Marc Chagall, The Jewish Theatre

25th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Acclaimed Russian artist Marc Chagall is featured in a new exhibition at the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam.


Marc Chagall was born into a large Jewish family in the small town of Vitebsk, White Russia (now Belarus) in 1887. He studied art in St Petersburg before leaving for Paris in 1910 to pursue his artistic career.

A member of a group of predominantly Eastern European Jews known as the "Circle of Montparnasse", Chagall remained in the French capital for four years, returning to Russia in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One.

In the years following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Jewish culture experienced a Renaissance, during which time Chagall’s work flourished. He imbued his own delightfully imaginative style with the abstract forms of cubism and the colours of fauvism that he’d relished in Paris to produce a series of celebratory works vividly evoking the richness of rural Russian-Jewish culture.

In 1920 he was invited to design the décor and costumes for three one-act plays by the renowned Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem which were to be staged at the soon-to-be-opened Jewish Theatre in Moscow.

On his own initiative, Chagall decided to paint a series of murals for the theatre’s interior and, remarkably, in just over a month had created seven huge wall murals on canvas (one over eight metres wide). Each depict several characters who would recur throughout his later oeuvre and one painting, Music, featuring a green violinist, was the inspiration for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Sadly, to this day, both the stage curtain and a work on the ceiling of the theatre, also created by Chagall, remain "lost".

The small theatre, with its auditorium endearingly known as "Chagall’s Box", opened on New Year’s Day, 1921. However, following a quarrel with the plays’ director, Alexander Granovsky, Chagall never received any payment. And, increasingly disillusioned with the communist regime’s suppression of the arts, left the country in 1922. He didn’t return to Russia for over 50 years. 


In 1937, the same year that Chagall secured French citizenship, 59 of his works deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis were destroyed in Munich. Around the same time, during Stalin’s purging, his canvases were removed from the Moscow theatre for safe-keeping, emerging decades later across town at the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Ironically, in 1973 and now in his eighties, Chagall — once so vilified by Soviet leadership that books referred to him as a French artist — returned to his homeland at the invitation of the Russian Minister for Cultural Affairs. There he signed and dated the unrolled canvases brought out of storage, under the watchful eye of the KGB.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they were displayed for the first time outside Russia, exactly 70 years after the opening of the Jewish Theatre (which had been closed down in 1949 on government orders). And since that debut appearance in Switzerland, have been exhibited across the world in cities including Frankfurt, New York, Jerusalem, London and now Amsterdam.

Complementing the works at the Jewish Historic Museum is an intriguing series of preliminary studies made for the canvases, along with examples of work by the artists who influenced him, plus black and white photographs of early Russian plays showing sets and costumes he designed. Models of the interior of the Jewish Theatre show how the canvases were displayed – and for this exhibition are all hung in one room of the museum as they would have been in the theatre.

Additionally, three works dating 1912-13, bought by Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, are also on view: the internationally-acclaimed The Violinist (pictured), Self Portrait with Seven Fingers and Pregnancy.

In fact, it was at the Stedelijk Museum in 1914 that Chagall had his inaugural exhibition in the Netherlands and, in 1947, his first retrospective.

But the country has rarely mounted exhibitions of this world-famous Jewish artist since which makes this show unique.

The fascinating behind-the-scenes history of the canvases, along with the remarkable insight they offer into Chagall’s burgeoning visual language and unbridled passion for his Jewish identity, makes it even more extraordinary and compelling.

What: Marc Chagall, The Jewish Theatre
When: runs until 12 January 2003
Where: Joods Historisch Museum, Jonas Daniël Meijerplein 2-4, Amsterdam
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Pip Farquharson Subject: What's on

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