Thursday, September 13, 2012

Marc Chagall. My life (II)

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with easel. 72 x 47 cm. Oil/canvas. 1914
This is the second and final part of my "review" my Marc Chagall's autobiography, "My life". Instead of just following his life through his four years in Paris before the first world war, his return to Russia, marriage, and his brief gig at a commissar for Arts in Vitebsk for the first Soviet government before leaving Russia forever, I want to focus on one aspect of his construal of his own life, which seems to me as relevant now as ever, for artists in particular, but not only for artists: his perception of his own place and role in the society (or rather: different societies in which he lives). 

As the book begins, we see a little, clumsy, shy Jewish boy – condemned to "second-class citizenship" both by his being Jewish and by his being born into a poor working family, and feeling himself somewhat weird, alien, out-of-place even within the familiar settings. In the beginning, this feeling seems fully aligned with what we know and learn about his surroundings: he really is being discriminated against, misunderstood or not fully understood by people around him and his own family, unsure of himself and his path in life. But as the book progresses – first to his studies in St. Petersburg, then to his years in Paris, his very happy marriage, his work in Vitebsk and in Moscow – there is an increasing feeling of disconnect between this self-perception and the "objective" goings-on. 

Take Paris, for example: Chagall registers a brief relief at finally being "at home", surrounded by artists with whom he feels a real connection (both his contemporaries and great masters of the past in museums and galleries) – after the alienation he had felt in Russia. But it is a very fleeting emotion, it would seem – he soon relaxes back, at least in the book, to the feeling of deep alienation, his self-perception as a stranger, an outsider, a little boy in a scary and dangerous, albeit more enticing, world. The reader gets lost in this self-perception, which comes across as very authentic and believable – and yet page after page, it becomes clearer and clearer that he really is accepted, in fact appreciated, by the crème de la crème of Paris, even though not yet famous and financially successful.  

This disconnect becomes nearly absurd when, after the revolution, during the very brief love affair between the newly established Soviet Government and the avant-garde art, he becomes the Plenipotentiary Commissar for Arts in his whole home region and the director of his famous Art School in Vitebsk. This is as objective and "solid" as it gets: he is in a position of power, the giver of teaching jobs and commissions; add to this that he is very happily married. Does his self-perception of a child in an alien, incomprehensible world, an idealistic weirdo, change? Judging from his book, not a bit. The "objective" conditions may have changed, but he is just being himself – and unsurprisingly, he soon resigns from all positions of power and successfully aligns the objective world with his self-perception.

Don't get me wrong: I believe there is more genuineness and truth in this self-perception than in any seemingly "objective" description of his life. Moreover, it might be this childish detachment from the (often ugly) "reality" that makes him an artist and keeps his soul alive. And I believe there is food for thought in this for all of us.

That's it for today. Next week, I'll write about his attitudes towards other artists and artistic influences. Stay tuned!
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