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Chagall's Theatre

April 22, 2009

The natural centerpiece of a new exhibition entitledChagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949, which opens at San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum tomorrow, is the room devoted to a series of murals that the famous artist created in 1920 for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (GOSET).

I've seen some of these canvases before, but never have I been able to experience so many of them grouped together in a single space. The effect is startling. Colors dance from one painting to the next; characters -- some of them based on real-life directors, artists and actors from the Yiddish theatre world including Chagall himself, are beautiful and grotesque at once; geometric shapes tussle with more rough-shod forms, and madcap farmyard animals take on heightened symbolic value when compared across multiple works.

Chagall's involvement with GOSET only lasted a few years in the early 1920s. But as the exhibition shows, his impact on the company and on Yiddish theatre as a whole was significant. In addition to decorating an entire theatre with the aforementioned murals, the artist designed sets and costumes and even went as far as to paint the actors' bodies -- creating animated works of art. The great Yiddish actor and director Solomon Mikhoels is reported as saying that Chagall influenced his acting style.

What makes the exhibition extraordinary though, isn't just the collection of Chagall's theatre murals: The show's collection of paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater ephemera takes the museum-goer on a fascinating journey into a piece of history that is as much about theatre, as it is about an artistic meeting of the minds and global politics. Organized by the The Jewish Museum, New York, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949is, according to its organizers, the first exhibition devoted to the artwork created for Russian Jewish theatre productions of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the artifacts on display have never been viewed by the public before.

Chagall's work is perhaps the main draw. But I was at least as moved by the parts of the exhibit that deal with the work of other brilliant contemporary designers such as Robert Falk and Natan Altman. Falk and Altman pop up throughout the show, even more persistently than Chagall, because their connection with GOSET lasted for longer.

No name pervades this exhibition more than the actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, however. I had only dimly heard of this Russian Jewish celebrity until today. A section devoted to the actor's performance in an acclaimed 1935 Yiddish version of King Lear is, alongside the Chagall murals, the highlight of the show. A model of Aleksander Tyshler's arresting set design for the production, with its Medieval puppet theatre-inspired claustrophobic raised inner stage supported by carved stone buttresses suggestive of an early Renaissance church, ingeniously offsets the production's interpretation of Lear as a sly critique of the increasing oppressiveness of Stalinist Russia. Video footage of Mikhoels in the title role putting on his wig and makeup and performing several scenes from the production provide viewers with an insight into the actor's formidable craft.

The exhibit then goes on to tell us about Mikhoel's involvement as a leader of the Jewish anti-fascist Committee, his eventual assassination at the hands of Stalin and the ultimate dissolution of GOSET in 1949.

Running until September 7, this overview of a short-lived but important aspect of Jewish cultural history is not to be missed. Neither to be missed are a couple of adjunct events which include two loopy-sounding "sing-a-long" screenings of Fiddler on the Roof on June 14 and 18, and the arrival of the Habima Theatre Company from Israel with its production of The Dybbuk from July 8 - 12.


  • great review, Chloe. This had only blipped on my radar and sounds well worth the visit-- definitely plan to check it out.

    By Anonymous Mark Follman, At April 24, 2009 at 4:27 PM  

  • Excellent summary of why to see this show. I went through it quickly just before it closed in NY (had to rush off to Lorenzo Pisoni's solo show about growing up as a Pickle). The designs were wonderful and it was great to see the Chagalls in person but the film clips were mesmerizing - what a treasure and a wonder that they have survived. I'm so glad you wrote about the exhibit - I'm visiting SF in a couple weeks, didn't know it was there and would have missed the chance to spend more time with it. Thanks!

    By Blogger Tom, At May 1, 2009 at 8:40 PM  

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