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Chagall's was a textbook case of the way some artists receive their subject matter, their grammar of signs, in childhood. He was a child of the Russian ghetto, born in the town of Vitebsk in 1887; his father was a herring packer, his grandfather a cantor and kosher butcher, his uncle an amateur violinist. The imagery of music and shtetl folklore, mingled with the face of his childhood sweetheart (and future wife), Bella Ro- senfeld, furnished the unaltering ground of his work for 80 years, long after the close-knit and weak little societies it represented had been incinerated by Hitler and Stalin. "All the little fences, the little cows and sheep, all the Jews, looked to me as original, as ingenuous and as eternal as the buildings in Giotto's frescoes," he reminisced in the '20s.
He developed his wry, sweet and irrepressibly meshuggeneh visions in the two great forcing houses of modernism between 1900 and 1925: Paris and Russia. As a student in St. Petersburg up to 1910, he came under the wing of Diaghilev's designer Leon Bakst; an enlightened Jewish patron, Max Vinaver, sent him to Paris that year. He took a studio in a rickety building near the slaughteryards and found that his neighbors were Soutine, Leger and Modigliani. Back in Russia by 1914, Chagall waited out World War I (and was plunged into the Revolution) in the company of Tatlin, Malevich and Kandinsky.
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"--especially for a young artist, eager to absorb what this supreme moment of untainted modernism offered. In cubism, he felt, the subject was "killed, cut to pieces and its form and surface disguised." Chagall did not want to go so far, but the flattening, reflection and rotation of cubist form gave his early paintings their special radiance and precision. In Paris Through the Window, 1913, we enter a rainbow world, all prismatic light and jingling crystalline triangles. It is full of emblems of stringent modernity: the Eiffel Tower, a parachutist, a train upside-down but still insouciantly chuffing. It owes a lot to his friend Robert Delaunay, who made abstractions of Paris windows. But the picture is plucked back from the analytic by its delicious strain of fantasy: a cat with a man's head serenading on the sill, a Janus head (Chagall himself, looking forward to modernism and back to the village?) displaying a heart on his hand. He was unquestionably a prince of tropes. "With Chagall alone," said Andre Breton, leader of the surrealists, "metaphor made its triumphant entry into modern painting." And though the procession that followed its entry had its tedious stretches, involving some fairly shameless plucking on the heartstrings, the best of Chagall remains indispensable to any nondoctrinaire reading of the art of the 20th century.