Visu­al Arts

Cha­gall and the Artists of the Russ­ian Jew­ish Theater

Susan Tumarkin Good­man, ed.

By – January 11, 2012

Russ­ian Jew­ish the­ater is a time hon­ored tra­di­tion which pre-dates the ear­ly days of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and began grow­ing seeds in the ear­ly 1900’s. The book, Cha­gall and the Artists of the Russ­ian Jew­ish The­ater, was assem­bled and pub­lished in con­junc­tion with an exhib­it curat­ed by the Jew­ish Muse­um of New York. 

Senior Cura­tor, Susan Tumarkin Good­man, has explored the top­ic of Russ­ian Jew­ish the­ater in sev­er­al pre­vi­ous exhi­bi­tions, but nev­er before has the top­ic been so intri­cate­ly dis­sect­ed. Amid a con­stant­ly chang­ing polit­i­cal land­scape, this artis­tic move­ment emerged as a stage, lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly, for depict­ing the dis­parate voic­es of the splin­tered Russ­ian pop­u­la­tion. Con­tribut­ing writ­ers dis­cuss the flux of sec­u­lar Jew­ish soci­ety and the envi­ron­ment in which Jew­ish the­ater —artists, actors, and direc­tors— played sig­nif­i­cant roles in influ­enc­ing the gen­er­al pub­lic, both Jew­ish and non Jewish. 

The frac­tured sects of the time are best rep­re­sent­ed in this book by the descrip­tions and mis­sions of the two most his­tor­i­cal­ly not­ed Russ­ian Jew­ish the­aters, the Hebrew lan­guage, Habi­ma (the stage), and the Yid­dish lan­guage Goset which rep­re­sent­ed the large gen­er­al pop­u­lace of Jew­ish cul­ture and iden­ti­ty in the Sovi­et Union of the ear­ly 1900’s. That artists like Marc Cha­gall were approached by the lat­ter to cre­ate sur­re­al, shtetl themed back­drops for their pro­duc­tions was a nat­ur­al exten­sion of the phi­los­o­phy that the troupe was espous­ing. Key fig­ures in Russ­ian Jew­ish the­ater such as Alek­sei Gra­novsky and Solomon Mikoels felt that Chagall’s work, steeped in old world” Jew­ish tra­di­tion, cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion and lan­guage of every­day Jew­ish work­ers while founders of Habi­ma such as Natan Alt­man and its sup­port­ers viewed their pro­duc­tions as Zion­is­tic in approach. 

This his­tor­i­cal com­pi­la­tion includes intrigu­ing illus­tra­tions of stage sets, cos­tumes, and char­ac­ters which address the unflat­ter­ing, per­sist­ing stereo­types of Jew­ish peo­ple, the chang­ing of pol­i­cy under Stal­in as well as the strug­gle against the extin­guish­ment of cre­ative expres­sion in favor of freedom.

Mol­ly Beth Dubin received an M.A. in art his­to­ry and muse­um stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver. She is cul­tur­al arts direc­tor for the Har­ry & Rose Sam­son Fam­i­ly Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Milwaukee.

Discussion Questions

Like a comet shoot­ing across the sky and then dis­ap­pear­ing, a bril­liant new art school, formed by Marc Cha­gall, oper­at­ed in Rus­sia for four years, then dis­ap­peared, leav­ing behind its dreams of a new world order and art works to pro­claim it. After the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917, Jews for the first time received full Russ­ian cit­i­zen­ship. Soon after being named Com­mis­sar of Arts for the Viteb­sk region (in present-day Belarus), Cha­gall found­ed the People’s Art School there. Free and open to every­one, it was designed to help young peo­ple of the area gain an art edu­ca­tion. It went far beyond that goal: Cha­gall invit­ed the Russ­ian avant-garde artists El Lis­sitzky and Kaz­imir Male­vich to join him, and the small provin­cial school became a hotbed of rev­o­lu­tion­ary art. Cha­gall, Lis­sitzky, Male­vich, a cat­a­log of the exhi­bi­tion of that art work at the Jew­ish Muse­um, stuns with its paint­ings and draw­ings by those icon­ic Russ­ian fig­ures. Here is Chagall’s Onward, Onward,” a peon to the era’s opti­mism, show­ing a jump­ing man, legs span­ning the com­po­si­tion, as though bound­ing into a utopi­an future. Here also are the Supre­ma­tist works of Male­vich with their bold red and black geo­met­ric shapes, and Lissitzky’s graph­ic archi­tec­tur­al designs — paint­ings and draw­ings that reflect the excite­ment of an almost for­got­ten chap­ter in art history. 

The school closed in 1922, with Cha­gall hav­ing left and the oth­ers tak­ing on dif­fer­ent projects. By then, the Bol­she­viks had lost their enthu­si­asm for inno­va­tion. But as this book shows, its ground­break­ing art point­ed the way for gen­er­a­tions of artists who followed.