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Jewish Avant-Garde. Chagall, Altman, Shterenberg, and Others

This spring’s central exhibition titled «Jewish Avant-Garde. Chagall, Altman, Shterenberg, and Others» is set to open at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. The show will trace the emergence and development of Jewish modernism as a trailblazing phenomenon in 20th-century art.

The exhibition explores one of the most dynamic periods in the culture of Russian Jews. The 1917 Revolution proclaimed the equality of all nations, which was followed by the abolition of residency restrictions for Jews that had been in force in the Russian Empire. As a result, dozens of talented Jewish artists and writers moved to Moscow and Petrograd, where they played a crucial role in shaping and advancing Soviet avant-garde. Thanks to newfound creative freedom, Jewish culture entered a period of unprecedented resurgence. Some of the finest Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Nathan Altman, Joseph Chaikov, Eliezer (El) Lissitzky, David Shterenberg, and other artists from various groups and movements made ingenious use of modernism’s innovations in their experiments as they sought to create «new Jewish art.»

The exhibition spotlights the evolution of the Jewish avant-garde in Russia — from revitalizing Jewish folk art, adapting its style for modern use, and reinventing its motifs to the avant-garde stage expressed in non-representational abstract forms.

National theaters, not least the Moscow State Jewish Chamber Theater (GOSET), were among the most important experimental platforms for the new art. Over the years, prominent cultural figures such as Abram Efros, Alexis Granowsky, Yehezkel Dobrushin, Solomon Mikhoels, and Marc Chagall worked for GOSET. According to many accounts, Chagall's theatrical compositions influenced not only the scenery of productions but also the performance of Jewish actors. Chagall’s series Introduction to the Jewish Theater, on display at the exhibition, is widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of his oeuvre. This section of the show will also include works by Alexander Tyshler and Mark Epstein, who collaborated with another avant-garde group — the Kultur Lige Theater Studio under the artistic direction of Ephroim Loiter.

Exhibitions of Jewish artists held in Moscow in 1917, 1918, and 1922 became important milestones in the history of the Jewish avant-garde. The show will feature a reconstruction of the 1922 Kultur Lige exhibition, which showcased works by Nathan Altman, Marc Chagall, and David Shterenberg. The curators of the new project consider that seminal exhibition to be the culmination of avant-garde experimentation both in these artists’ respective careers and the overall Jewish art movement.

A section of the exhibition is dedicated to the creative output produced by Jewish artists in the 1920s: from Alexander Labas’s original Cubist compositions, Alexander Tyshler’s color-dynamic constructions, Joseph Chaikov’s analytical sculpture, and El Lissitzky’s Suprematist Prouns (an acronym for «project for the affirmation of the new») to works made toward the end of the decade when avant-garde trends died down before Jewish art was eventually incorporated into the context of the new Soviet «grand style.»

The exhibition features more than 100 paintings and drawings by Marc Chagall, Nathan Altman, David Shterenberg, El Lissitzky, Robert Falk, Joseph Chaikov, Alexander Tyshler, Solomon Nikritin, Yakov Pain, Nisson Shifrin, Isaac Ber Ryback, and others.

The works on display at the show are on loan from the collections of some of Russia’s largest museums, including the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the Museum of the Jewish History in Russia, the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts, the Nizhny Tagil State Museum of Fine Arts, as well as from private collections.

Curated by: Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Maria Gadas, Svetlana Amosova 

Exhibition dates: March 5 – June 9, 2024