THE CONTEMPORARY JEWISH MUSEUM PRESENTS – Chagall And The Artists Of The Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949

Opens Thursday, April 23, 2009

The story of a vanguard theater, cut short

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

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During the artistic ferment following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, major artists joined actors, choreographers, writers, and musicians in creating a daring new theater. This collaboration gave rise to extraordinary productions with highly original stage designs that redefined the concept of theater itself, attracting large, diverse audiences and garnering international critical praise. In Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949, on view from April 23, 2009 through September 8, 2009, the Contemporary Jewish Museum tells the little-known and tumultuous story of this vanguard artistic flowering, which thrived on the stage for thirty years before being brutally extinguished during the Stalinist era.

More than 200 works of art and ephemera, the majority never before exhibited, have been drawn from collections in Russia, France, Israel, and the United States for the showing. Marc Chagall’s celebrated theater murals ­ Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, The Wedding Feast, and Love on the Stage‹ are featured, in addition to more than 100 watercolor, gouache and crayon drawings of costume and set designs, executed in the avant-garde styles of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism by such artists as Natan Altman, Robert Falk, Ignaty Nivinsky, Isaac Rabinovich, and Aleksandr Tyshler.

At the heart of the exhibition are the extraordinary murals that Chagall created for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, stated Contemporary Jewish Museum Deputy Director for Programs Fred Wasserman. This exhibition is the first time that these murals will be presented in the theatrical context for which they were created.

Ignaty Nivinsky, Amulut (costume design for The Golem) (1925) and  DANCE, 1920, by Marc Chagall

Ignaty Nivinsky, Amulut (costume design for The Golem) (1925) and DANCE, 1920, by Marc Chagall

Rare film footage of early performances transports viewers back to another time. Fascinating archival materials such as music, posters, prints, programs, and period photographs of productions and actors in character help recapture extraordinary theatrical moments. A number of items in the exhibition survived a 1953 blaze at Moscow’s Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum, the premiere repository for archives of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET), and a major lender to the exhibition. The fire, of unknown origin, is now widely believed to have been an attempt by the Soviets to stamp out the legacy of the Russian Jewish theater.

The CJM is delighted to present Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949 to Bay Area audiences, as it brings to life a remarkable artistic flowering in the early years of the Soviet Union, stated Contemporary Jewish Museum Director and CEO Connie Wolf. As a museum that is dedicated to presenting contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas, we saw in this exhibition a wonderful opportunity to explore an exciting period of extraordinary artistic innovation, at the same time that the show will encourage our visitors to think about the role that the arts play in both shaping cultural identity and transcending cultural differences.

The exhibition was organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, Senior Curator at The Jewish Museum. She first learned of the Bakhrushin’s trove while researching another exhibition in Moscow nearly a decade and a half ago. “I became aware of the achievement of artists who, in the heady days after the revolution, embraced the avant-garde and the potential of a people’s theater. These artists created a uniquely new theater, one that combined visual art and music with stylized expressionist performances. They also had an affinity for the grotesque and the comedic melodrama of Yiddish folklore.”

The Jewish theater movement in Russia was represented by two companies based in Moscow with very different approaches. Habima’s productions, performed in Hebrew, emphasized the ideas of Zionism and Jewish national rebirth. Soviet ideologues soon deemed the theater’s policies at odds with socialist ideals. In 1926, Habima left the Soviet Union to settle in Palestine, eventually becoming Israel’s national theater. In contrast to Habima, GOSET, which performed in Yiddish, presented daring expressionistic dramas. With its innovative blending of Jewish folklore and literature, Constructivist-inspired sets, and expressionist acting techniques, GOSET was wildly popular with Jews and non-Jews alike.

ON VIEW

The legendary murals created by Marc Chagall in 1920 to adorn the GOSET theater will be displayed in a gallery that replicates its original intimate size. Painted by the artist in a little over a month, Chagall’s murals will cover the walls of the Museum’s Koshland Gallery with engaging representations of GOSET’s performers using vibrant color and geometric forms that dance across the surfaces. Also featured are several studies for the murals as well as Chagall’s set and costume designs for GOSET’s inaugural productions.

Natan Altman’s faux-naïve, yet sophisticated color drawings for the sets and costumes of one of Habima’s most acclaimed productions, Solomon An-sky’s The Dybbuk (1922) are another highlight. Already a leading avant-garde artist, Altman transformed familiar folkloric characters into a visual feast of exaggerated, distorted, and twisted forms. Rare photographs of the original production, directed by Evgeny Vakhtangov, a protégé of the renowned Konstantin Stanislavsky, will be shown on video, and the production’s Constructivist set model (reconstructed), poster, handwritten score, and program also will be on view. Costume design drawings by the artist Robert Falk for GOSET’s production of At Night in the Old Marketplace are animated with an angular visual vitality in portrayals of prostitutes and the walking
dead.

Marc CHAGALL – Introduction to the Jewish Theater (1920)

Marc CHAGALL – Introduction to the Jewish Theater (1920)

Natan Altman Poster for Jewish Luck (1925), collection of Merrill C. Berman, New York

Natan Altman Poster for Jewish Luck (1925), collection of Merrill C. Berman, New York

In 1932 Stalin issued a decree stating that all artistic endeavors must conform to the goals of the Revolution. The only approved form of artistic expression was Socialist Realism. Thereafter, the avant-garde fell out of favor. Many in Russia’s theatrical avant-garde feared for their lives and began to opt for ³safe² works. In 1935 GOSET mounted Shakespeare’s King Lear, which, rather ironically, became the company’s greatest success due in large measure to the acclaimed performance of the brilliant actor Solomon Mikhoels. Helping to convey the gravitas of the production are emotive watercolors by set designer Aleksandr Tyshler and photographs of Mikhoels, by then GOSET’s director, as Lear.

In 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was murdered at Stalin’s direction, his brutal death staged as a truck accident. More than ten thousand people attended his funeral. GOSET was liquidated the following year. Exhibition visitors will be able to see the actor’s broken eyeglasses, retrieved when his body was found on a snowy road, as well as film footage from Mikhoels’s funeral.

Other productions to be featured in Chagall and the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949 include Habima’s The Golem (1925), and GOSET’s The Sorceress: An Eccentric Jewish Play (1922), 200,000: A Musical Comedy (1923), and At Night in the Old Marketplace: Tragic Carnival (1925).

Free Target Family Day, Sunday, April 26 from 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM.
Celebrate springtime, freedom, and storytelling traditions with free admission to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, hands-on art-making, live performances and much more!

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Click here to purchase: Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
The accompanying 240-page catalogue, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, and edited by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, features 230 illustrations (146 color and 84 black and white images), most never before published, and includes five essays by leading scholars in the field.

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