commissar of education and culture. He invited Chagall to take charge of the visual arts department in Petrograd. According to an interview in 1973, however, Chagall did not consider himself capable of resolving Russia’s problems in the realm of art although "he was sympathetic to the revolution and it was close to his heart".

By August 1918, Chagall had changed his mind and, following a visit to Lunacharsky, he returned as commissar of arts for Vitebsk to "set up art schools, found museums, initiate art shows and convene conferences, as well as to organise any other artistic event in the town or province of Vitebsk". His first task was to organise the first anniversary of the revolution in Vitebsk. He called on all painters, including house and sign painters, to help. To the dismay of some, the result was a town bedecked with huge banners, arches and flags celebrating the revolution. Chagall saw this as his biggest canvas!

In a clear warning from history to the bankers of today, the Vitebsk People’s Art College was opened by Chagall in a banker’s mansion, on 28 January 1919. Within months it was teaching around 300 students. Chagall appealed to artists across Russia to help. The Vitebskii Listok newspaper announced: "From the lavish mansion of the banker Vishnyak, built on the blood and sweat, the suffering and tears of hundreds and thousands of people impoverished by usury, the dawn of a new culture rose above Vitebsk".

Clashes at the top

FUTURISTS AND SUPREMATISTS, such as Malevich and El Lissitzky, took up the invitation and taught at the school. For a while, the mix of styles worked. However, disputes broke out, with the suprematists proclaiming themselves as the representatives of ‘true, revolutionary’ art, while denouncing Chagall and others as bourgeois individualists. Returning from Moscow, Chagall was confronted with a huge sign across the school stating ‘Suprematist Academy’. Chagall was devastated. He resigned and left Vitebsk for Moscow.

In 1924, Trotsky formulated the relationship of the state to the various artistic groups and tendencies that "while holding over them all the categorical criterion, for the revolution or against the revolution, to give them complete freedom in the sphere of artistic self-determination". This is a million miles from the idea that is expressed by Wullschlager, that Chagall "quickly detected signs of revolutionary liberation evaporating into bureaucratic control and then repression. The issue was built into the fabric of the system".

The revolution had, indeed, unleashed tremendous creative energy, and opened up the possibility of artistic expression to working-class people. At this stage, however, Russia was an extremely poor country in the throes of civil war. The priority had to be the defence of the new workers’ state, and to try to secure basic living standards. Under those conditions, it proved impossible to realise the revolutionary aspiration that the workers and poor could participate fully in running society. It also meant that, essentially, art remained in the hands of a select few. Later, as the bureaucracy strengthened its grip under Stalin, art was used increasingly as a tool of the state. But that was by no means an automatic process. It was all linked to the isolation of the revolution in Russia and formed part of the Stalinist counter-revolution against the original ideals of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks.

Chagall slipped into a period of despair following his exile from Vitebsk until he became involved with Solomon Mikhoels, a law graduate who had become a Yiddish actor at the state-funded Jewish theatre in Moscow. Chagall began painting the stage sets and completed a set of paintings eight yards long. Fearing Stalinist censorship, the canvasses were hidden in a drum in a church until Chagall’s return to Russia in 1973. They were not exhibited until 1991.

Chagall took on the job of teaching in the Third International Jewish School camp for war orphans in Malakhova. These were Jews orphaned by the pogroms of the white army, the reactionary forces which attempted to overthrow the Bolshevik revolution during the civil war. This is a far cry from the incessant accusation by Wullschlager of Bolshevik anti-semitism. She naively confuses the initial liberation and involvement of Jews in the revolution and the Bolshevik Party with the Stalinist degeneration that led to the murders and mass executions of anyone who appeared to oppose Stalin. Mikhoels was later murdered by Stalin’s thugs due to his association with Chagall.

Disillusioned by his growing isolation in Russia, Chagall travelled to Berlin in 1922. He also visited Paris and Palestine. As the Nazi storm clouds gathered, Chagall and Bella fled to the US in 1941. His daughter Ida remained behind and made arrangements for his paintings to follow.

True to his art

CHAGALL VIEWED THE war from the relative safety of the US but his every action was scrutinised by the FBI. His beloved Vitebsk was annihilated during hand-to-hand fighting until its liberation by the Russian army. Of the 240,000 population, a third were killed either in war or concentration camps.

Chagall was given an exclusive contract and regular income by Pierre Matisse – son of the great French artist, Henri – for exhibiting in his gallery. In 1943, Chagall met with Mikhoels in the US to build links with the Russian-Jewish anti-fascist committee. Wullschlager shows the confusion in how Jews such as Chagall viewed Stalin who, on the one hand, had destroyed the revolution that had inspired their artistic passion but, on the other hand, had liberated their towns in Russia.

Chagall and Ida were stricken with grief when Bella, his wife and inspiration, died in 1944. Chagall remarried twice and spent much of the end of his life in France where he met and briefly worked with Picasso. He was commissioned to paint a number of large works, including the ceiling of the Paris Opera, and numerous beautiful stained-glass windows. He died on 28 March 1985.

His paintings, rich in brilliant colours of violet, yellow and blue, offer a picture of the bursting out from one state into another through the only medium that this young Jew trapped in the Pale could use to reach out to the world – art. The socialist revolution is not grey and silent. It is vibrant with colour, poetry, theatre, song and dance. Chagall’s legacy is the communication, through art and poetry, of the Russian revolution and the liberation of Jews and other minority groups from the yoke of tsarist tyranny.

This book, despite its shortcomings and high price, is a welcome introduction to Chagall’s life and work. Trotsky wrote: "Art, like science, not only does not seek orders but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only insofar as it remains faithful to itself". Chagall remained true to his art. And artists such as Marc Chagall were an integral part of the Russian revolution.


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