“The White Crucifixion” is subtitled “a novel on Marc Chagall” and is split into parts that explore Marc Chagall’s beginnings as a painter, his first stay in Paris, his return to Vitebsk, his promotion to Director of the Vitebsk School of Art and then his return to Paris. The structure is linear as it follows Moyshe Shagal (not yet Marc Chagall) from childhood in Vitebsk where he first learns to paint, to discovery in Paris, a muted return and fatherhood in Vitebsk, where he is trapped as war breaks out and finally Chagall’s return to Paris as his rival wins dominance.
Michael Dean’s novel blurs the line between fiction and creative non-fiction in that the events are based on Marc Chagall’s life but the conversations and reactions are fictional. I imagine, too, that the cast of characters has been limited because the named characters have an impact on Chagall’s life and some resurface as the painter moves from Vitebsk to Paris and vice versa. This approach means that the tension and drama in the novel is not based on events in Chagall’s life, since a biographical overview is widely known or available after a quick online search, but relies on the interactions and Chagall’s reactions to them.
Moyshe Shagal is born to a herring-schlepper and a grocer and carries a guilt about a younger sister’s death, believing her to have choked on a piece of charcoal he’d given her. His mother, the grocer, is actually the main breadwinner and she allows him to go to art school. It’s through art school that he finds himself mixing with teenaged children from the richer areas and how he meets his future wife, Bella. Bella’s parents, who own a jewellery shop, are not initially impressed with the idea of their daughter marrying a painter but don’t prevent nuptials. Moyshe is invited to Paris where he joins an artists’ community and is discovered by a dealer. Bella joins him. She vacillates between becoming a writer or an actress and fails to pursue either. Readers only see Bella through Chagall’s eyes and he fails to appreciate the limitations she faces and, at times, she becomes merely someone to share a bed with rather than a fully-formed character. There is a good sense of the rivalries, camaraderie and petty jealousies that dog an artists’ community. There’s also a good sense of what it means to be an artist, “I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.”
It is back in Vitebsk that Bella gets her break as an actress but is thwarted by a sprained ankle. The sprained ankle seems to trigger labour, which feels surreal because Chagall failed to notice his wife’s changing body during her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Ida in welcomed into the Chagall household. Chagall gets what he thinks is a break when invited to be director at the new Vitebsk People’s Art School. However, he soon discovers his title doesn’t confer any actual power. He tries to resign but Bella urges him to hang on. Her panic attacks have made her agoraphobic and, some days, bedridden. This isn’t explored or explained and Chagall doesn’t seem bothered that his wife, happy to explore Paris and nurture ambitions, is reduced to one room in their apartment at the school. At this time, against the back-drop of the First World War and Russian Revolution, Chagall describes his paintings as “documents”, recording a Jewish world which is being destroyed. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, the Chagalls return to Paris and the story can re-focus on art, building towards the painting “The White Crucifixion”.
On occasion the drama is undermined. After an attempted suicide by Indenbaum in the Paris artists’ colony, readers are told “During the course of his long and by and large contented life, Indenbaum never did anything remotely like this again.” On another, when Chagall is facing starvation, he is rescued in the next paragraph, the sense of danger passes too quickly.
The novel is at its strongest when depicting La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris and exploring Chagall’s inspirations and motivations to paint. It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.