Art Catch: Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater

by |
12/02/2008 4:00 PM |

Art Catch is a weekly online column by The L‘s Patricia Milder.

The legend of the Golem –- a story Isaac Bashevis Singer calls "the essence of Jewish folklore" – originates from the Kabbalah and tells of a Rabbi who uses magic spells to create a man out of clay. The Golem becomes a monster in one version of the tale, turning against his creator. In a play called The Golem, produced in 1920, the Hebrew speaking Habima Theater in Moscow uses the Golem as a symbol for the Bolshevik revolution, foreshadowing Stalin’s increasingly repressive regime, the loss of the company’s recently granted artistic freedoms, and their move to Palestine in 1926.

The history of the Russian Jewish Theater is seeped in the political history of the Soviet Union from 1919-1949, and the relationship between art and state is interesting, but the actual artistic accomplishments of this seldom recalled golden age are stunning. What the current exhibition at The Jewish Museum – through old photographs, black and white video clips, posters, and costume and set designs by artists such as Marc Chagall – makes clear, is that it was innovation and sophisticated design that defined the short but intriguing life of Jewish avant-garde theater in Moscow. Well, those things — and political repression (and exile, and murder).

The exhibition follows the full story of the Habima Theater as well as
the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (acronym, GOSET), which, since it
outwardly conformed to Soviet regulations, stayed active in Russia much
longer than Habima. Both theater companies were born directly following
the revolution in 1917, when the Bolsheviks encouraged ethnic identity
and artistic expression. Goset created shows under steadily increasing
pressure until 1948, when Stalin ordered the execution of lead actor
Solomon Mikhoels. Internationally famous for his rendition of King
Lear, Mikhoels lost favor with the Soviet regime after speaking out for
the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. His murder coincided with
the official government closure of the theater and a mysterious (state
ordered) fire a couple of years later nearly wiped out the entire
historical archive of the theater.

Goset’s first production, in 1920, took place in a small theater with
sets and costumes designed by Marc Chagall. Though this was the only
production the artist worked on, his murals, which covered the entire
theater – they called it "Chagall’s box" – are installed in one small
room in the museum and make up the most satisfying single space of the
exhibition. It is hard to imagine, standing in a room with his works
Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Dance, Drama, Literature, Music,
The Banquet
, and Love on the Stage, that these were backdrops and not
centerpieces. Love on the Stage is especially haunting and beautiful,
with its depiction of the classic pas de deux, but with the dancers
spiraling out of the confines of their bodies into an ethereal space of
geometric shapes and unfinished lines. Programs, brochures and
photographs of Chagall in process bring the works into the individual
space of set design, lest you forget why they were made.

Other artists such as Robert Falk, Natan Altman (who, at the time was
more famous and considered more promising than Chagall) and Alexander
Tyshler are well represented. Costume designs, some of which were too
fanciful to actually create, stand alone as mystical interpretations of
folkloric characters. Sketches of set designs displayed alongside old
black and white production photographs give an excellent sense of what
was going on behind-the-scenes. This walk through the process of
collaborative art making provides an overwhelming amount of information
but through the various ephemera, manages to string together a lovely,
even-handed history. The show captures a bubbling over of long
repressed creativity and depicts how the artists of the Russian Jewish
Theater took advantage of every moment of freedom to create.

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave, at 92nd St, through March 22