Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949: through paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater ephemera the exhibition brings to light an exhilarating moment in the history of the Soviet Union when innovative visual artists joined forces with avant-garde playwrights, actors, and theatrical producers. In a recent project, Susan Hiller researched every German street that has the prefix "Juden" (Jews) in its name. Theaters of Memory presents work by 8 artists who have addressed the histories surrounding the Second World War, the atrocities of genocide and mass destruction, and their attendant moral devastation. 1942 (Poznan) is a video by Uriel Orlow about one of the darkest periods in European history.
Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949
November 09, 2008 - March 22, 2009
The Jewish Museum is organizing the first exhibition devoted to the extraordinary artwork created for Russian Jewish theater productions in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition will bring to light a remarkable period in the early years of the Soviet Union when innovative visual artists, including Marc Chagall, Natan Altman, and Robert Falk joined forces with avant-garde playwrights, actors, and theatrical producers to create a theater experience with extraordinary mass appeal. Through paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater ephemera – many of which have never been exhibited before- Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949 will capture an exhilarating but fleeting moment in the cultural history of the Soviet Union.
In the new-found artistic freedom of the years following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Jewish theaters such as Habima and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (acronym, GOSET) became a catalyst for modernist experimentation, revolutionizing existing concepts of theater and scene design. Habima performed in Hebrew and its productions of Jewish mythical and folkloric plays were noted for their rich visual effects and their emotional intensity. GOSET, which performed in Yiddish, created daring productions of Yiddish dramas that enthralled audiences with a new expressionistic style of acting. Both groups embraced visual artists who created stage and costume designs combining Russian folk art elements with stylistic vocabularies of cubo-futurism and constructivism. This unusual combination of populist and high art sensibilities became extremely popular, attracting large audiences of both Jews and non-Jews and garnering international critical praise.
Among the highlights of The Jewish Museum’s exhibition will be Marc Chagall’s famous theater murals, created in 1920 for GOSET’s small Moscow theater. Chagall set a creative direction for the company: his influence was visible not only in stage sets, costumes and make-up, but even in the extreme stylization of the actors’ gestures. The murals -- Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, The Banquet, and Love on the Stage – will be presented at the Museum in the theatrical context for which they were created, marking the first time ever these works have been exhibited with this significant frame of reference. Other innovative art works by such masters as Robert Falk, Natan Altman, and Alexander Tyshler will bring renowned theatrical productions to life and illuminate the synthesis of the visual and the performing arts that defined Soviet Jewish theater in its golden age.
The exhibition will also trace the rise and fall of the relationship between the Soviet regime and Jewish theater. With Stalin’s rise to power, the regime grew increasingly harsh, first repressing the theaters and ultimately eradicating them. In the face of mounting pressure from the government, Habima left the Soviet Union for good in 1926, eventually settling in Palestine. GOSET managed to survive until 1948, when Solomon Mikhoels, its lead actor, was murdered by order of Stalin in what was officially described as an accident. The theater closed the following year and its extensive archive was nearly destroyed in a mysterious fire at the Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum in 1953.
Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949 is an international loan exhibition that will draw upon important collections in Russia, Israel and Europe. Many of the works have never been exhibited publicly before. Among these are costume and set designs from the collection of the Bakhrushin Theater Museum in Moscow, which houses works from the GOSET archive that were salvaged from the fire.
A delightful and informative Acoustiguide tour accompanies Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949. Visitors will be guided through the show by actor and director Liev Schreiber. Joining Mr. Schreiber on the audio tour are exhibition curator Susan Goodman; art historian Bella Meyer, a granddaughter of artist Marc Chagall; J. Hoberman, senior film critic of the Village Voice; and theater historian Robert Marx. Actors from The National Yiddish Theater - Folksbiene are heard throughout the Acoustiguide program in recorded excerpts of plays from the Russian Jewish theater.
Susan Hiller: The J. Street Project
November 09, 2008 - February 01, 2009
In 2002, Susan Hiller was invited to Berlin for an artist’s residency. Walking around the city, she was startled to encounter a street sign bearing the name Judenstrasse (Jews’ Street). She found the sign strangely ambiguous. It was meant to commemorate the Jewish community that once inhabited the area, but for Hiller it marked instead a history of discrimination and violence. She subsequently embarked on a three-year journey throughout Germany to discover, photograph, and film every street with the prefix Juden in its name. Her resulting work takes the form of a wall installation of 303 photographs, a corresponding map of Germany and list of street locations, a book, and a 67-minute video edited from hundreds of hours of footage.
“The Jews are gone,” Hiller has said, “but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.” These signs now function as inadequate memorials to the destroyed communities, marking locations dating back as far as the eleventh century where Jews had lived, sometimes completely segregated from public and municipal life. In 1938, the Nazis changed the names of all streets that referred to Jews. After World War II, many were changed back to their prewar names during the Allied program of de-Nazification, a name-restoring process that is ongoing. Perhaps the clearest reference to Germany’s troubled past can be seen in Hiller’s photograph taken in Berlin’s Spandau borough. Under a Judenstrasse sign, another sign denotes the street’s Nazi era name, Kinkelstrasse, which was inspired by a nineteenth-century German writer whose nationalist beliefs the Nazis admired. The decision to restore the name to Judenstrasse in 2002 came after much heated local debate. In the photograph a red slash mars the Kinkelstrasse sign.
The artist has said that her use of “J. Street” recalls, with bitter irony, the loss of Jewish communities by using the type of classification terminology that the Nazis employed to destructive ends. The work’s title suggests the dangers of reducing individuals and groups to an abstract bureaucratic code. By probing the tension between past and present, Hiller has said that she hopes “the work will provide an opportunity for meditation not only on this incurable, traumatic absence, but also on the causes of more recent attempts to destroy minority cultures and erase their presence.” In the wake of genocide and ethnic violence in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur, Hiller’s work has a tragic relevance to present-day world affairs.
Theaters of Memory: Art and the Holocaust
November 09, 2008 - February 01, 2009
Theaters of Memory presents eight artists whose work relates to the histories surrounding World War II, the atrocities of genocide and mass destruction, and their attendant moral devastation. Making art about the Holocaust has long been considered problematic, even taboo. Shortly after the war, philosophers such as Theodor Adorno warned that to make art faced with the horror of Auschwitz was morally suspect; the existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre cautioned that artists must be conscious of adopting an approach commensurate with such a tragic subject. Several decades later, in 1978, a popular television mini-series catapulted the Holocaust into popular consciousness and inspired a wave of research while providing major impetus for a popular pedagogy that continues today.
Given initial reticence in dealing with the subject in art, it is all the more fascinating that the works on view, made between 1975 and 2007, take highly theatrical approaches towards this demoralizing history. George Segal's Holocaust (1982) transforms the heartrending photographic documents of piled corpses found immediately after the liberation into an epic sculptural monument. The artist offers a lifesize mise-en-scène in which his characteristic plaster casts produce an impassive solemnity. The other works in this exhibition all bear elements of the theatrical or vestiges of the performative: the tenderly choreographed performances of Eleanor Antin’s Vilna Nights; the intense lighting in Christian Boltanski’s Monument (Odessa); the eerie stage set of Tadeusz Kantor’s The Desk; Fabio Mauri’s props for a performance; and the operatic scale and dramatic brushwork of Anselm Kiefer’s Die Himmelspaläste (The Heavenly Palaces). Matthew Buckingham’s two-screen projection is a contemporary cinematic backdrop for the personal recollections of a refugee from Nazi Germany. Through their theatrical nature and performative strategies, these works engage historical tragedy with dramatic immediacy and visceral impact.
1942 (Poznan): A Video by Uriel Orlow
November 09, 2008 - February 01, 2009
1942 (Poznan) memorializes a place, a people, and one of the darkest periods in European history. Orlow conceived the work in 1995 on a visit to Central Europe to trace his family roots. While in Szeged, Hungary the artist met a former cantor and one of the few Holocaust survivors alive in the community. In the Szeged synagogue, Orlow recorded the cantor singing Av Harakhamim (Merciful Father), a memorial prayer written in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, after Crusaders destroyed Ashkenazi communities around the Rhine River. This mournful recording is the soundtrack for Orlow’s video, shot in Poland the following year.
The video begins with an abstract close-up of a tiled floor. The camera rises to reveal an indoor pool with a lone swimmer in slow motion, the building’s vaulted ceiling, and other architectural elements. The soulful chanting provides a clue that the space is a former synagogue that German army officials converted into a swimming pool in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Orlow positions his lens directly in front of what was once the synagogue pulpit facing east toward Jerusalem. The artist has stated, “I think there is something poignant about how…this place for sport, grooming, and the cult of the body replaced a religious edifice under the Nazi regime. The water itself can be seen as purifying, yet at the same time, it inhabits this space in a very uneasy way.”
Orlow's video provocatively reflects on the use of former Jewish sites destroyed by Nazism and forgotten under Communism. When the artist first encountered the building in Poznan, he found a small outdoor plaque that stated, “Until 1942 this place was used as a house of worship.” While the pool is still currently in use, activists are seeking to convert the site into a forum to promote dialogue and tolerance, as well as to restore space for religious services.
Born in Switzerland in 1973, Uriel Orlow works in London and Zurich. Recent exhibitions and screenings include the Third Guangzhou Triennial (Guangdong Museum of Art, China), Tate Modern, Whitechapel Gallery (London), British Film Institute Southbank, Videonale (Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) London. In 2008 he won a prestigious Swiss Art Award at Art Basel. The Jewish Museum exhibition of 1942 (Poznan) represents the artist’s North American debut.
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street - New York