The Bridal Chair, by Gloria Goldreich. Sourcebooks Landmark. 496 pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.
Who was Marc Chagall? Of course he was an immensely talented and prolific artist in many styles and various media whose works brought him a towering reputation and towering sales figures over several decades. He was a Russian Jew raised in a religious household whose life, until after the end of World War II, was a series of relocations brought on first by the need to escape Russian / Soviet anti-Semitism and later the Nazi’s brutal takeover of France. Though he spoke Yiddish and employed Jewish imagery and themes in some of his most renowned works, he was not otherwise attached to Jewish culture, theology, or ritual.
While these elements of Chagall’s identity are well dramatized in Goldreich’s book, her main concerns are his personality and his relationships. The central strategy in revealing these aspects of the historical Chagall is Goldreich’s brilliant decision to make Chagall’s daughter, rather than the man himself, the book’s central character. It is through tracing (and perhaps imagining) Ida Chagall’s journey from the age of seven into early middle age as the adoring daughter, business manager, and enabler of Chagall’s best and worst qualities that the author paints her astounding word picture of the man in his time and in his places.
The teenage Ida is a ravishing young woman, a real head-turner who enjoys the smiles on men’s faces. She is confident, intelligent, fashionably attired, and articulate. Living in a world of art and artists, she is already quite knowledgeable about that world. She is pleased to be her father’s daughter. In time, she will want to be more than that – but Mark’s approval will always be important.
In fact, Marc’s estimate of people is directly proportional to how well they serve his needs. Vain in matters of appearance and status in the world of art, he is insecure and dependent in other ways. In some ways a rebel, he is also a slave to propriety. When Ida becomes pregnant, he is horrified. He and Ida’s mother, Bella, insist on an abortion. This is not Ida’s preference, but she agrees to it. Somewhat less threatening to Marc is Ida’s marriage to a non-Jew, but he accommodates himself to it as long as Ida puts her father’s needs above all else.
And, sometimes reluctantly, she does. Her place in the world is not as someone’s wife, or an independent identity (which she often longs for), but as the great Marc Chagalls’ daughter.
Ida becomes the manager of the Chagall domestic situation and the Chagall industry. She selects their various residences, arranges for the smooth running of these households, and becomes the principal agent for the display and marketing of her father’s artworks. Thus she is in constant contact with prominent collectors, dealers, gallery owners, and museum curators. These overlapping responsibilities, which she handles with determination and skill, define her place in the world.
They also limit it. She couldn’t be doing this for Picasso, or for herself. Indeed, her personal artistic ambitions are sacrificed to serving her father, whose appreciation is rarely shown. She even arranges for his mistresses (officially housekeepers), one of which, non-Jewish, brings a Chagall son into the world.
Marc is a grand manipulator, whose practiced ineptness in many areas leaves others to pick up the pieces. He is not lazy. Indeed, his dedication to his art consumes him, but he shuns everyday responsibilities and insists that his work demands ideal environments without distractions.
Generally, he gets what he wants.
Eventually, Ida also gets what she wants: a fine, devoted husband; three children; respect; and much-needed piece of mind.
Goldreich’s narrative has many strengths beyond those of characterization and the exploration of relationships (though the large cast of vividly depicted characters is a powerful achievement). Readers will learn a great deal about the history of modern art, artistic technique, and the business of art. The author’s descriptions of particular artworks are spectacular.
Her handling of setting is also superb. Readers are invited to visit many places exquisitely described, places that have not only dimensions, materials, and colors, but atmosphere. We explore homes in Paris and its environs, other communities in France, New York City, upstate New York, Zurich, and many more. Goldreich’s descriptions are lavish backdrops for her characters’ actions. Almost too lavish.
The pace is leisurely, and on occasion seems too slow. The detailed descriptions slow it down. Some readers will feel that less would have been more. Others will enjoy every morsel of information.
All in all, The Bridal Canopy is a towering achievement: emotionally powerful, psychologically deft, and a feast of sensory images.
This review appears in the December 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).