Tuesday, December 2, 2008

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

Posted By on Tue, Dec 2, 2008 at 4:00 PM

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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

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