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“My Sad and Joyful Town”
Every painter is born somewhere,” Chagall mused as an exile in the United States in the 1940s. “And even though he may later respond to the influences of other atmospheres, a certain essence—a certain ‘aroma’ of his birthplace clings to his work. . .The vital mark these early influences leave is, as it were, on the handwriting of the artist. This is clear to us in the character of the trees and card players of a Cézanne, born in France,—in the curled sinuosities of the horizons and figures of a Van Gogh, born in Holland,—in the almost Arab ornamentation of a Picasso, born in Spain—or in the quattrocento linear feeling of a Modigliani, born in Italy. That is the manner in which I hope I have preserved the influences of my childhood.”
Vitebsk, “my sad and joyful town,” was approaching the zenith of its development as a solid, provincial military outpost of the vast Russian empire when Chagall was born there on 7 July 1887. The baroque green and white Uspensky Cathedral, on the hill crowning the city skyline of thirty bright onion-domed churches and sixty synagogues, and the jumble of wooden houses and wandering Jews depicted in paintings such as Over Vitebsk announce a long, mixed cultural heritage. The artist Ilya Repin called Vitebsk “the Russian Toledo” because, like El Greco’s city, its tumbling silhouette was characterized by a mix of Christian and Jewish spires, towers, and domes, dating back to the twelfth-century Church of the Annunciation. Set in a region of blue lakes, pine forests, broad plains, and gentle hills, the picturesque old White Russian city rises high on the banks of the wide Dvina River where two tributaries, the Vitba and the Luchesa, join it. Life here, during snow-filled six-month winters and short sultry summers, when bathing huts appeared briefly on the riverbanks, had always been tough: Vitebsk was a contested town throughout its history. A fortification on the profitable trading routes between Kiev, Novgorod, Byzantium, and the Baltic Sea since the tenth century, it belonged to Lithuania in the Middle Ages, then to Poland, though it was frequently torched by invading Russians. It was annexed by Russia in the eighteenth century and became the northeastern fringe of the Pale of Settlement, the area—comprising present-day Belarus, Lithuania, parts of Poland, Latvia, and Ukraine—to which Catherine the Great confined all the Jews of her empire.
By 1890 there were five million of them there, concentrated in middle-sized towns like Vitebsk and neighbouring Dvinsk (now Daugavpils) and constituting 40 percent of world Jewry. From the 1860s the new Moscow–Riga and Kiev–St. Petersburg railways, crossing in Vitebsk, brought people streaming into the city from the countryside, and thus for the first time an urban proletariat appeared here. Between 1860 and 1890 Vitebsk’s population doubled to 66,000 people: more than half of them were Jews, engaged mostly in the small trading enterprises—dealing in paper, oil, iron, fur, flour, sugar, herring—by which the town thrived. The rest were Russians, White Russians, and Poles, but so vital were the Jews in trade and business that one inhabitant recalled,
If I were a stranger and not a Vitebskite, and after having read the signs on stores and the names of tenants and offices, recorded on the lists of tenants in every yard along all the streets, I would have said that Vitebsk was a purely Jewish city, built by Jews, with their initiative, energy, and money. The sense that Vitebsk is a Jewish city is felt especially on Sabbath and Jewish holidays, when all the stores, offices, factories are closed and silent. Even in government offices, such as the Government Bank, the Notary, the Courthouse, Post and Telegraph Offices, and so on.
Yiddish, here as throughout the Pale, was mother tongue to almost all the Jewish population, half of whom could speak nothing else. It set the Jewish culture of cities like Vitebsk apart from the sea of backward, brutalised Slavic villages that encircled them, their peasants still serfs only a generation before Chagall’s birth. Yiddish was Chagall’s principal language until adolescence, the language of the family home, and its use enshrined a feeling of security and belonging, of participating in an autonomous system of values, religious traditions, and laws, that a Jew in the nineteenth century could find nowhere else.
The Jews who arrived in Vitebsk from smaller settlements in the Pale, therefore, felt quickly at home. Among them in 1886 was a slim, slight girl of twenty, Feiga-Ita Tchernina, eldest daughter of the kosher butcher and slaughterer in the small country town of Lyozno, forty miles to the east. Her mother, Chana, had recently died, and Feiga-Ita was leaving behind a slumbering existence where her father “lay half his life on top of the stove, a quarter in the synagogue, and the rest in the butcher shop,” surrounded by the indolent among his offspring, the ones who had not made it to the city. His famous grandson later portrayed them, affectionately, as a caricature of Russian provincial inertia: Uncle Leiba sitting all day on a bench outside his house while “his daughters browse like red cows”; pale Aunt Mariassaja “lies on the sofa. . .her body elongated, exhausted, her breasts sag”; Uncle Judah “is still on the stove, he seldom goes out”; Uncle Israel “is still sitting in his same place. . .warming himself, eyes closed, in front of the stove”; only Uncle Neuch, with his cart and mare, immortalised in the painting The Cattle Dealer, did any work. This was the rural Russia of which the St. Petersburg bureaucrats and intellectuals despaired—“nowhere else in Europe can one find such incapacity for steady, moderate, measured work,” wrote the nineteenth-century historian Vasilii Kliuchevskii—but it was nonetheless full of sensuous colour and life.
Feiga-Ita came to Vitebsk to marry twenty-three-year-old Khatskel (the Yiddish form of Ezekiel, translated into Russian as Zakhar, and abbreviated within the family to Hasha, Chaty, or Chazia) Shagal, a distant cousin whom she had never met; as was customary for Orthodox Jews of the time, it was an arranged marriage. Khatskel had left Lyozno not long before with his parents, David and Basheva, for the burgeoning city; he worked as a labourer at Jachnine’s herring warehouse on the banks of the Dvina and lived near the town prison in the newcomers’ northern suburb of Peskovatik under the shadow of its seventeenth-century Holy Trinity Church, commonly known as “the Black Trinity.” His father, already in his sixties, scraped a living as a small-time teacher of religion to poor local boys. A fragile younger brother, Zussy, stayed behind in Lyozno, apprenticed to a hairdresser; unenterprising and childishly vain, he was the only one of the extended family later to take an interest in his nephew’s paintings, though he declined to keep a portrait of himself, judging it insufficiently flattering.
Peskovatik means “in the sands,” and the home where Feiga-Ita joined Khatskel was not so different from the country town she had just left. The roads were unpaved, frozen in the winter and full of muddy puddles in the summer; haphazardly built along them were wooden shacks with small backyards where chickens and goats scratched; cattle wandered on dirt tracks and into houses and shops, giving the area a rural appearance. Feiga-Ita milked goats in their yard, but even the wealthy Rosenfelds, Bella’s parents, kept a cow in the courtyard beneath their apartment along with horses and chickens, and insisted that their servants feed the children fresh milk. When they went to a dacha for the summer, their cow trailed behind the wagons of provisions and bedding at the end of a rope. Even in the affluent part of Vitebsk, the countryside never seemed far away.
Feiga-Ita and Khatskel, however, had no intention of staying in Peskovatik. Their wedding photograph shows a pair who typify the upwardly mobile, provincial-to-urban Jewish class of the time. Feiga-Ita stands neat and steady in tight-fitting black silk with high neck, long cuffs, ruches, and ribbons; she fixes the camera with a determined, lively gaze and clasps a book, though she was virtually illiterate. She looks sensible and practical; by the time of her wedding, she was already playing mother to her tribe of younger sisters. After her own marriage she would check out their fiancés, travelling to neighbouring towns to inquire into their suitability, entering shops to pick up local gossip, peering through windows to keep informed, a step ahead of the game.
Sitting at her side, broad-shouldered Khatskel in a kaftan-like greatcoat and peaked cap has the strength, beefiness, and taciturn expression of the focused young labourer; the gentle melancholy that was part of his character shines through too. Soon he became bent and permanently exhausted, defeated by his hard job and large family; at his wedding, however, his son claimed, “my father had not been a poor young man. The photograph of him in his youth and my own observations of our wardrobe proved to me that when he married my mother he had a certain physical and financial authority, for he presented his fiancée. . .with a magnificent shawl. Once married, he gave up turning his wages to his father and supported his own household.”
The splendid lace shawl appears in later photographs, but spirited, hopeful Feiga-Ita soon found that, despite shared aspirations and an unquestioning acceptance of a traditional religious way of life, Khatskel was not someone she could talk to. Feiga-Ita had more ambitious hopes and dreams than he could understand, and an energy that constantly sought new outlets. As a young mother, her intensity, and her loneliness within the marriage, as well as her naturally warm and kind-hearted nature, all unleashed in her a passion for her first child, Moyshe—always known to his parents as Moshka, though listed by them on a family birth certificate as Movsha Khatskelev: Movsha (the Russian form of Moses), son of Khatskel. Born a year after his parents’ marriage, Chagall was lavished with unwavering adoration by Feiga-Ita until her death in 1915, and he saw Vitebsk as literally his mother town, his art rooted in his closeness to Feiga-Ita. “If I have made pictures, it is because I remember my mother, her breasts so warmly nourishing and exalting me, and I feel I could swing from the moon,” he recalled when he was seventy-nine. To his son-in-law Franz Meyer, he explained his art thus: “It needs a withinness. An artist is tied to his mother’s apron strings, humanly and formally obsessed by her closeness. Form derives not from academic teaching, but from this withinness.” The dreaminess that fuelled his art, he knew, came from Feiga-Ita. “Dreams, I am a dreamer—I inherited my dreaminess from my mother—this is true, and you, my dears, you don’t even know what a baba I am,” he told his sisters in a letter in 1912, when he was twenty-four. “There is no one else in our family who so wants to know everything as me—I am not praising myself here. . .I am interested in trivial things, don’t judge me for that because I am a man.” The love and identification between him and Feiga-Ita gave him a robustness and basic optimism and made him a survivor in life; it also lent him a vulnerability in his extreme dependence on women. A strikingly beautiful boy with curly hair and wide blue eyes, he remained Feiga-Ita’s favourite of her nine children, and his unrivalled position was one he expected, unconsciously but uncompromisingly, to be replicated in every future relationship. A sister, named Chana after Feiga-Ita’s mother, was born a year after him in 1888, but her arrival did not detract from the closeness of mother and son. In a family with just enough to go around, Feiga-Ita used to slip her firstborn extra snippets of food, strengthening him physically as well as emotionally; he lived longer than any of his siblings, only two of whom reached old age.
Like most men who rise from obscurity to fame, Chagall mythologised his childhood. My Life, his memoir of his experiences in Russia, written when he was thirty-five and about to leave it forever, dwells at length on his early years in Vitebsk, and though some parts are romanticised and unreliable, many details are corroborated by factual sources, letters, and photographs, and the general tenor chimes with other memoirs of shtetl childhoods of the period. He opens with a drama: “My mother told me I came into the world during a great fire and that the bed in which we were lying was moved from place to place to save us. Perhaps that is why I was always so agitated.” The fire, one of many that swept through the wooden-built sections of Russian towns like Vitebsk, is documented for the day of his birth; the inhabitants usually fled to safety in the river. Chagall attributed his restlessness to these events of his birthday; as a child, he found the smoke and smouldering roofs and the flurry down to the Dvina exciting. The burning wooden houses in his paintings were a vivid recollection—he saw, for example, the conflagration in 1904 of the ancient wooden Ilyinskaya Church close to his home; later they became, as well, a symbol of the destruction of Jewry.
In 1887, however, his birthplace was saved. “That little house near the Peskovatik road had not been touched,” he wrote in 1922. “The place reminds me of the bump on the head of the rabbi in green I painted, or of a potato tossed into a barrel of herring and soaked in pickling brine. Looking at this cottage from the height of my recent ‘grandeur,’ I winced and I asked myself: ‘How could I possibly have been born here? How does one breathe?’ ”
He was, he says, born dead—“I did not want to live”—and was thrown into a trough of water to be revived; a trough lies at the foot of the bed in several paintings called Birth. The story hints at depression, passivity, resignation to fate, all characteristics he shared with his father and that were as fundamental as the instinct for survival and energy-bearing hope that he inherited from Feiga-Ita. A self-absorbed, soft-spoken, small child with a slim frame and delicate features, he grew up enveloped in the closed, exclusive atmosphere of Jewish Vitebsk. For his first thirteen years his was the tradition-bound upbringing of Orthodox eastern European Jewry, marked by strong family and community bonds, a modest, entirely religious education, poverty, and suspicion—he used to hide under the bed whenever a policeman passed the window—if the Christian world drew near. Even within the Pale of Settlement Jews did not have full civic rights; official policies were shaped by imperial advisers such as Konstantin Pobedonostsev, procurator of the Holy Synod under Alexander III, who suggested solving “the Jewish problem” by converting a third of the Jews, expelling a third, and killing a third. Jewish access to Russian schools and universities was restricted by quotas; Jews were banned from the civil service and the judiciary and were subject to the looting and violence of periodic pogroms; Raissa Maritain, Chagall’s Parisian Jewish friend who grew up at the same time as he in the southern Pale, then converted with her family to Catholicism, recalled “the mob which passed by, the cross at its head,” explaining that her mother’s “memory of the cross carried aloft during the pogroms delayed her conversion for a long time.” In response eastern European Jewry shaped itself into a vivid, independent community with its own identity and ritual, little touched by secular influence, little tempted by assimilation. The centres of imperial power, St. Petersburg and Moscow, were remote, forbidden, barely relevant; Vitebsk’s Jews looked to Vilna (now Vilnius) as their capital. This “Jerusalem of the East” was the old seat of Jewish learning in the former Lithuanian empire, known in Yiddish as Litah (German Litauen) and the country to which they felt they belonged.