Through paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater ephemera this exhibition brings to light an exhilarating but fleeting moment in the cultural history of the Soviet Union when innovative visual artists joined forces with avant-garde playwrights, actors, and theatrical producers.
The Jewish Museum is organizing the first exhibition devoted to the extraordinary artwork created for Russian Jewish theater productions in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition will bring to light a remarkable period in the early years of the Soviet Union when innovative visual artists, including Marc Chagall, Natan Altman, and Robert Falk joined forces with avant-garde playwrights, actors, and theatrical producers to create a theater experience with extraordinary mass appeal. Through paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater ephemera—many of which have never been exhibited before—Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949 will capture an exhilarating but fleeting moment in the cultural history of the Soviet Union.
In the new-found artistic freedom of the years following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Jewish theater companies such as Habima and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (acronym, GOSET) became a catalyst for modernist experimentation, revolutionizing existing concepts of theater and scene design. Habima performed in Hebrew and its productions of Jewish mythical and folkloric plays were noted for their rich visual effects and their emotional intensity. GOSET, which performed in Yiddish, created daring productions of Yiddish dramas that enthralled audiences with a new expressionistic style of acting. Both groups embraced visual artists who created stage and costume designs combining Russian folk art elements with stylistic vocabularies of cubo-futurism and constructivism. This unusual combination of populist and high art sensibilities became extremely popular, attracting large audiences of both Jews and non-Jews and garnering international critical praise.
Among the highlights of The Jewish Museum’s exhibition will be Marc Chagall’s famous theater murals, created in 1920 for GOSET’s small Moscow theater. Chagall set a creative direction for the company: his influence was visible not only in stage sets, costumes and make-up, but even in the extreme stylization of the actors’ gestures. The murals—Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, The Banquet, and Love on the Stage—will be presented at the Museum in the theatrical context for which they were created, marking the first time ever these works have been exhibited with this significant frame of reference. Other innovative art works by such masters as Robert Falk, Natan Altman, and Alexander Tyshler will bring renowned theatrical productions to life and illuminate the synthesis of the visual and the performing arts that defined Soviet Jewish theater in its golden age.
The exhibition will also trace the rise and fall of the relationship between the Soviet regime and Jewish theater. With Stalin’s rise to power, the regime grew increasingly harsh, first repressing the theaters and ultimately eradicating them. In the face of mounting pressure from the government, Habima left the Soviet Union for good in 1926, eventually settling in Palestine. GOSET managed to survive until 1948, when Solomon Mikhoels, its lead actor, was murdered by order of Stalin in what was officially described as an accident. The theater closed the following year and its extensive archive was nearly destroyed in a mysterious fire at the Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum in 1953.
Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949 is an international loan exhibition that will draw upon important collections in Russia, Israel and Europe. Many of the works have never been exhibited publicly before. Among these are costume and set designs from the collection of the Bakhrushin Theater Museum in Moscow, which houses works from the GOSET archive that were salvaged from the fire.
A delightful and informative Acoustiguide tour accompanies Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949. Visitors will be guided through the show by actor and director Liev Schreiber. Joining Mr. Schreiber on the audio tour are exhibition curator Susan Goodman; art historian Bella Meyer, a granddaughter of artist Marc Chagall; J. Hoberman, senior film critic of the Village Voice; and theater historian Robert Marx. Actors from The National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene are heard throughout the Acoustiguide program in recorded excerpts of plays from the Russian Jewish theater.