Review of the Day: I Am Marc Chagall
Picture book biographies encompass a wide range of styles, talents, and age-groups. What a child gets out of any given biography depends entirely on why they even want a bio in the first place. I'll say right here and now that if you want a picture book biography that is just straight facts about the artist in question, without a drop of whimsy or artistic expression, go nab a copy of Mike Venezia's, "Marc Chagall". He does good report-ready work. If, on the other hand, you'd like something a little more fun and carefree, consider Bimba Landmann's, "I Am Marc Chagall". Artistically faithful to the painter in question, wonderful with its words, and an overall spellbinding introduction to a great man, this is a must-have title. You've never seen anything remotely like it before, and I doubt you'll find anything to compare to it again.
He was born in Vitebsk, a small Russian farming town within a Jewish community. A creative inquisitive kid, Marc Chagall professed a love of art very early in his life. When an art teacher proclaimed that he did have talent, Chagall was delighted. He attended art schools, painted like no one else, and always had his lovely Bella at his side. Then it was off to Paris to make a name for himself, and from then on Chagall's life was a blur. He came back to Russia to teach painting to the children and chafed under political scrutiny. Just in time he and his family sailed for America just as the Second World War broke out in Europe. Says the book, "During the journey I wondered if the silent stars above could already see my future: my life in America; my return to France after the war; the museum of my paintings in Nice; my stained glass in Jerusalem, Chicago, New York; my mosaics... Yes, perhaps the stars could already see my entire life traced out on the earth like a picture by Marc Chagall".
Until now, Italian author/illustrator Bimba Landmann has been content to limit her art primarily to picture book biographies painted in two-dimensions, as in "The Genius of Leonardo" and "A Boy Named Giotto". Now she's burst out of her painterly shell and embraced fully the wacked-out world of multimedia. If the wonderful use of tiny details doesn't get you, the sheer gutsyness of the colors will. Landmann presents Chagall (shown briefly at the beginning in a 1910 photograph) as a purple-haired suit-clad pioneer. From the Hebrew letters hung on a line like items in a wash to the tiny pillowcases, amber suns, and real lit candles, Landmann evokes shetl life with a hearty love. Then it's off to Paris where the sun and sky are a vibrant red-orange and tiny cardboard boxes become art exhibitions. What impressed me the most about Landmann's art was that she wasn't afraid to reproduce Chagall's artworks into teeny tiny paintings. So many biographies for children (especially the picture books) will talk and talk and talk about an artist and never show you a single painting they actually did. But in this book you might see, "I and the Village" held by a tiny Chagall on the streets of Paris then see "The Green Fiddler" on a cart sometime later. Even the settings and the images in Chagall's day-to-day life remain faithful to the artwork found in his paintings. I don't think any artist would dare invoke Chagall at such length, even if they were doing a biography of his life. So this brazen tribute is stunning precisely because it praises him so highly and replicates him so accurately. A second reading and you just sit staring at the pictures, lost for words.
Now Landmann chose to write this book in the first-person, which makes the book rather troublesome. On the title page we see that the text was, "loosely inspired by `My Life' by Marc Chagall". That's fine and all, but that means that even if Landmann is quoting him directly throughout the entire book, she doesn't cite those quotations at the back. So if, "I Am Marc Chagall" says he thought this or wondered that, we have no proof. Is this book a biography or a fictional biography, then? In spite of the lackadaisical citing, I vote "biography". After all, Landmann has cited her ultimate source (though the "loosely based" mention makes me feel kind of woozy). And there's a lovely timeline at the back that does wonders to allay a reviewer's fears. I especially liked the multiple Chagalls that appear at the bottom of the page. They grow up and grow old as the timeline progresses, ending with a white (rather than purple) haired Chagall smiling cheekily at the finish.
In many ways this book reminded me of two other wacky three-dimensional alternative material-illustrated picture books published in 2006. There was Lauren Child's, "The Princess and the Pea" (done in a shadowbox format, much like those found in "Chagall"), and "City Beats" by S. Kelly Rammell. Bimba Landmann hasn't quite reached household name status yet here in the United States, but books like "I Am Marc Chagall" may certainly start to pave her way. One of the finest publications of 2006 and a truly wonderful book to boot. It makes even the sequins in the sky look like beautiful stars above.