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Russian Jewish Theater with a Side of Chagall

Last week we attended the much-anticipated opening reception for the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s latest exhibit, “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater (1919-1949).” The first exhibition devoted to the artwork created for Russian Jewish Theater productions in the 1920s and 1930s, the show presents a discourse about the interplay between innovative visual artists and playwrights of the times. But the title is misleading.

Naturally, we expected Chagall to be the centerpiece, with all theater aspects focused around the life and work of the iconic artist. What we saw instead was a vast mix of more than 200 artworks including theater posters, miniature set reproductions, photographs, sketches and material never before exhibited, that tell in great detail the little-known and turbulent history of the Russian Jewish Theater through such masters as Natan Altman, Robert Falk, Ignaty Nivinsky, Marc Chagall and Aleksandr Tyshler. Drawing on elements of Russian folk art combined with such styles as Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism and Expressionism, these collaborations attracted large audiences of both Jews and non-Jews, garnering widespread international critical praise.

A fascinating display of the theater’s history, the exhibit is organized by play, which aids the viewer’s understanding of key players and sequence of events. Chagall’s work does not enter the scene until about a quarter of the way through, at which point the artist’s theater murals are revealed for the first time in the theatrical context for which they were originally created.

Our advice—allot at least a few hours to peruse the exhibit and start by reviewing the timeline about three-quarters of the way through the show. It may seem like a boring way to begin, but putting the content of the various works in a greater historical context will help you digest the dense details provided about the Russian Jewish Theater.

If you’re so inclined, we recommend the audio tour guided by actor and director, Liev Schreiber; senior curator at the museum, Susan Goodman; theater historian, Robert Marx; art historian, Bella Mayer (a granddaughter of Marc Chagall); and senior film critic of the Village Voice who is an expert on Yiddish film, J. Hoberman.

Did I miss the point of the show? Let us know your thoughts on the exhibit, which runs through September 7.

Check out photos from the Opening Night Reception.