In popular culture, Russian - born, French modernist painter Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985) is like a colorful, phantasmagorical "Fiddler on the Roof" of the art world. Chagall is typically equated with sweet, sad, nostalgic shtetl culture, but with the curious additions of flying people and improbably placed goats. Jackie Wullschlager's Chagall: A Biography will undoubtedly change this view. With access to new material (some recovered from Soviet archives), artworks, translations and insights into the use of language (especially Yiddish), Wullschlager, chief visual arts critic for the Financial Times, has created a massive, groundbreaking work that heroically strives to paint the whole Chagall picture, at last.

Chagall, like the Wandering Jew of legend, seems to be right there at the crux of things, present at every great historical crisis. But Chagall not only suffers the curse of bearing witness to the momentous, breakneck passage of the 20th century; he also bestows the permanent blessing of translating history into the mythic sphere of his imagination.

Here are just a few of the epochal moments in which Chagall found himself a participant: in Paris at the birth of High Modernism, alongside and in direct collaboration with other painters, poets and composers; in Vitebsk at the transformation of old Russian life into revolutionary Soviet art; in France, on the brink of deportation to Auschwitz; in postwar New York as the touchstone for the new generation of American Modernists; in Israel, at the realization of a Zionist dream with the creation of his famous stained glass windows. Wullschlager leads readers through this fruitful wandering year by year, and creates a narrative examining influences from family, lovers, friends, teachers, students, patrons, life and Chagall's own restless spirit.

Although Chagall's prolific works extend over most of the 20th century, Wullschlager admits that his best was already behind him by the year 1920. What makes the first modernist breakthrough so extraordinary that it takes the rest of a man's life to sort out the consequences? In this new biography, Wullschlager offers the most thorough investigation of that question thus far.

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