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Marc Chagall, Introduction to the Jewish Theater, 1920

 
       
 

Chagall @ the Jewish Museum

   
 

A Tale of Two Theatres!

   

 

  

 

Art, theatre, fascism, and revolution make for a heady mix.  All these elements come together in a fascinating new show at the Jewish Museum, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theatre, 1919-1949.  

In the initial excitement and cultural upheaval that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, Jewish culture experienced a new flowering.  Finally able to give public reign to their creative forces, Jews in Russia made impressive cultural contributions.

The two main Jewish theatres in Russia represented opposing impulses, both in art and politics: one accomodationist and socialist, the other nationalist and revolutionary.  Language played a fascinating role in this development as well, reflecting the theatres' respective political leanings: Goset (The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre) performed in Yiddish, while Habima, founded in 1918 by Nahum Zemach, presented in Hebrew.  Goset, led by Solomon Mikhoels, viewed Jewish culture as being perfectly at home in the Soviet Union.  In public speeches, Mikhoels implored Jewish mothers to send their children to the Soviet army that was fighting fascism in the 1940's.  While the new Soviet government initially encouraged Jewish creativity, it soon turned on its national minorities.  Anti-Semitism rose along with Stalin's increasing paranoia.  Mikhoel's loyalty was repaid in typical Soviet fashion: he was brutally murdered in 1948 by Stalin's Secret Police.  Habima, influenced by Zionism and other expressions of Jewish nationalism, took a different tack.  Its leaders, anticipating the way things were going, never returned from a foreign tour and settled in Palestine, where the theatre eventually morphed into the National Theatre of Israel.

The show at the Jewish Museum concentrates on the sets, paintings, costumes, and posters produced by artists such as Natan Altman, Ignaty Nivinsky, and Marc Chagall.  The theatres were avant-garde in their tastes, and used modern artists, designers, and directors to create shows, costumes and sets where Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism were introduced.  Many of these set constructions disappeared in the 1930's only to be rediscovered in the late 1990's.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is Chagall's huge mural, Introduction to the Jewish Theatre.  The humor-filled creation is a who's who of Jewish artists of the time: a smiling Chagall is held aloft in a colleague's arms, limbs are foreshortened to comic effect, musicians and dancers abound.  Some of Chagall's unique contributions here include his quasi-fauvist use of color and the remarkably naturalistic transposition of traditional Jewish themes, as well as his characteristic sense of whimsy: an upside-down man, a green cow that represented antirealist revolutionary art.  The mural echoes the monumental scale of the two masterpieces that hang at the Metropolitan Opera.

Chagall's students copied the green cow and hung representations all over town.  The Communist party did not like it: "Why is the cow green?  What has that to do with Marx and Lenin,"  they asked.  Chagall's brilliant, saturated green was a color he often used as a challenge to realism - his face is green in the self-portrait I and the Village, and so is the face of the violinist in Music.  

 

See: Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theatre, 1919-1949, Jewish Museum, through March 22, 2009  

 

 

       
 

 
       
     

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All design and illustration by Anita Itty