The White Crucifixion by Michael Dean

Review published on February 11, 2018.

This novel’s subtitle is ‘A novel about Marc Chagall’ and I have to admit I knew nothing about Marc Chagall before picking it up. Well, I knew he was an artist and probably of the Modernist era but that was it. I didn’t even know that The White Crucifixion was the title of the painting generally considered to be his masterpiece. I have finished the book feeling I have a grounding in the artist’s work and inspiration as well as an insight into his character and motivation.

This is a short novel to cover a long life (Chagall was ninety-seven when he died) and it focuses on the early years in the artist’s Belorussian home town of Vitebsk, his time in Paris before the First World War and his return and enforced stay in Vitebsk during and after the war. The style consists of short scenes, rapid moves through time and recreates the places and periods of the past beautifully. The author uses an unusual device in the character of The Prophet Ezekiel, both to create a window onto the future and to evoke the otherworldly or spiritual element in Chagall’s own paintings.

I would recommend that the book is read with an art dictionary or access to Google to hand as I was constantly looking up particular paintings and artists as they appeared in the story. I loved the scenes set in and around The Hive, an artists’ colony in Paris, and felt as though I had met charming but doomed Modigliani and the others, such as Soutine, of who I had not previously heard but who leaped alive from the page.

The switch from the colour and creativity of Paris to the paranoia of post-Revolution Russia is stark but the author somehow finds beauty even amongst horror, as indeed did Chagall.

I really loved this book, for the story, for the characters, but above all for teaching me about a life and an era I didn’t know before. I will seek out the author’s other novels and would recommend this one wholeheartedly to book groups.

Rebecca Kershaw 5/5

The White Crucifixion by Michael Dean
Holland Park Press 9781907320736 pbk Feb 2018

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