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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘MOBIA’

Chagall’s Influence: Mystical Storytelling at MOBIA: Chagall and the Russian Jewish Theater

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling
Museum of Biblical Art    
1865 Broadway (at 61st Street)
New York City
Until January 18, 2009

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
New York City
Sunday – Wednesday 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
$12 adults; $10 senior citizens; $7.50 students
Children under 12 free
Until March 22, 2009

In 1931 Marc Chagall embarked on a series of etchings of the Bible that would become a pervasive, creative theme for the rest of his life. For all of his forays into the world of myth, shtetl fable and imagination, Chagall would always return to the Bible as a fundamental means of expression. He was commissioned by the legendary gallerist Ambrose Vollard (1865-1939) to begin a series of 105 black and white etchings on the Bible that were completed in 1939. Because of Vollard’s death, the war and Chagall’s exile in the United States, the complete black and white series was not printed until 1956. At that time, Chagall also hand-colored some editions of the Bible series.

The entire black and white series was printed again in 1956 in a special edition of Verve, the French arts journal. Additionally, this 1956 edition had 16 color lithographs of Biblical subjects by Chagall. A second Verve edition of Chagall’s Bible was published in 1960 with an additional 24 biblical color lithographs. We are extremely fortunate that this series of works – 55 hand-colored biblical etchings, 16 color lithographs (Verve 1) and 24 biblical color lithographs (Verve 2) – is on display at the Museum of Biblical Art until January 18, 2009.

Chagall’s interpretation of the Torah narratives is notable for their tenderness and insight into the complexities of human interaction as the Divine plan unfolds. His depiction of The Blessing of Jacob by Isaac from the first edition of hand-colored etchings is notable not only for the image of the aged, blind Isaac – seen here in profile as a shtetl sage – but also for the extended narrative that plays out in the background. Rebecca is peeping out from behind the kitchen table watching her plan unfold while in the distance she is seen again, perched atop a camel, echoing back to her first romantic encounter with Isaac – the very same husband she now conspires to deceive.



Jacob Blessed by Isaac, The Bible (1957) etching by Marc Chagall
Courtesy The Jewish Museum


Chagall’s sparing use of seemingly arbitrary color actually sets the mood for the tension and conflict implicit in the narrative. In image after image, his cautious introduction of color into the black and white compositions adds a subtle psychological layer to the narrative depicted. The distance between the sleeping Jacob and the angels is dramatically heightened, just as the distance between Potiphar’s wife and Joseph is collapsed – with his flight seen as hesitant and conditional.

While the 1956 Verve color lithographs develop a variety of themes using much of the same imagery that originated in the 1939 etchings, Chagall nonetheless exercises considerable liberty to manipulate the narratives in an even more Modernist direction. Moses Receiving the 10 Commandments feels liberated with the addition of color, the visage of Isaiah becomes an apparition of white on black and, finally, David Mourning Absalom almost merges the bereaved king with his slain son. The 1960 Verve edition unfortunately starts to lose focus, becoming more generalized renditions of biblical themes. Over all, this series of Biblical etching and lithographs spanning almost 30 years of Chagall’s creative life show the breadth and depth of Chagall’s commitment to the Torah as a primary subject.

* * * * *

It is especially interesting that just a bit uptown and across Central Park, the Jewish Museum has mounted “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater,” showing a totally different aspect of the master’s work. In one respect, Chagall’s influence seems limited to the famous murals he painted in 1920 for the lobby and auditorium of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater in Moscow. The six gouaches on canvas murals, painted in a frantic few weeks, were soon dubbed as “Chagall’s Box” because they created a unique visual environment, blurring the distinction between theater and reality. Though Chagall would leave Communist Russia in 1922 and not return until 1973, his stylistic influence was nonetheless greatly felt in much of the stage design for many years afterward.

This is one of the best exhibitions of the Jewish Museum in recent years. The show, along with its excellent catalogue, tells the amazing story of survival of Yiddish culture under Communist totalitarianism. Not unexpectedly, it is also a tale of tragedy. The exhibition opens with a portrait of Solomon Mikhoels by Natan Altman.  Mikhoels was a prominent Yiddish actor and from 1928, the head of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater until his murder by Stalin in 1948. The saga of this tireless advocate and actor to produce and create Yiddish culture weaves through this fascinating exhibition as a kind of moral undercurrent, transforming an extensive history of the time into a eulogy for a fallen hero.

In what was one of the most unlikely alliances, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 actually encouraged expressions of ethnic identity and quickly supported two Jewish theater groups, the Hebrew speaking Habima and the Yiddish language State Yiddish Chamber Theater (known as GOSEKT). They soon became the most visible Jewish presence in an intensively secularized Soviet Russia. Both theater groups were in Moscow and were regarded by the party leadership to be effective tools of Communist propaganda, although the exhibition makes it clear that more often than not, the fact that most party officials did not speak either Hebrew or Yiddish allowed considerable room for veiled political commentary and criticism of the increasingly oppressive regime.

Habima specialized in Jewish mystical and folkloric material that often depended on innovative costume and set design to carry much of the Hebrew narrative to a Russian- speaking audience. One of their signature plays, Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” (1914), was originally written in Russian, then translated by Ansky into Yiddish and finally translated by Chaim Nachman Bialik into Hebrew for Habima. Natan Altman designed the costumes in a Cubist/Futurist style, and the 300 productions in Russia featured a groundbreaking avant-garde Expressionist acting style – securing this play in the forefront of modern theater.



The Court of the Tzaddik (The Dybbuk) (1922) Photograph
Courtesy The Jewish Museum


Similarly Habima’s production of Leivich’s “The Golem” broke new ground for its combination of Jewish folklore and early 20th century science fiction. The Jewish audience that was literate in Hebrew saw the theme of the Golem – a “superman” turned monster – as a satirical symbol of the revolution gone sour, an interpretation missed by the party authorities.



The Fifth Tower (The Golem) (1925) Photograph
Courtesy The Jewish Museum


Eventually the increasingly oppressive government and the extremely limited Hebrew audience led Habima to defect and immigrate to Palestine in 1928 where after much searching, established itself as Israel’s national theater in 1958.

The Yiddish theater GOSEKT had a much longer and more influential history, miraculously lasting until the end of the Second World War and presumably acting as a beacon of hope of freedom to Russia’s millions of Yiddish-speaking and effectively enslaved Jews – especially as Stalin slowly closed down all synagogues, mikvehs, and Jewish schools.

The Jewish Museum documents the State Yiddish Chamber Theater’s impressive productions in set and costume design, posters and film clips by many artists, including Marc Chagall, Robert Falk, Natan Altman and Ignaty Nivinsky. The theater frequently explored radical and often forbidden themes, such as “God of Vengeance” (1928) by Sholem Asch that presented the connections between capitalism and decadence that descended into prostitution and lesbianism. Their production of “The Sorceress” by Avrom Goldfadn offered ultra-modern Constructivist design while exploring an eccentric vision of adventure, magic and sorcery.
A historical film clip from a performance of “The Sorceress” provides us with an example of the extremely stylized, Expressionistic gestures and stage setting that immediately evokes the monstrous fantasies of 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch, somehow blended with the whimsical shtetls of Marc Chagall.



Benjamin Zuskin as Soloveitchik the Matchmaker, from 200,000
Photograph courtesy The Jewish Museum


The narrative of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater from 1919-1935 is told through a presentation of their major productions, including An Evening of Sholem Aleichem, Agents, Mazel Tov, It’s a Lie, (all designed by Chagall), God of Vengeance, Uriel Acosta, The Sorceress, 200,000, Jewish Luck (film), At Night in the Old Marketplace, The Tenth Commandment and The Travels of Benjamin the Third – all of which had explicit Jewish content. Two other productions, Trouhadec and King Lear, were not specifically Jewish – although many saw Mikhoels’s brilliant depiction of King Lear as a thinly disguised critical portrait of Stalin himself.

Such creativity could not last under Stalin’s growing terror, and Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin’s agents in January 1948. Within two years, many of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater’s actors, designers and authors were arrested, the theater was closed and, finally, 13 leaders of the theater were executed in August 1952 in what has become known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Yiddish culture had been effectively crushed in Soviet Russia.

To witness, in this exhibition, the role of Yiddish culture as a vehicle of resistance and defiance is deeply moving. The courage and creativity these artists summoned, frequently using the tools of western Modernism, was nothing short of miraculous. And to see the powerful influence Marc Chagall had in many aspects of this struggle allows us to understand the diversity and creativity of his art. One hand firmly planted in the Torah and his Russian homeland, the other in the color and form of Modernism, Chagall shows us how much an artist can accomplish as long as he never forgets his Jewish roots.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Did Chagall Know Hebrew?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Chagall’s Bible: Mystical StorytellingThrough January 18, 2009The Museum of Biblical Art1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New Yorkhttp://www.mobia.org/



It’s almost impossible to discuss Jewish art without mentioning Marc Chagall. One of nine children, Chagall was born in Vitebsk (now Belarus), which had about 20,000 Jews. Many biographies of Chagall stress his cheder attendance, where one would assume the young Chagall would have learned Hebrew and probably a bit of Aramaic in classes devoted to studying the Talmud.

But as even a cursory examination of the works in the fantastic show “Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling” at the Museum of Biblical Art reveals, the painter of “The Praying Jew,” “Jew in Green,” and the monumental windows at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem was virtually illiterate in Hebrew. Despite designing sets for Sholem Aleichem, finishing more than 100 plates in a series of etchings on the bible, and completing several hundred other biblical works, the artist everyone thinks of as the foremost Jewish painter ought to be reevaluated.


Nowhere is Chagall’s bulky Hebrew more apparent than in his window dedicated to the tribe of Levi, the original lithograph of which hangs at the MOBIA show. The work is mostly yellow (perhaps celebrating the priests, who would wear golden garments while serving alongside the golden utensils of the Tabernacle and the Temple), and it depicts two birds and two animals, which could be either donkeys or lions, surrounding what appears to be a goblet holding fish. Above the menagerie, Chagall wrote Levi properly in Hebrew, and below he laid out a Shabbat table with candles, goblets, and perhaps even loaves of challah.



Marc Chagall, Levi


In the middle of the table, inscribed on the two tablets of the law, is Moses’ blessing of Levi from Deuteronomy 33:10. Just before he is to die, Moses prophecies of the tribe of Levi, “They shall teach Your law to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense in front of your nose, and a burnt offering on Your altar. G-d, bless his service, and accept the works of his hands; strike his enemies, so they will never rise again.” This blessing was a huge improvement on Jacob’s “blessing” of Levi in Genesis 49:5, where he called Levi (and Simeon) murderers who wield weapons of chaos (“hamas”), but in the hands of Chagall it becomes muddied.


Chagall’s first line is mostly correct, but on the second line, he confuses a vav with a yud in the word “Your Torah,” and instead of writing “to Israel” he writes “to G-d,” truncating the word and forgetting the second, third, and fourth letters. Needless to say, a text that says Levi teaches Torah to the tribes of Israel is quite different from one that boldly claims that Levi teaches G-d. On the next line, when intending to write “they shall place,” the artist mistakenly forms a mem like a tet, which considerably alters the meaning, and he misforms the last letter of “incense” and writes a kaf instead of a bet in front of the next word.

At this point, Chagall would surely have failed a middle school spelling exam, but he is just getting started. On the following line, he again confuses a mem and a tet, confuses the next letter (which is supposed to be a zayen), and swaps a kaf for both the next bet and the first letter of the next word. On the next line, Chagall’s errors yield, “G-d, bless my service” in the place of his “service” — which means Chagall’s blessing casts Moses as the recipient rather than Levi – and he forgets a vav (the preposition “and”) in front of chalil, burnt offering, and stops the sentence midway cutting out the line about smiting Levi’s enemies.



Marc Chagall, Issachar



In the window for Issachar, Chagall turns not to Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33:18, but to Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:14. Issachar’s window employs a mostly green palette, with red and blue highlights. The overall composition gives the appearance of a garden, wherein a rooster-like animal, several birds, snakes (perhaps Issachar’s brother Dan, who is described as a “snake upon the path” in Jacob’s blessing), and a donkey reside. Indeed, Jacob’s blessing declares Issachar to be “a donkey, who is weighed down by his burdens. And he saw that it was good to rest, and that the land was nice, and he turned his shoulder to withstand, and he became a slave to bearing.” Evidently depicting the Hebrew properly was too burdensome to Chagall, who again misrepresented a mem as a tet in the word “burdens,” and who confused a mem sofit with a samech in the second line. To his credit, Chagall spells Issachar’s name correctly (phonetically Issasschar), including the silent letter sin, but his other errors in the Issachar window include another confusion of a bet with a kaf.


Another of the lithographs included in the show – MOBIA has all 12, including another 100 etchings, lithographs, and oil paintings – is the window of the tribe of Reuven. For this window, Chagall again turned not to Moses’ blessing but to Jacob’s. Jacob’s blessing turned out to be more of a curse: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might,” he begins in Genesis 49:3. But then the blessing turns to constructive criticism: “excessive dignity and excessive power. As unstable as water, you will not withstand, because you went up on your father’s bed, then you defiled it.”

Chagall’s Reuven window is a deep blue, giving form to Jacob’s depression and disappointment in Reuven’s betrayal. Birds fly overhead, as fish swim below, in the unruly water that was Jacob’s metaphor for his son’s hotheadedness. And sure enough, Chagall manages to misspell Reuven’s name (he writes Reuchen), and to forget a yud in the second word, so instead of Jacob’s statement “Reuven, you are my firstborn,” Chagall’s window declares, “Reuchen, a firstborn you are.”



Marc Chagall, Reuven


 If not for Chagall’s incompetence with the other inscriptions, it would be tempting to applaud the painter for playing around with the text to further show Jacob distancing himself from his firstborn, whom he has passed over in favor of Judah, by saying Reuven is a firstborn, but not the firstborn. But Chagall has lost the right to the benefit of our doubt, especially as he misforms the letter aleph several times in the work. A painter who cannot even write an aleph surely did not get through many pages of the Talmud in school.


Being a Hebrew scholar is not a prerequisite to creating great art. Raphael produced fine works without knowing his aleph-bet, and El Greco worked splendidly without attending heder. My hope is not to mock Chagall or to discredit his works for their pseudo-Hebraic letters and poor transcription. In fact, Chagall ought to be applauded for creating such Jewish works, and for overpopulating them with Hebrew letters, the likes of which have hardly been seen since Rembrandt.

But it is also vital to study Chagall carefully and to examine his letters and words under the microscope even if he painted so many rabbis. Rembrandt’s Hebrew was not perfect, and neither is Chagall’s. Chagall’s resume makes a great claim for his being the quintessential Jewish artist, but maybe there ought to be an asterisk cautioning that he slept through Hebrew class.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2008/12/10/

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