Last year the Contemporary Jewish Museum opened with Daniel Libeskind’s bold elevated stainless steel cube in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena district, where it has mounted a series of pertinent exhibitions.
Currently “Chagall and the Artists of the Rusian Jewish Theatre” offers Marc Chagall’s stage work in the context of radical theatre of Russia during the hopeful days in the aftermath of the Revolution. Designers such as Natan Altman and Robert Falk took a holistic approach to set design as Konstantin Stanislavksy revolutionized the performance of actors. The exhibition provides stage and costume designs as well as films from Russian archives of the avant-garde Jewish theatre; the Habima performed in Hebrew and the Jewish State Theatre, for which Chagall worked, staged its plays in Yiddish.
Chagall had come back to Russia from Paris at the outbreak of World War I. In 1910 the talented young artist from the Shtetl (dimunative for Yiddish Shtot, derived from the German Stadt: City) had gone to Paris where, open to the art of the new, he learned about Cubism and assimilated the rigorous new style, innovated by Picasso and Barque, added color as Delaunay and Orphists were using and came back to Russia, where he saw the radical geometric work of Malevich and the Suprematists.
Chagall amalgamated these new artforms to which he added to his own experience of provincial Jewish life and his vivid imagination. In 1922 he produced remarkable murals, called Introduction to the Russian Theatre, which were painted in gouache and tempera on bedsheets and installed on the walls of the small theatre. They can be read from left to right (Russian) or right to left (Hebrew). Many of the figures of fiddlers, acrobats, and dancers are upside down. Chagall employed Suprematist squares and triangles to give a sense of anchorage to this topsy-turvy world. There are wondrous panels between the original windows, like the fiddler with the green face, who the artist recalled: “represents my Uncle Neuch, who played the violin like a cobbler.” The first version of this image, Green Violinist (1918) was painted in Paris and is now in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The murals are on loan from the Tretakov Gallery Moscow.
Less than 20 years later, in Germany the Nazis eradicated all indication of the Jews who had been living there since the early Middle Ages. Before the Enlightenment they had been segregated in ghettos (the word originated in Venice for the Jewish quarter there) with street names like “Judenstrasse” or “Judenweg.” Starting in 1938 the Nazis wiped out these street names. There was to be no memory of the presence of Jews. Then, after the occupying powers (American, British, French and Russian) clearly aware of the linguistic importance of naming and remembering, returned the original names of the streets as part of the De-Nazification process.
In 2003 the American artist Susan Hiller, living in Britain, produced “The J Street Project” to commemorate the eradication and the restoration of the historic names. In the exhibition we see a map of Germany indicating the 303 sites identified by Hiller. While a relatively large number of Jews were concentrated in cities like Berlin and Frankfurt, many resided in small towns and villages throughout the country. Hiller in her 303 photographs re-awakens an awareness of the presence of Jews who were such an essential part of German life and culture. An installation, video and performance artist, as well as a writer and photographer, Hiller has arranged the pigment printed photographs in a grid, giving it the appearance of a wall installation. Part of the exhibition is a 60-minute film, done with a camera which was held in place to record the life in these streets: we see people walking and shopping. There are cars, motorcycles, bicycles and children on roller skates. There is no narration but we hear the rumble of cars and the tolling of the church bells. The Jews don’t live here anymore, but the restored street names honor their former presence.
It would also be appropriate and healing if the Israelis would restore the Arab names of the Palestinian villages which have been eliminated.