Plan your visit to The CJM!

Jewish Culture & IdeasFilm & VideoArchitecture & DesignPop CulturePhotographyMusic

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

Apr 23, 2009–Sep 7, 2009

Organized by the The Jewish Museum, New York, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater1919–1949 is the first exhibition devoted to the extraordinary artwork created for Russian Jewish theater productions in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition brings 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 captures an exhilarating but fleeting moment in the cultural history of the Soviet Union. 


During the artistic ferment following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, major artists joined actors, choreographers, writers, and musicians in creating a daring new theater. This collaboration gave rise to extraordinary productions with highly original stage designs that redefined the concept of theater itself, attracting large, diverse audiences and garnering international critical praise. In Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919–1949, The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) tells the little-known and tumultuous story of this vanguard artistic flowering, which thrived on the stage for thirty years before being brutally extinguished during the Stalinist era.

More than 200 works of art and ephemera, the majority of which have never before been exhibited, have been drawn from collections in Russia, France, Israel, and the United States for the showing. Marc Chagall’s celebrated theater murals—Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, The Wedding Feast, and Love on the Stage—are featured, in addition to more than 100 watercolor, gouache and crayon drawings of costume and set designs, executed in the avant-garde styles of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism by such artists as Natan Altman, Robert Falk, Ignaty Nivinsky, Isaac Rabinovich, and Aleksandr Tyshler.

Rare film footage of early performances transports viewers back to another time. Fascinating archival materials such as music, posters, prints, programs, and period photographs of productions and actors in character help recapture extraordinary theatrical moments. A number of items in the exhibition survived a 1953 blaze at Moscow’s Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum, the premiere repository for archives of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET), and a major lender to the exhibition. The fire, of unknown origin, is now widely believed to have been an attempt by the Soviets to stamp out the legacy of the Russian Jewish theater.

Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919–1949, was organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, Senior Curator at The Jewish Museum, New York. Before traveling to The CJM, this exhibition was on view at The Jewish Museum in New York from Nov 9, 2008–Mar 22, 2009. 

chagall in the bay area

In conjunction with The CJM's exhibition Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, an exciting group of works by artist Marc Chagall from public and private collections from around the Bay Area will also be on view. Chagall in the Bay Area highlights different stages of the artist’s long and prolific career and includes significant paintings, prints, and works on paper. At the center of this exhibition are Chagall’s signature images of lovers floating in the night sky. While these works show the surrealistic and whimsical side of the artist, his Bible series are quite realistic, demonstrating his deep understanding of the Jewish bible. Also on view is a group of etchings from “My Life” (Mein Leben). Completed in 1923 in Moscow, when the artist was thirty-five, these charming autobiographical works are Chagall’s visual recollections of Jewish life in his hometown of Vitebsk, Belarus. The works on view have been loaned from private collections and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Magnes Museum, and the UC Berkeley Art Museum.


Marc Chagall, Le Coq aux amoureux (Rooster with Lovers), 1947-1950, oil on canvas, 27 ¾ x 34 3/8 inches, Collection of Richard N. Goldman and Lisa and Douglas E. Goldman.

exhibition catalog

The accompanying 240-page catalog, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, and edited by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, features 230 illustrations (146 color and 84 black and white images), most never before published, and includes five essays by leading scholars in the field.


On Aug 27, 2009, Mel Gordon, Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed how the Russian Jewish theater adopted Chagall's vision—literally and figuratively—for its groundbreaking productions.

the theater companies

The Jewish theater movement in Russia was represented by two companies based in Moscow with very different approaches. Habima’s productions, performed in Hebrew, emphasized the ideas of Zionism and Jewish national rebirth. Soviet ideologues soon deemed the theater’s policies at odds with socialist ideals. In 1926, Habima left the Soviet Union to settle in Palestine, eventually becoming Israel’s national theater. 

In contrast to Habima, GOSET, which performed in Yiddish, presented daring expressionistic dramas.  With its innovative blending of Jewish folklore and literature, Constructivist-inspired sets, and expressionist acting techniques, GOSET was wildly popular with Jews and non-Jews alike.


Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919–1949 was organized by The Jewish Museum, New York and made possible by a leadership gift from Sammy and Aviva Ofer.

The CJM's presentation is made possible by a lead grant from The Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and presented by Bank of America, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and Ruthellen and Monte Toole with additional support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, Osterweis Capital Management, Naomi and Jeffrey Caspe, Helen Diller Family Foundation, Anita Friedman and Igor Tartakovsky, Gaia Fund, Rosanne and Al Levitt, Danna and Alex Slusky, Ruth and Alan Stein, Sue and Michael Steinberg, Anita and Ron Wornick, Bloomingdale's and the Consulate General of Russia–San Francisco. Lead Inaugural Year Exhibition Support is by the Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation. Media Sponsorship by KGO-TV.

Image Credit

Introduction to the Jewish Theater, 1920, tempera, gouache, and opaque white on canvas. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.