Skip Navigation

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949

November 09, 2008 - March 22, 2009


...a fascinating tale of two vanguard theater companies...
The New York Times

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.

Nivinsky: Fish (Costume design for The Golem), 1925In the new-found artistic freedom of the years following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Jewish theater companies 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 Theatre - Folksbiene are heard throughout the Acoustiguide program in recorded excerpts of plays from the Russian Jewish theater.

The Theater Companies >
The Plays >
Listen >
Online Tour >

...a fascinating tale of two vanguard theater companies...
The New York Times

Audio Guide: $5, Sunday - Thursday
Narrator: Actor Liev Schreiber
Excerpt: Liev Schreiber and Bella Mayer, Chagall's grand-daughter, discuss the Chagall murals for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.
listen / download

Admission Tickets: $12 Adults; $10 Seniors/over 65; $7.50 Students; Free Children under 12; Free Jewish Museum Members; and Free Saturdays.
Tickets are valid only for the day purchased. A $2.00 service charge is applied to each ticket.

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater catalogueExhibition Catalogue
Exhibition Products

Watch an overview of the exhibition by Art Navigator (RTVi) in Russian

large print verbal imaging tours assistive listening sign language interpreted tours

Related Links
Jewish Theater under Stalinism:
Moscow State Jewish Theatre (GOSET)

The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin: A tragedy in five acts
Back to The Travels of Benjamin The Third

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene


Natan Altman
Poster for Jewish Luck, 1925
Printed on paper
40 x 28 in. (100 x 71.5 cm)
Collection of Merrill C. Berman, Rye, New York
Art © Estate of Natan Altman/RAO, Moscow/VAGA, New York

Ignaty Nivinsky
Golem(Costume for The Golem), 1925
Pencil and tempera on cardboard
18 5/8 x 13 1/2 in. (47.2 x 34.2 cm)
© Federal State Institution of Culture "A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum", Moscow

Isaac Rabinovich
Detail of Costume Designs for The Sorceress, 1922
Pencil, crayon, ink, and oil on paper mounted on cardboard
15 3/4 x 37 5/8 in. (40 x 95.5 cm)
© Federal State Institution of Culture "A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum", Moscow

Ignaty Nivinsky
Fish (Dag) (Costume for The Golem), 1925
Pencil, gouache, and watercolor on cardboard
18 1/2 x 13 in. (46.8 x 32.9 cm)
© Federal State Institution of Culture "A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum", Moscow

Film excerpt: excerpt from Balancing Acts: a Jewish Theater in the Soviet Union
A film by Sam Ball, Kate Stilley and William Susman
Produced by Citizen Film, Inc. in association with The Jewish Museum, New York
Major support provided by
Richard and Joan Scheuer
Bonnie and Marty Tenenbaum

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater 1919-1949 was made possible by a leadership gift from Sammy and Aviva Ofer.

Major funding was provided by the David Berg Foundation, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, the Skirball Foundation, the Kanbar Charitable Trust, and The Blavatnik Family Foundation.

Generous support was also provided by the S.H. and Helen R. Scheuer Family Foundation, the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Karma Foundation, and other donors.

The catalogue was funded through the Dorot Foundation publications endowment.

Programs for Russian visitors made possible by Genesis Philanthropy Group.
Genesis Philanthropy Group logo

The audio guide is made possible by bloomberg
This tour component is produced by The Jewish Museum in association with Acoustiguide.

Online Feature text is drawn from the exhibition catalogue Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, edited by Susan Tumarkin Goodman and published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press.


See also

Visit us

The Jewish Museum

1109 5th Ave at 92nd St

New York, NY 10128

Opening hours