- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, titles her mammoth new book simply “Chagall: A Biography” (Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 582 pages, illus.), but it is likely to be the Chagall biography for some time to come. Thoroughly researched, beautifully written and copiously illustrated, it covers much of the modern art scene and world events in the 20th century, as well as one difficult Russian artist’s turbulent and peripatetic life.

“Chagall’s work and everyday existence alike,” she writes, “turned on his triple fixations: with Judaism, Russia, and love - or put universally, on mankind’s timeless concerns of religion, sense of social and emotional belonging and sex. Yet repeatedly the relationships that fuelled his art threatened personal devastation. His mother, his girlfriend Thea, his daughter Ida, his first wife, Bella, and his companion Virginia, were sacrificed in different ways. Only with his second wife, Vava, as wily and tough as he was, did he meet his match…and his art lost out to the comfort of his life.”

Women always played an exceptionally important role in Chagall’s life, serving as models and critics and handling the domestic and business arrangements that left him free to develop his art, which ranged from avant-garde and near-surreal paintings to theater sets and murals, religious illustrations and those stained-glass windows that he was still designing when death came at age 97.

Born Moyshe Shagall in 1887 in a Russian town (now in Belarus) where Yiddish was the only language spoken by half the population, Chagall had an ambitious mother who bribed his way into a high school in Vitebsk, where he was forced to learn Russian. After studying painting for a year with a local artist, Chagall went to St. Petersburg to study, finessing for a time the permit required for Jewish residents. He then settled among the art community in Paris, returning to Vitebsk long enough to marry upper-middle-class Bella. Their only child, Ida, was born during World War I in Paris.

After the war, Chagall returned to Russia long enough to realize that he could not work within the Soviet system. When Berlin in the early 1920s proved no more satisfactory, it was back to France. French citizenship, however, could not protect Chagall and Bella from the Nazis, and the Chagalls were among the prominent artists rescued by a committee of American art patrons just ahead of the Gestapo.

Chagall liked New York no better than he had anticipated, but when Bella died there in 1944, he fell into an affair with an Englishwoman, Virginia, with whom he had a son. After the war they accompanied him back to Paris. When Virginia eventually left Chagall, he quickly married Valentina (“Vava”), whom daughter Ida had sent to him as a “housekeeper.” Vava controlled his life - and the purse strings - for his long remaining years; when he died in St. Paul de Vence in 1985, she had him buried in the town’s Christian cemetery. There were no religious rites, but a Yiddish journalist volunteered to say the kaddish.

Chagall and Bella wrote their memoirs in Yiddish; Virginia and her son David, plus Ida’s then-divorced husband, also wrote memoirs. The life story has the makings of a soap opera, but the artist’s work, the author shows, offers much more: “In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy to images at once immediate, simple and symbolic to which everyone could respond.”

•••

The acerbic H.L. Mencken did not like Franklin Roosevelt. He once wrote that if F.D.R. were convinced that he could gain votes by coming out in favor of cannibalism, “he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard.”

This negative view is not shared by University of Texas historian H.W. Brands in “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” (Doubleday, $40, 888 pages, illus.). Mr. Brands believes that Roosevelt gave the American people “reassurance during the most frightening phase of the Depression, and confidence during the most trying days of the war.”

The facts about Roosevelt and his long presidency are easily established; the “spin” applied to them depends on the spinner. Roosevelt’s was unquestionably a privileged existence, one that was marred, however, by a failed marriage and by the crippling disease that left him confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life. He was courageous, if only for his willingness to stand on a stage and greet his supporters when in constant danger of falling.

In contrast to his austere predecessor, Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt brought with him an intensely personal style, one that paid off politically. As Mr. Brands writes, “He spoke to the American people directly, asking them to trust him.”

Roosevelt’s unprecedented 12-year presidency saw America’s gradual emergence from the Great Depression, and its leadership of the Allied coalition that defeated Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II. But how critical was Roosevelt’s role? Was he the captain or merely officer of the deck?

When Roosevelt took office in 1933 the Depression was in its fourth year. The great gift that F.D.R. brought to the Oval Office was a willingness to experiment; if one scheme failed, he tried another. But getting a firm decision from the president could be challenging. Mr. Brands acknowledges that “Roosevelt’s style of leadership involved setting his subordinates at cross-purposes with one another.” For whatever reasons the country emerged from the Depression very slowly.

In foreign affairs, Mr. Brands points out that FDR had never cared much for the Germans, and this attitude helped him recognize the threat of Nazi Germany. It is one of the ironies of the past century that war came to America not from Germany, which had been sorely provoked by Roosevelt, but from Japan.

As a war leader Roosevelt was not the innovator that he had been in domestic affairs. But he chose able subordinates - men like Henry L. Stimson, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower - and let them win the war. FDR and Churchill jousted over strategic priorities, but without seriously damaging the war effort. Roosevelt’s only critical error was his public insistence, over Churchill’s objections, to “unconditional surrender” by Germany, a demand that almost certainly stiffened German resistance.

Mr. Brands writes with grace about his controversial subject, and if he downplays FDR’s errors - such as his failure to put Vice President Harry Truman “into the loop” during Roosevelt’s final illness - he leads the reader through the maze of government entities created under the New Deal.

Historian Eric Goldman may have best summarized Franklin Roosevelt. “Restless and mercurial in his thinking,” Mr. Goldman writes, “he trusted no system except the system of endless experimentation.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean.

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