Marc Chagall and Jewish Theater, Part One

Marc Chagall in Moscow

The Murals for the Jewish Theater

To the end of his life, Marc Chagall remained circumspect about his ouster from the People’s Art School in Vitebsk. And the coup against the artist was no small event. Chagall had been appointed by none other than the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933), an old friend from their days in Paris, living in the artists’ building, known as La Ruche. Moe than the friendly connection with the new government, there was the symbolic gesture of Lunacharsky appointing a Jewish head of an art school for the people, indicating the end of the Pale of the Settlement, or the erasure of the line that had kept Jews cordoned off and separated from non-Jewish Russians since 1791. Under Catherine the Great and Alexander II, areas beyond the original borders of Russia had been annexed, especially Poland, which continued a large number of Jews. The “Pale of the Settlement,” a phase coined by Nicholas I, scooped up, so to speak, much of this new population, which was subject to restrictions on their movements. For the most part, these restrictions were to eliminate economic competition from Jews and the travel restrictions were based upon a policy of restricting the comings and goings of Russians in general. After centuries, suddenly, in 1917, all Russians were equal, opening unimaginable vistas for Jews who were filled with hope for the future. Therefore, to remove a friend of Lunacharsky and a Jewish artist over aesthetic differences could have been a dangerous move for Chagall’s “enemies,” Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. But, Chagall, embittered, removed himself from the unpleasant situation and left Vitebsk for Moscow and a new project. Writing sadly about these difficult days, the artist later wrote sadly,

I would not be surprised if, after such a long absence, my town effaced all traces of me and would no longer remember him who, laying down his own brush, tormented himself, suffered and gave himself the trouble of implanting Art there, who dreamed of transforming the ordinary houses into museum and the ordinary habitants into creative people. And I understood then that no man is a prophet in his own country. I left for Moscow.”

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Marc Chagall. The Fiddler (1912)

Chagall walked into a pause in the historical Russian penchant for anti-Semitism. For the Russians, the war had just ended but during the Great War, local prejudices against Jews ran high. Over six hundred thousand Jews were ousted from their homes by the army and the historical pograms led by Cossacks increased–all because Jews were being scapegoated and blamed for the military’s difficulties with the Germans. But after the War, the government policy towards Jews changed abruptly. The significance of the sudden surge or influx of Jewish culture into the mainstream of Russian society rests upon political changes that went beyond the Revolution itself. When one looks at a list of prominent Bolshevik leaders of the October Revolution, it become clear that the majority were Jewish. According to Mark Weber’s article “The Jewish Role in the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s Early Soviet Regime,”

With the notable exception of Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov), most of the leading Communists who took control of Russia in 1917-20 were Jews. Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein) headed the Red Army and, for a time, was chief of Soviet foreign affairs. Yakov Sverdlov (Solomon) was both the Bolshevik party’s executive secretary and — as chairman of the Central Executive Committee — head of the Soviet government. Grigori Zinoviev (Radomyslsky) headed the Communist International (Comintern), the central agency for spreading revolution in foreign countries. Other prominent Jews included press commissar Karl Radek (Sobelsohn), foreign affairs commissar Maxim Litvinov (Wallach), Lev Kamenev (Rosenfeld) and Moisei Uritsky. Lenin himself was of mostly Russian and Kalmuck ancestry, but he was also one-quarter Jewish. His maternal grandfather, Israel (Alexander) Blank, was a Ukrainian Jew who was later baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. A thorough-going internationalist, Lenin viewed ethnic or cultural loyalties with contempt. He had little regard for his own countrymen. “An intelligent Russian,” he once remarked, “is almost always a Jew or someone with Jewish blood in his veins.”

According to Weber, over time, when anti-Semitism inevitably returned to this land of the pograms, this early history of active Jewish participation in the Revolution was obscured. But at the time, outside observers such as Winston Churchill were well aware of the role played by Jewish revolutionary leaders. “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders. Thus Tchitcherin, a pure Russian, is eclipsed by his nominal subordinate, Litvinoff, and the influence of Russians like Bukharin or Lunacharski cannot be compared with the power of Trotsky, or of Zinovieff, the Dictator of the Red Citadel (Petrograd), or of Krassin or Radek — all Jews,” Churchill said–and his observations were not necessarily positive.

An anti-Semitic caricature of Trotsky which portrays the revolut

The most famous member of the inner circle was Leon Trotsky, targeted by an anti-Semitic cartoon from the White Army

This connection between Jews and Communism or leftism or revolutions was made by others, thus linking Bolshevikism with the Jews, with what would be tragic consequences. Rival factions in the Soviet Union were resentful of the sudden favoritism, and perhaps most unexpectedly, the ranks of the secret police were filled with Jews, also certain to former more discontent. However, in 1920, when Marc Chagall arrived in Moscow, he was part of a vanguard that would attempt to knit the Yiddish culture into Russia, an empire that once kept Jews within the Pale. Once the Jews became full citizens and were granted their rights as citizens of the Provisional Government, the explosion of Jewish culture was immediate. As Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, written by Kenneth B. Moss, explained,

Most Jews in Russia and Ukraine no doubt spent the years of the Revolution and Civil War merely struggling to survive, like most of their countrymen. But a disproportionately large minority participated in Revolutionary Russia’s tumultuous political life.Most famously, many played important roles across the spectrum of Russian radical and liberal politics..Yet for a significant cohort of intellectuals, writers, artists, patrons, publicists, teachers, activists embedded in this national intelligentsia, February also bore a second imperative..some o Russian Jewelry’s most talented men and women also threw themselves into efforts of unprecedented scale and intensity to crate what they called a “new Jewish culture.”Between February 1917 and the consolidation of Bolshevik power in 1919-1920, European Russia and Ukraine became the sites of the most ambitious programs of Jewish cultural formation that Eastern Europe had yet seen or indeed would see again.

This Yiddish culture that Chagall would animate and illustrate in the Moscow theater, the Yiddish Chamber Theater, was a folk, rather than an elite, culture. Based upon a distinctive language, Yiddish, that emerged around 1000 CE, emanating from the Ashkenazic Jews or the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, clustered in large numbers in the Russian Empire by the beginning of the twentieth century. This hybrid language, a mixture of Medieval German and Hebrew, was used exclusively by the Jews of this part of Europe. Jews from the Western nations, such as Germany, could understand smatterings of this very old language but, for Gentiles, the words would be impossible to comprehend. This point is important because the Jewish Theater, moved from Petrograd to Moscow by Lunacharsky, was intended to not just preserve and formalize a part of Russian society, previously excluded, the productions also had to be integrated and assimilated by a non-Jewish audience. For this audience, the task of interpretation was made easier by the fact that the performances were pantomime like. Given that the reception of these Yiddish literary creations would be directed to a mixed audience, the images created by Chagall had to the iconic but not stereotypical and instantly recognizable as paradigm figures of Jewish culture.

When the theater was transferred to Moscow, its name changed slightly, and, indeed, would change off and on until it was extinguished in 1949. In Chagall’s time the theater, which was unexpectedly avant-garde and experimental, was called State Yiddish Chamber Theater or GOSEKT. Under the leadership of Alexei Granovsky, the Theater in Petrograd came into being before the Revolution, the presentations were very sophisticated, devoid of kitsch and imbued with the influence of the German theater director and producer, Max Reinhardt (Maximilian Goldmann), an Austrian who worked in Berlin and reformed the naturalism of the turn of the century into a self-conscious total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk. As Curt Levient wrote, “Granovsky had trained in Berlin with legendary director Max Reinhardt and developed a vision of theater that melded acting, set design, costumes, lighting, music, dance, movement, and gesture — even silence — into an organic whole.” In his important book on The Moscow Yiddish Theater: Art on Stage in Time of Revolution, Benjamin Harshav noted that Granovsky was persuaded by theater critic, Abram Efros, to ask the distinguished artist to paint the back drops. The “theater” was actually a confiscated home of a wealthy merchant who had fled the Bolshevik distaste for the moneyed class. The site of the actual performance was small, holding less that a hundred people who were lucky enough to enjoy the remarkable combination of Marc Chagall and Sholem Aleichem, whose play would be the inaugural production.

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Recreation of Chagall’s Box: the Back Wall and Frieze

Working with a young group of players, none over the age of twenty-seven, Chagall had a unique opportunity in a nation at a new starting point to reset the conventions for theater, a desire he shared with Granovsky, to drag theater into the twentieth century. More than that, according to the 1993 catalogue from the Guggenheim Museum on the work of Chagall for GOSEKT (or GOSET), “Chagall presented a unique, and uniquely Jewish, approach. Through specifically Jewish visual puns, Yiddish inscriptions, and references to the festivities of Jewish weddings and Purim — a Jewish analogue to carnival in its emphasis on ludicrous masquerades and outrageous intoxication — he posited a distinctive model for the Jewish Theater.” For this occasion, Chagall produced what would later be called “Chagall’s Box,” murals which bound the theatrical world inhabited by his sets and costumes. The main set piece was a twenty-sux foot mural on the left wall, “Introduction to the Jewish Theater,” that formed the main backdrop for the three one act plays. He also painted four panels, representing the arts, placed between the windows opposite. Leaving no surface untouched, Chagall painted a frieze and the ceiling and then produced a mural called “Love on the Stage” for the back of the “theater.”

The production was so elaborate and the costumes of painted rags and dotted face make up so Chagall specific, Granovsky accepted the unique contribution but did not invite the artist and his complex and expensive schemes and motifs to do another production. And yet, the spell of Chagall lived on and subsequent set designers were impacted by his unbridled imagination that activated a magical Yiddish cast of characters. The artist was inspired by the nineteenth century authors who created Yiddish literature, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsch, who wrote under the nom de plume, Mendele Moykher Sforim, often referred to as “Mendele,” and Yitzhak Leib Peretz, both of whom elevated and incorporated a folk culture into high literature. The writer whose stories were featured in the 1921 production designed by Chagall is perhaps the most famous, Solomon Rabinovitch, who also wrote under a name other than his own, Sholem Aleichem, which is a play on an old Yiddish greeting of “peace be upon you.” On the evening of January 1st of 1921, “Evening of Sholom-Aleihem” presented two one act plays, “Agentn (Agents)” and “Mazltov,” word that needs on translation.

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Set for Mazltov

The plays may have been classic Yiddish literature but the action was totally avant-garde, based upon Granovsky’s idea that theater began in silence and a dark room and that the actors emerged in and out of the dream space. The actors were directed or guided, as it were by a “system of dots,” something like pantomime, in which the actors would freeze and pose in place, following “an assembly of dots,” as Abram Efros put it. In other words, theater was de-naturalized and flattened with the actual actors mimicking the painted figures of Chagall, binding the surrounding “Chagall Box” to the audience and to the actors, negating the theatrical stage and turning it into a dark non-space from which characters emerged as if from a canvas, becoming the artist’s creations.

The next post will discuss the famous murals, displayed until 1925 and hidden away for another five decades.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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