Impressions of rapture: Andrew Motion revels in the early flame of Chagall’s talent and his later fame amid the tumult of modernism

From The Guardian:

Book_2 Karl With, the German art critic who published a life of Marc Chagall in 1923, began his book with two definitions: “Chagall is Russian” and “Chagall is an eastern Jew (Ostjude)”. He went on, “One part of him is reserved . . . melancholic and eaten up inside by burning passion . . . The other side of him is sensual, worldly, sensory, baroque, and blooming. He is lithe as an animal, agile, given to tantrums like a child, soft and charming, amiably sly mixed with a peasantlike coarseness and the delight of a provincial in everything colourful, dazzling and moving.” Making allowances for the period language, it was a shrewd analysis – and although Chagall was to live for another 62 years (he died in 1985), it never ceased to be true. The paradoxes of Chagall’s personality only became clearer with time. He was an introvert who delighted in the world. He was a dreamer and a manipulator. He was instinctively selfish, yet lavishly kind with his eye.

Jackie Wullschlager shows us all this and more, in her beautifully produced book. She has talked to Chagall’s surviving friends, she has a sharp sense of what is gorgeously original in the paintings and also of what is tediously self-cannibalising, and she writes prose that registers intense feeling yet is coolly well organised. Furthermore, she has had the cooperation of Chagall’s estate, so has been able to draw on Chagall’s correspondence with his first wife Bella, who was the mainspring of his greatest work and a profoundly interesting spirit in her own right (her autobiography is wonderful). As had to be the case if Wullschlager was going to do her subject justice, her book tells the painter’s story while also giving a compelling account of modernism in general, and of the 20th century political turmoil that both fed and frustrated it.

More here.