Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919–1949
Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
April 23, 2009-September 7, 2009
Marc Chagall, Introduction to the Jewish Theater (detail),1920, tempera, gouache, and opaque white on canvas.
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, which opened in June 2008, is an appealing architectural combination of the new museum space designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind and the brick façade of a power substation designed in the Beaux Arts style by Willis Polk in 1907.
So too, the Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater exhibition blends the little known history of Russian Jewish theater, which flourished after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution until terminated by Stalin in 1949, with a presentation of the art, acting, staging, set and costume design of this period—all of which still appears vibrant and innovative.
This rare and noteworthy multi-media exhibit does a masterful job of exploring the 30-year flowering of Russian Jewish culture through over 200 works of avant garde Cubist, Futurist and Constructivist art and ephemera drawn from collections in Russia, France, Israel, and the United States, in addition to more than 100 watercolor, gouache and crayon drawings of costume and set designs.
Yet, the essence of Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater is an exploration of the history of this period. This is not an exhibition one should walk through passively. Instead, to understand and appreciate the show fully, one should examine each section of it and read its explanatory text.
After the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks wanted support from the Jews, as many of them were Socialists. Jews were finally allowed to move to Moscow and other large cities, and attend Yiddish schools and theaters. For the first time, Jews had a state-sponsored outlet on the stage.
Major Jewish artists joined actors, choreographers, writers, and musicians in creating a bold new theater that combined Russian folk art with an avant-garde style. This collaboration gave rise to extraordinary productions with highly original stage designs, which attracted large and diverse audiences in Moscow and earned praise in major European cities.
In addition to Chagall, who had left Russia by 1922, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater introduces many less familiar, but important artists, such as Natan Altman and Robert Falk, as well as the brilliant actor and GOSET’s second director theater, Solomon Mikhoels.
Once Stalin solidified his power, his support of the Russian Jewish theater ebbed and flowed with the changing political tides. When Solomon Mikhoels became a vocal supporter of the formation of State of Israel, Stalin directed Mikhoel’s murder, staged as a truck accident. The following year, 1949, the theaters were forced to disband.
Marc Chagall, Music, 1920, tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas.
The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater delves deeply into sixteen plays ranging from An Evening of Sholem Aleichem to King Lear (played by Solomon Mikhoels), which were produced by the two most important Jewish theater companies in post-revolutionary Moscow—the Hebrew-speaking Habima and the Yiddish-language Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET). The plays are explored through film clips, photographs, costume drawings, miniature stage sets, posters and other ephemera.
The purely artistic highlight of Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater are Marc Chagall’s famous and fascinating theater murals, Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, The Wedding Feast, and Love on the Stage. The murals, painted on canvas,were created in 1920 for GOSET’s inaugural production in Moscow.
The murals were put in storage in 1937 and largely forgotten for fifty years (except in 1953 when the Soviets tried to burn them). In the audio tour, Chagall’s granddaughter explains that in 1973, Chagall made his only return visit to Russia, so he could sign and date his murals. He cried at the sight of them. The murals were then put back into storage, where they remained until 1990.
There is a poignancy about Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater. By capturing the influential and exhilarating thirty-year history of Russian Jewish theater, the exhibition reminds us that Jewish culture shined in the Soviet Union for only a very brief time.
Those who are interested in learning about this largely forgotten chapter of Soviet Jewish history and culture will find the exhibition fascinating and enlightening, as I did.
The exhibition was curated by The Jewish Museum, New York; it will not travel to any other venues.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2009 All Rights Reserved.