Page 85 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 15

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and bias, some of the credit for this accomplishment was due to
James Johnson Sweeney, who not only arranged this exhibition
with the utmost love and skill, but also contributed to a better
understanding of Chagall’s unorthodox art through an excellent
monograph (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946). Sweeney
wisely refrained from trying to “explain” Chagall’s puzzling
pictures to the layman, quoting the artist himself who asserts
that he does not understand them either, since they are merely
“pictorial arrangements of images” which possess him. His
pictures are “built” out of apparently disparate elements which,
actually, are based on a jumble of random recollections from the
artist’s subconscious. In general, the elements are drawn in a
realistic manner; it is, as Mr. Sweeney emphasized, their illogical
grouping that creates the metaphorical character of the canvasses.
The writer characterized Chagall’s contribution to modern art as
“the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual
illustration on the one hand and non-figurative abstraction on
the other.” Our debt to Chagall is to an artist “who has brought
poetry back into painting through subject-matter, without any
sacrifice of his painter’s interest in the picture for itself, and
entirely aside from any communication that can be put into
Carl O. Schniewind, of Chicago’s A rt Institute, contributed
a valuable chapter on Chagall’s etchings and drypoints. He
predicted that as soon as Chagall’s prints became better known
he would prove to be “one of the really great printmakers of
our day.”
Being Gentiles, neither Venturi nor Sweeney dwelt at length
upon the Eastern European milieu Chagall comes from, a back­
ground entirely incomprehensible to an outsider. Yet, in the
same year, 1946, there appeared Bella Chagall’s
Burning Lights
(Schocken Books, New York), an autobiography that gave a fair
idea of what the Chagallian world (depicted on nearly all of the
artist’s canvasses) must have been like.
Bella Chagall, born, like her husband, in Vitebsk, White Russia,
began writing her memoirs after the couple had revisited the
“Old Country” in 1935. These were cut short by her death in
1944; thus
Burning Lights
(translated from the Yiddish by
Norbert Guterman) constitutes merely a fragment of her un­
finished autobiography. Throughout the twenty-five sketches
which comprise the book, the late Mrs. Chagall was successful in
recreating the strangely poetical atmosphere of a world long
passed, of a traditional Jewish home with all its splendors and