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Mystical Storytelling at MOBIA: Chagall and the Russian Jewish Theater at Jewish Museum

In 1931 Marc Chagall embarked on a series of etchings of the Bible that would become a pervasive creative theme for the rest of his life.  For all of his forays into the world of myth, shtetl fable and imagination, Chagall would always return to the Bible as a fundamental means of expression. He was commissioned by the legendary gallerist Ambrose Vollard (1865-1939) to begin a series of 105 black and white etchings on the Bible that were completed in 1939.  Because of Vollard’s death, the war and Chagall’s exile in the United States, the complete black and white series was not printed until 1956. At that time Chagall also hand colored some editions of the Bible series.

The entire black and white series was printed again in 1956 in a special edition of Verve, the French arts journal.  Additionally this 1956 edition had 16 color lithographs of Biblical subjects by Chagall.  A second Verve edition of Chagall’s Bible was published in 1960 with an additional 24 biblical color lithographs.  We are extremely fortunate that this series of works: 55 hand colored biblical etchings, 16 color lithographs (Verve 1) and 24 biblical color lithographs (Verve 2) are on display at the Museum of Biblical Art until January 18, 2009.

Jacob Blessed by Isaac, The Bible (1957) etching by Marc Chagall Courtesy the Jewish Museum
Jacob Blessed by Isaac, from The Bible, 1957, etching by Marc Chagall, courtesy the Jewish Museum

Chagall’s interpretation of the Torah narratives is notable for their tenderness and insight into the complexities of human interaction as the Divine plan unfolds.  His depiction of The Blessing of Jacob by Isaac from the first edition of hand colored etchings is notable not only for the image of the aged blind Isaac, seen here in profile as a shtetl sage, but also the extended narrative that plays out in the background.  Rebecca is peeping out from behind the kitchen table watching her plan unfold while in the distance she is seen again perched atop a camel, echoing back to her first romantic encounter with Isaac, the very same husband she now conspires to deceive.  His sparing use of seemingly arbitrary color actually sets the mood for the tension and conflict implicit in the narrative.  In image after image Chagall’s cautious introduction of color into the black and white compositions adds a subtle psychological layer to the narrative depicted.  The distance between the sleeping Jacob and the angels is dramatically heightened just as the distance between Potiphar’s Wife and Joseph is collapsed; his flight seen as hesitant and conditional.

While the 1956 Verve color lithographs develop a variety of themes using much of the same imagery that originated in the 1939 etchings nonetheless Chagall exercises considerable liberty to manipulate the narratives in an even more Modernist direction.  Moses Receiving the 10 Commandments feels liberated with the addition of color, the visage of Isaiah becomes an apparition of white on black and finally David Mourning Absalon almost merges the bereaved king with his slain son.  The 1960 Verve edition unfortunately starts to loose focus, becoming more generalized renditions of biblical themes.  Over all this series of Biblical etching and lithographs spanning almost 30 years of Chagall’s creative life show the breath and depth of Chagall’s commitment to the Torah as a primary subject.

It is then especially interesting that just a bit uptown and across Central Park the Jewish Museum has mounted Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater showing a totally different aspect of the master’s work.  In one respect Chagall’s influence seems limited to the famous murals he painted in 1920 for the lobby and auditorium of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater in Moscow.  The six gouache on canvas murals, painted in a frantic few weeks, were soon dubbed as Chagall’s Box because they created a unique visual environment, blurring the distinction between theater and reality.  Though Chagall would leave Communist Russia in 1922, not to return until 1973, his stylistic influence was nonetheless greatly felt in much of the stage design for many years afterward.

This is one of the best exhibitions of the Jewish Museum in recent years.  The show along with its excellent catalogue tells the amazing story of survival of Yiddish culture under Communist totalitarianism.  Not unexpectedly it is also a tale of tragedy.  The exhibition opens with a portrait of Solomon Mikhoels by Natan Altman.  Mikhoels was a prominent Yiddish actor and from 1928 the head of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater until his murder by Stalin in 1948.  The saga of this tireless advocate and actor to produce and create Yiddish culture weaves through this fascinating exhibition as a kind of moral undercurrent, transforming an extensive history of the time into a eulogy for a fallen hero.

In what was one of the most unlikely alliances, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 actually encouraged expressions of ethnic identity and quickly supported two Jewish theater groups; the Hebrew-speaking Habima and the Yiddish language State Yiddish Chamber Theater (known as GOSEKT).  They soon became the most visible Jewish presence in an intensely secularized Soviet Russia.  Both theater groups were in Moscow and were thought by the Party leadership to be effective tools of Communist propaganda although the exhibition makes it clear that more often than not the fact that most Party officials did not speak either Hebrew or Yiddish allowed considerable room for veiled political commentary and criticism of the increasingly oppressive regime.

The Court of the Tzaddik (The Dybbuk) (1922) Photograph Courtesy the Jewish Museum
The Court of the Tzaddik, still from The Dybbuk, 1922, photograph courtesy the Jewish Museum

Habima specialized in Jewish mystical and folkloric material that often depended on innovative costume and set design to carry much of the Hebrew narrative to a Russian speaking audience.  One of their signature plays, Ansky’s, “The Dybbuk” (1914) was originally written in Russian, then translated by Ansky into Yiddish and finally translated by Chaim Nachman Bialik into Hebrew for Habima. Natan Altman designed the costumes in a Cubist/Futurist style and the 300 productions in Russia featured a ground-breaking avant-garde Expressionist acting style securing this play in the forefront of modern theater.

The Fifth Tower (The Golem) 1925 Photograph Courtesy the Jewish Museum
The Fifth Tower, still from The Golem, 1925, photograph courtesy the Jewish Museum

Similarly Habima’s production of Leivich’s “The Golem” broke new ground for its combination of Jewish folklore and early 20th century science fiction.  The Jewish audience that was literate in Hebrew saw the theme of the Golem, a superman turned monster, as a satirical symbol of the Revolution gone sour, an interpretation missed by the Party authorities.

Eventually the increasingly oppressive government and the extremely limited Hebrew audience led Habima to defect and emigrate to Palestine in 1928 where, after much searching, established itself as Israel’s national theater in 1958.

The Yiddish theater GOSEKT had a much longer and more influential history, miraculously lasting until the end of the Second World War and presumably acting as a beacon of hope of freedom to Russia’s millions of Yiddish speaking and effectively enslaved Jews, especially as Stalin slowly closed down all synagogues, mikvehs, and Jewish schools.

The Jewish Museum documents the State Yiddish Chamber Theater’s impressive productions in set and costume design, posters and film clips by many artists including Marc Chagall, Robert Falk, Natan Altman and Ignaty Nivinsky.  The theater frequently explored radical and often forbidden themes such as “God of Vengeance” (1928) by Sholem Asch that presented the connections between capitalism and decadence that descended into prostitution and lesbianism.  Their production of “The Sorceress” by Avrom Goldfadn offered ultra modern Constructivist design while exploring an eccentric vision of adventure, magic and sorcery.  A historical film clip from a performance of “The Sorceress” provides us with an example of the extremely stylized, Expressionistic gestures and stage setting that immediately evokes the monstrous fantasies of 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch somehow blended with the whimsical shtetls of Marc Chagall.

Benjamin Zuskin as Soloveitchik the Matchmaker from 200,000 Photograph courtesy the Jewish Museum
Benjamin Zuskin as Soloveitchik the Matchmaker, from “200,000,” photograph courtesy the Jewish Museum

The narrative of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater from 1919 through 1935 is told through a presentation of their major productions including; “An Evening of Sholem Aleichem,” “Agents,” “Mazel Tov,” “It’s a Lie,” (all designed by Chagall), “God of Vengeance,” “Uriel Acosta,” “The Sorceress,” “200,000,” “Jewish Luck” (film), “At Night in the Old Marketplace,” “The Tenth Commandment” and “The Travels of Benjamin the Third,” all of which had explicit Jewish content.  Two other productions, “Trouhadec” and “King Lear” were not specifically Jewish, although many saw Mikhoels’s brilliant depiction of King Lear as thinly disguised critical portrait of Stalin himself.

Such creativity could not last under Stalin’s growing terror and Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin’s agents in January, 1948.  Within two years many of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater’s actors, designers and authors were arrested, the theater closed and finally 13 leaders of the theater were executed in August 1952 in what has become known as the Night of the Murdered Poets.  Yiddish culture had been effectively crushed in Soviet Russia.

To witness in this exhibition the role of Yiddish culture as a vehicle of resistance and defiance is deeply moving.  The courage and creativity these artists summoned, frequently using the tools of western Modernism, was nothing short of miraculous.  And to see the powerful influence Marc Chagall had in many aspects of this struggle allows us to understand the diversity and creativity of his art.  One hand firmly planted in the Torah and his Russian homeland, the other in the color and form of Modernism, Chagall shows us just about how much an artist can accomplish as long as he never forgets his Jewish roots.

Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling
Museum of Biblical Art
1865 Broadway @ 61st Street
New York, NY

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.

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