When Art Matters
A review of Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater.


Thomas S. Hibbs

An exhibit now on display in the new home of the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco focuses on the little-known and short-lived period just after the Russian Revolution during which Jewish theater flourished in Moscow. The exhibit — organized by the Jewish Museum of New York, under the direction of its senior curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman — is superb. Designed with exquisite care, it manages — through multiple media, from rare film footage of the plays to a reconstruction of Marc Chagalls celebrated theater murals — to transport viewers to a forgotten world. It highlights not just the astonishing talent of many Jewish artists of the time, but also the fertile intersection of art, politics, and religion at a time when greater artistic freedom for Jews gradually gave way to brutal suppression.

For many viewers, Marc Chagall, who was in Moscow for only a brief time — arriving in 1919 and leaving for Paris in 1922 — will be the draw to the exhibit, whose artistic centerpiece is the set of murals he designed for the Yiddish Chamber Theater, known as GOSET. The exhibit’s arrangement of the murals, which include the wall-length Introduction to the Jewish Theater, as well as murals on the topics Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, The Wedding Feast, and Love on the Stage, recreates for viewers Chagall’s intent that the theater itself be an enveloping work of art. These “box-auditorium” murals, which Chagall completed in a few feverish weeks of work, disappeared after 1937, only to reappear in the early 1970s, when Chagall returned to Moscow to sign them.

Viewers will gain a sense of the roots of Chagall’s own peculiar artistic sensibility — the odd mix of characters and scenes from Russian folk tales, Biblical stories, the circus, and the cabaret, all displayed in a topsy-turvy world, in which characters intersect the plane of the canvas at different angles and seem at times to hover in midair. Chagall was recruited as a set designer precisely because of his ability to present traditional stories in the avant-garde artistic styles of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism. And yet, as the great Chagall scholar Benjamin Harshav points out in an essay in the catalogue for the exhibit, the effect works in the opposite direction as well. Chagall transforms contemporary art, as “another language is superimposed upon the languages of avant-garde theater,” that of “a powerful, time-forged fictional universe.” The exhibit also contains a small but impressive collection of Chagall’s later work on the Jewish Bible, a book he considered the greatest source of poetry in human history.

The attention of the exhibit is not so much on Chagall himself as on the cultural world out of which he emerged and to which he contributed. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks approved legal status for Jews. This was not of course the advent of liberal democracy, but a strategic move intended to incorporate Jews into Russia. Still, there was in the short term a greater degree of freedom. The result was two theater companies. GOSET, for which Chagall worked and which had the sponsorship of the Jewish wing of the Communist party, lasted the longest, into the mid-20th century. The other, Habima, under the leadership of Evgeny Vakhtangov, wished to foster Zionism and held its performances in Hebrew. Its two most famous productions, covered in rich detail in the exhibit, were The Dybbuk and The Golem. Its productions were not well received by political authorities and the company left Moscow in 1926 to settle in Palestine, where it is now the national theater of Israel.

Concerning the political impact of Habima, Ala Zuskin-Perelman, daughter of GOSET actor Benjamin Zuskin, commented: “In a totalitarian state, theater is not merely a place for entertainment, but . . . a place in which a message can be sent out in a veiled language that one would not dare to write on paper or to speak out loud, for fear of the authorities.”

The Golem is an instructive example. It is a sort of Frankenstein story, featuring a rabbi who learns the ineffable name of God and uses it to make a creature out of clay to defend the Jewish people. But the creature turns on the people and has to be destroyed. The Golem thus depicts simultaneously the trials of the Jewish people awaiting a savior and the inevitable failure of totalitarianism, a political system created perhaps with good intentions but bound to backfire on its makers.

GOSET was known more for its stylistic experimentation. Its penchant for Expressionism is evident, not so much in the work of Chagall as in that of his formidable successor, Natan Altman, who in theater circles enjoyed greater fame than his predecessor. Altman’s costume designs, on ample display here, indicate the way in which he used distortion of perspective and vibrant color, not to manifest his own artistic skill but to underscore the social and moral differences in the characters. Also central to GOSET were the director Aleksei Granovsky and the actor Solomon Mikhoel. The former was known for the rhythm of “spots” that broke down the continuities of character and plot as if they were the subject matter of Analytic Cubist painting, while the latter was famous in Russian and Jewish circles long before his 1935 performance of King Lear earned him European fame, with some critics going to so far as to rank it among the best performances of the lead role ever.

Although GOSET lasted much longer than Habima, it too came into regular conflict with state authorities, a conflict that culminated with Stalin’s ordering of Mikhoel’s murder in 1948. The exhibit includes photographs of the crowds that gathered for his funeral and the partially crushed glasses he was wearing at the time of his murder. A sobering display indeed. Partly through a nicely constructed timeline, the exhibit reminds its viewers of the horrifying growth of anti-Semitism during the same period in the rest of Europe.

As our own art devolves further into either mere entertainment or feeble protest, it is good to be reminded not only of the horrors of the last century but also of the way in which art can matter — culturally, religiously, and politically. This exhibit is itself a work of creative ambition, one that fulfills the highest aspirations of art.


— Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.