There’s something about the lives of artists that are endlessly fascinating. Perhaps it’s because of their daily routines as artists that mean that the structure of their lives is so different to the average. Perhaps the fluctuating finances of creating peicemeal work seems romantic, or there’s something about the creative mind that’s so compelling. Often, like Marc Chagall, they live in turbulent times and try to use their work to make sense of their world.
The White Crucifixion is a novelised account of the life of Marc Chagall, a Jewish painter who was born in what is now Belarus in 1887 to poor, working class parents, but who managed to make his way into art school and later to Paris in 1913 where he lived and worked in the famous Hive artist colony, rubbing shoulders with Modigliani, Soutine and Zadkine. He lived through a very turbulent time in world history, living through two world wars and changing political climates that left Jewish families bereft or sometimes entirely wiped out.
And yet, while this book does look at all those big things, they’re on the outside, and we’re in the inside, of Chagall’s mind and heart, I mean. The story is beautifully subjective, it puts us right in puddle of neuroses and emotion that is the artist. Which is wonderful, because this book is always heartfelt and never dry. It doesn’t just tell us what happened, it shows us what it feels like. I loved that. It’s so evocative of time and place. And it’s also often very funny.
Chagall comes off as eager, confused, jealous and in love. The personality that you see in his paintings is there, in this book. He can be whimsical. He can be colourful. He can be fogged by his own confusion. He can be both loyal and shallow. He’s a small man in the grip of big changes out in the world, changes that are incomprehensible, and yet have to be lived through. And you feel that. But you also feel the humour of the craziness of living with other artists, who can be charming or unstable, of loving a woman who is beautiful and independent, of family life and the importance of religion, custom and connections.
Chagall uses his work to capture a world that is slipping away, that is changing and already gone. He has religious experiences, in this book, and political ones, all of them are painted, all become symbols. He also has the love of his life, Bella, and paints their love too. He’s a funny character, a figure of fun, a man both confident of his abilities in the art world and also desperately afraid of being a failure. This book shows the many sides of him, of his work and his loves, and does so with humour, grace and eloquence. It was hard to put down.
Read It If: you love fine arts or Chagall, and also for those interested in Jewish studies. But that said, it’s a beautiful, fascinating story of an interesting life, and many of you will find it interesting.