Artist, Wanderer, Jew

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February 1, 2005
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Matthew Hoffman

Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative (Stanford University Press, 2004) 1026 pp. $39.95

BENJAMIN HARSHAV’S monumental new book, Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative , is an innovative attempt to combine narrative biography and documentary history. The author weaves a tapestry of Chagall’s autobiographical writings and personal correspondences and binds it with his own narrative ‘voice-over.’ In an effort to depict both the inner personal sphere and the social and cultural context of this renowned artist’s life, Harshav has painstakingly collected and translated (from numerous languages) hundreds of personal correspondences, memoirs, poems, reviews, newspaper clippings, official memos, photographs, and other primary documents. He also includes dozens of reproductions of Chagall’s art, featuring many lesser known works. Through his use of explanations, analysis, and primary documents, Harshav reconstructs the personal, social, and cultural worlds Chagall lived in, from his youth to the end of his days. Harshav frames Chagall’s life story as a story of “modern history, and particularly modern Jewish history,” and shows how Chagall was involved in so many of the major artistic, cultural, and political movements of the 20th century, both within and outside of the Jewish world.

In the Introduction, and sporadically throughout the book, Harshav provides his own distinctive interpretive framework for understanding Chagall. He portrays him as emblematic of the “modern Jewish revolution,” Harshav’s term for the intrinsic and extrinsic transformations in Jewish culture and identity during the time period of (roughly) 1881 to the present. Harshav effectively demonstrates how Chagall, throughout his life, was torn between the “intrinsic and extrinsic,” or Jewish and non-Jewish, spheres of life and culture and continuously moved back and forth between these two spheres, sometimes bridging them in his art and personal life and other times failing to do so. The biographer repeatedly emphasizes Chagall’s cultural hybridity and the multicultural nature of his personal identity and consciousness. He was at once Jewish, Russian, and French; an artist, a poet, and a cultural activist. Adroitly, Harshav shows how this fluid multiculturalism was an inherently Jewish condition of modernity. Indeed, one of the major contributions of his book is to demonstrate the extent to which Chagall’s Jewishness was an ongoing source of both his cultural and personal identity. Harshav identifies Chagall as part of that generation of Russian Jews, born near the fin-de-siecle , who looked back on the traditional world of their parents and grandparents from the vantage point of modern, secular European society and successfully fused the cultural heritage of their Jewish forbears with the avant-garde culture of European Modernism.

The book is chronologically organized into seven large sections that address the major periods of Chagall’s life and chronicle his significant developments — both personal and artistic — during these periods. After a brief introduction, the bulk of each section is comprised of primary sources, mostly personal correspondences interspersed with the author’s comments, which place each correspondence in a personal and historical context, including explanations about the addressee or writer and his or her connection to Chagall. At its best, this format provides an in-depth and intimate look at the day-to-day experiences of Chagall’s career, his contacts and context, his personal relationships, and his struggles to find supporters for his art, and a place to call “home.”

One of the most illuminating revelations to emerge from this pastiche of sources is Chagall’s continuous and significant connections — both personal and artistic — with other major Jewish cultural figures, especially Yiddish writers. Throughout his life, Chagall formed collaborative relationships with Yiddish Modernist writers like Peretz Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, and Abraham Sutzkever, often providing illustrations to their literary journals or poetry collections. Harshav’s at times extensive focus on these relationships demonstrates Chagall’s vital link to the Yiddish literary scene, not just during his “Soviet period” immediately following the Revolution, but throughout much of his life. As Harshav’s collection of sources attests, whether in Russia, France, or America, Chagall was always deeply involved in Yiddish Leftist and cultural circles.

Harshav’s book, which won the 2003-2004 Koret Jewish Book Award for biography, autobiography, and literary studies, is an invaluable resource. His insights, explanations of cultural contexts, and the wealth of primary documents and illustrations he includes, offer an indispensable contribution to the existing scholarship on Chagall. However, reading it is a daunting task; at over 1000 pages, the sheer weight of it makes it unwieldy. Moreover, the documentary format at times proves tedious, repetitive, and hard to follow. Despite the fact that he often provides the background context for a particular correspondence and explains who certain individuals are, the narrative is often disjointed and confusing. Correspondences break off and stories dangle, leaving major aspects of Chagall’s life ignored or insufficiently addressed. Despite these flaws, this is a magisterial volume by a first-rate scholar on one of the more fascinating lives of the 20th century.

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Matthew Hoffman is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies and History at Franklin and Marshall College. He is currently completing a book on images of Jesus in modern Jewish culture.

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