The Bridal Chair
The Bridal Chair: A Novel by Gloria Goldreich. (Sourcebooks Landmark, 496 pp. $14.99 paper)
Thirty years ago, the world lost a great artist, Moishe Shagal, better known as Marc Chagall. For the exhibition of his work at MoMA in 1946, he was hailed by a critic as “a hero who had not only eluded the Nazis but had triumphed over them by painting the Jewish world they had thought to destroy.”
The real story of his life and work is more nuanced and fascinating. A man of immense contradictions, hailed as the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century, “a Jew who plundered the symbols of his people but never entered a synagogue,” Chagall insisted he was “un artiste Parisien.” A fantasist who depicted bearded rabbis, shtetl folk and floating figures he remembered from his childhood home in Vitebsk (now Belarus), he basked in celebrity. An émigré who had fled pogroms, he was loath to recognize the Nazi juggernaut, secure in his belief that no one would touch Marc Chagall.
He was a brilliant, innovative printmaker, ceramicist and theatrical designer as well as a prescient modernist, whose signature style glowed with bold colors. But it is his cool, almost desolate white-suffused painting, The Bridal Chair, created for his only daughter’s wedding in 1934, that the historical novelist Gloria Goldreich tellingly evokes for the title of her impressively researched and compelling, if a bit overly long, biofiction of Chagall’s daughter, Ida Chagall Meyer.
In the painting, the chair is empty, a white shroud surrounded by cascades of stark white flowers. There is no human presence, nothing to suggest joy. Indeed, Chagall, unhappy that his hitherto innocent and beautiful 19-year-old daughter got pregnant by Michel Rapaport, a nebbish—or so he seemed to the artist—Chagall encouraged Ida to have an abortion. She did, but even then, as he and his beloved wife, Bella, pointed out, tongues would wag, his reputation might suffer and so marriage was a necessity. Ida went along, but the marriage did not stand in the way of her continuing service to her father. She would remain her father’s indefatigable and exclusive agent, housekeeper, financial manager and negotiator.
Marc Chagall was her career, and one she increasingly directed with fierce determination against everyone, including Virginia McNeil, Chagall’s longtime mistress who would bear him a son, and in preference for a while to Ida’s adoring second husband, Franz Meyer, with whom she had three children.
Goldreich skillfully shifts point of view throughout the narrative so that her heroine is seen not only as a savvy sophisticate, but also as a shrewd, driven woman whose sole ambition was to promote her father’s work. She is an intense, controlling figure of manipulative charm that she confidently and flirtatiously exercised in several languages.
As for Chagall—a surprise perhaps for many readers—he emerges as a preening narcissist who, despite his fame, continually measured himself against his friends, Matisse and Picasso. The ultimate irony and achievement of The Bridal Chair is its showing that father and daughter, Popatchka and Idotchka, shared the same compulsion: the advancement of Marc Chagall.
The novel proceeds chronologically (though it stops before Ida’s death in 1994, at the age of 78, Chagall having died in 1985 at the age of 98). Written in an old-fashioned, story-telling prose that is rich in descriptions that evoke time and place, its broad historical sweep and Dickensian pacing is suggestive of a PBS series, a fact-based but imaginative re-creation of an important man and a critical time.