Chagall in Moscow

Elena Dmitrievna Tolstaya

Rounded Globe


Chagall’s “Irish” Sketch
Sergei Esenin
The Word of Honor
Aleksei Dikii and Jewish Connotations
Futurism Old and New
Chagall on his Moscow Quarrels: the “Irish” sketch...
... and the Quarrel with Vakhtangov
How Chagall hid his Sketches
“Oriental Chaos”
About the Author


Chagall came to Moscow in June 1920, where he worked in the theater. Two years later, in June 1922, and after a series of conflicts, the artist left Russia forever, first travelling to Berlin and then settling in Paris.

The purpose of this essay is to reexamine our knowledge of Chagall’s two years in Moscow in order to understand why, in spite of his obviously high professional status, his very promising start, and the highly favorable attitude of the Revolutionary authorities, he did not find his place in Jewish or Russian theater nor, more generally, in Moscow’s artistic life.

Before focusing on the Moscow episodes let’s take a general look at the artist’s biography. Chagall was an art student in Petersburg in 1907-1910, after which he went to Paris, where he became famous within the avant-garde art scene. In summer 1914 he vacationed in his native Vitebsk, where he was caught up by the war. He did military service as a clerk in Petrograd (the name of the city having been changed after the outbreak of World War I). He then enjoyed triumph after triumph at art exhibitions in Russia and was one of the organizers of the Society for Jewish Art in Petrograd.1 From August 1918 he served as a plenipotentiary (commissar) for visual arts in the Vitebsk region, the mandates for which came from the Commissar of People’s Education, Anatolii Lunacharsky. While serving as art commissar, Chagall had a chance to try his hand as a theater artist at Terevsat (an abbreviation of the Theater of Revolutionary Satire). Petrograd theater director, Aleksei Granovsky, invited him to join his newly formed Jewish studio, then on tour in Vitebsk; but Chagall was then occupied with his own projects.

Together with his colleagues El Lisitzky and Malevich, Chagall initiated a number of avant-garde art projects, the best known of which was the design of a daring street décor transforming Vitebsk for the first anniversary of the October Revolution. The three also founded and headed a people’s art college. A contemporary illustrated Chagall’s activities in Vitebsk as follows: “A banner waved above the school depicting a man on a green horse and the inscription: ‘Chagall—to Vitebsk!’”2 Yet Chagall categorically objected to academic routine, as well as to realism and psychologism in painting. Nevertheless, and unlike Malevich, who preached the purely abstract minimalism of “Suprematism” as an “affirmation of things new”, Chagall believed in preserving some forms of representation. Following an open conflict with Malevich, Chagall was ousted from his Vitebsk projects as “not revolutionary enough”, leaving Suprematism reigning supreme in the art school.

In June 1920 Chagall left for Moscow, where he taught literature and drawing at the Jewish orphanage in the suburban village of Malakhovka. Meanwhile, the studio founded by Granovsky had received state support and was invited to move to Moscow, where it merged with a small local Jewish studio and became the Jewish State Chamber Theater. Acting on the advice of an influential art critic, Abram Efros, Granovsky asked Chagall to make the décor for their first production, which was based on three Sholom Aleichem one-act plays.3 In November-December 1920 Chagall, in addition to the décor and the costumes, covered the walls of the new theater with murals on the theme of Jewish theater—universally deemed his masterpiece.

But Chagall did not see eye to eye with Granovsky, a pupil of the German naturalist director Max Rheinhardt, famous for the meticulous verisimilitude of his productions. Chagall associated naturalism with Stanislavsky and the Art Theater (which in its formative years was influenced by Rheinhardt). Since 1906, Russian Symbolist experimental theater had rebelled against Stanislavsky’s naturalism.4 On his return to wartime Petrograd, Chagall had joined the Petrograd avant-garde artistic scene, spending time at the legendary artistic cabarets The Stray Dog and the Comedians’ Refuge, for which he designed the décor.5 No wonder that now, working at Granovsky’s theater in Moscow, he wanted “to turn upside down the old Jewish theater with all this realism, naturalism, psychologism, and pasted-on beards”.6 His way of fighting the hated “realism” was to cover every prop and piece of cloth in the scene with his paintings. Inevitably, a quarrel flared up with Granovsky, who hung an unpainted towel on the scene. Chagall was replaced by Nathan Altman as the theater’s artist.7 Efros would later insist that Chagall had no theater blood: he thought in two dimensions and had no feeling for theatrical space.8 Yet as time went by it became increasingly clear that Chagall’s style had established a new paradigm for Jewish theater.


Following his altercation with Granovsky, Chagall was invited to design the scenery for a production of An-sky’s The Dybbuk at Habima, the new Moscow Jewish theater. Habima (“scene” in Hebrew) was an amateur troupe formed in Poland in the late 1910s by a group of young enthusiasts who performed in Hebrew. Initially headed by the actor Nachum Zemach (1887-1939), Habima travelled to Moscow in 1918, where Stanislavsky took it under his wing and placed his former pupil, director Evgenii Vakhtangov, in charge.9 Vakhtangov had already acted and directed plays at the First and Third Studios, and Habima now became the fourth of Moscow’s Art Theater Studios.

The Dybbuk, performed by Habima in Moscow in 1922, proved Vakhtangov’s most successful project. However, Chagall had now managed to fall out with Vakhtangov, who therefore invited the same Altman to also design the set of The Dybbuk. This episode is known only from Chagall, who tells it in two slightly different versions, but in both cases very vaguely. However, one needs only a general sense of Vakhtangov to doubt Chagall’s version of their quarrel. What really happened can only be partly known, and much must be guessed at. Nevertheless, we can gain some illumination by comparing the two versions told in Chagall’s memoirs and both to what we know about Vakhtangov. This is one of the aims of this essay. We are focusing here on the minutiae of early episodes of Chagall’s biography; but we do so in order to gain insight into the nature of his interaction with the Moscow artistic and theatrical world of the early 1920s—both his reception of this world, and its reaction to Chagall.


Besides Chagall’s autobiography, there are not many sources about this period of his career. My Life is a book of separation, a memoir of a relatively young man telling of a world that has now passed forever. At the same time, it is Chagall’s attempt to explain himself to the West, a sort of calling card. Chagall focuses on his Jewishness, his love for his wife, his people, and his native Vitebsk. He writes with bitter irony of his career as a commissar, and employs a harsh satirical tone in his depictions of life under the new Bolshevik regime. He sketches only briefly the series of disasters that his life in Moscow turned out to be, with the episode that we are interested in appearing at the end of the Moscow chapter.

My Life began as a diary in 1922, which was continued the following year in Berlin. Chagall planned to publish it, illustrated with specially made engravings. But written as it was in an impossible Russian, attempts at translation faltered. In 1923 the publisher decided to print only an album with the engravings. For the next year or so Chagall worked further on the autobiography, completing the Russian text while simultaneously working on a Yiddish version, entitled Eigns (Own).10 The Yiddish version was serialized in 1925 in the New York Yiddish literary journal Zukunft (The Future) in an authorized professional translation by the famous Yiddish poet Peretz Markish. As late as 1931 Bella Chagall made a French translation from the Russian version, with some details and episodes added from additional Yiddish texts. The original Russian text is now lost, with Bella Chagall’s French translation providing the basis for several English versions of the autobiography.

My Life (in its various European translations) is now widely known and enjoys the status of an authoritative documentary source. Compared with the Yiddish version, My Life, written for the general European public, is smoother, avoiding anything controversial or provocative.11 Yet some of the claims in this version of the book are obviously wrong, and some important facts are passed over in silence. By employing the whimsical tone of a naïve simpleton, Chagall gave himself license to pass over certain episodes and to choose selectively the details of the incidents that he did mention.

For the scholar, one of the most irritating aspects of the publication history of Chagall’s autobiography is the absence of a stable text. The original Russian text of My Life no longer exists; the 1931 French text comes the nearest to an ‘original text’, yet there is no one canonical English translation but rather a multitude of versions. On the other hand, Chagall edited the text of the Yiddish version carefully together with Markish and Ozer Varshavsky, which gives grounds for taking it as the artist’s basic autobiographical text. Certain parts of the Yiddish version coincide literarily with episodes in My Life, such as the chapter about Granovsky’s theater, which was obviously inserted into the text after 1928. But often the versions differ, as is the case with the Vakhtangov episode, while some details are found in the Yiddish text but are absent from My Life, such as reference to Chagall’s work on The Playboy of the Western World. Even Chagall’s Yiddish writings display variation: the entire chapter on the misfortunes in Moscow is absent from the autobiography but may be found in “My Work in the Moscow Yiddish Theater” (1921-1928), an important Yiddish publication of 1928.12

The secondary literature on Chagall’s early life is not massive. There is some important Russian research being done at the present time.13 But our primary authority is Benyamin Harshav, who was the first to study the existing autobiographical sources, piece them together, and translate some into English, projecting them onto a wide historic background of Russian-Jewish cultural life. The following essay will make reference at many points to the series of books by Harshav describing Chagall’s early period.

As for contemporary testimonies on Chagall in Moscow, other than his own, these remain scarce. The most authoritative are the writings on Chagall by two art critics, Abram Efros and Iakov Tugenkhold, who “discovered” and promoted Chagall: a small monograph they wrote together in 1918, and Efros’ article in his famous book of essays, Profiles, from 1930.14 These texts throw light on Chagall’s work in Granovsky’s Jewish Chamber Theater, a subject that has been studied exhaustively in recent years,15 but they do not mention his attempt to work for Vakhtangov.

Yet one other contemporary source may be mentioned. Some time ago, while working at the Museum of Art Theater, I came upon a rare and precious item: an issue of the satirical hand-written newspaper, ‘Chestnoe Slovo’ (The Word of Honor), ‘published’ in 1922 by the actors of the Art Theater’s First Studio.16 Within the newspaper appears a humorous item describing a division in the Studio over Chagall’s “Irish” sketch. Now, in his Yiddish article of 1928, Chagall briefly mentions, alongside The Dybbuk, another failed Moscow theater project, namely, his sketches for a production of The Playboy of the Western World by the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. One of these sketches has been reproduced in one of Harshav’s books on Chagall’s early life.17 It therefore becomes possible, for the first time, to correlate this newspaper article, Chagall’s account in his Yiddish article, and the picture itself. The results are astonishing.

Chagall’s “Irish” Sketch

After the falling out with Vakhtangov, Chagall evidently looked for more theater work. One of the fruits of this search was a production a year later, in February 1922, at the same First Studio, but for another director. A democratic ethos in the Studio encouraged members to undertake their own staging projects. Aleksey Dikii (1889-1955), an actor and director and one of the leaders of a young faction whom their elders in the Studio nicknamed “Barbisonians” (etymologized jokingly from the Russian bor’ba, “struggle”, to stress the group’s rebellious spirit), was putting together a production of The Playboy of the Western World by the Irish dramatist John Millington Synge. The play, translated by Kornei Chukovsky and already staged at Tairov’s Chamber Theater in 1914, was first entitled Irlandskii geroi (An Irish Hero) and then simply Geroi (A Hero).18

In Synge’s play, the hero, a village idiot and a good-for-nothing, kills his despotic father and thereupon suddenly gains the respect of the whole district, which now sees him as a hero.19 Obviously, it was the theme of patricide that attracted the young radicals in the Studio to the play. Chagall was invited by Dikii to design the sets of the prospective production. He set about creating a constructivist setting, devoid of any local connotations, but full of fashionable spirals, trapezes, and ladders. As such, his composition stands in contradiction to the irritation expressed in My Life about the post-revolutionary Russian avant-garde’s so-called ‘discoveries’ (the inverted commas are Chagall’s) “of Cubism, of Simultaneism, Constructivism, and counter relief, which returned from Europe ten years later”.20

We know from ‘Chestnoe Slovo’ that this “Irish” sketch caused a division in the Studio and was eventually rejected. While the Constructivist style may have generated resentment (on which, see below) it is not credible to regard it as the chief problem. With the appointment of Meyerkhold as head of the theatrical department of the People’s Commissariat of Education in Moscow, an ideological and stylistic reform that officially encouraged Constructivism had been forced on the theater. In the years 1920 and 1921 many productions in Moscow theaters were designed by avant-garde artists Georgii Yakulov, Alexandra Ekster, and Viktor Vesnin, all of them in the Constructivist style. Granovsky brought Altman to his Jewish Chamber Theater. Vakhtangov worked with the constructivists Ignatii Nivinsky and Valentina Khodasevich. Chagall, who sympathized with Meyerkhold the innovator, “the bulwark of the theatrical revolution”,21 was thus to a certain extent following the mainstream. Indeed, it may be that Meyerkhold’s influence on him was no less important than Malevich’s. In any case, one may be sure that at this historical juncture Chagall’s choice of a constructivist solution would not in itself have provoked rejection.

If an exercise in Constructivism, the sketch also contains elements of Chagall’s symbolism. The sketch is divided diagonally by a large red spiral. In the left lower corner there stands a traditional Chagall cow, painted orange—a reference, perhaps, to the Biblical red heifer, a mystical and apocalyptic symbol of atonement.22 An orange or red spiral rises from the animal towards the upper right corner, where one sees a smaller greenish animal, a ram or a goat, placed within a vertical ladder. (There is another version of the same sketch where, as is common with Chagall, the smaller animal is in an upside-down position).

Most importantly, above the spiral an overturned crucifix is suspended diagonally with a symbolic figure on it in a nimbus, obviously a Christ figure. The head of the figure is penetrated by an additional horizontal axis of a cross, while the right wrist is missing—perhaps it has dried up, as becomes Jews who have forgotten Jerusalem (Psalm 137:5)? Harshav, in his analysis of this image, does not fully consider the Hebrew letters that appear on the wood of the cross: shin, bet, mem, tav. He observes only that the shin stands for a Hebrew word denoting the Almighty, one of the Hebrew names of God. However, one may reasonably conjecture that shin, mem, bet, tav are to be read as sha(m)bat, that is, Sabbath, which can be interpreted in the apocalyptic context of the sketch as a whole as the end of a period or place-time (an aeon).23 The inscription on the cross may thus symbolize the fall of Christianity, the end of the Christian era: Jesus has been cast down from heaven. At the same time, earthly life—symbolized by the orange or red animal (possibly identified with the Old Testament)—rises to heaven, evidently as an alternative divinity. Within the context of this interpretation, the pale-greenish, overturned sacrificial goat probably symbolizes dead Christianity.

There is nothing that can refer to Ireland in this sketch, except maybe the sign Trinkid bar over a circle with barrels strewn around, which may be supposed to represent an Irish pub. The inscription seems to play on what Chagall must have heard of alleged phonetic similarities between the Irish accent in English and the Yiddish one in Russian. “Trinkid” instead of “Drink it” introduces a Jewish allusion: “id” is, of course, Yid. The suggested meaning is “Bar ‘Drink up, Jew’” or “Bar ‘Drink up the Jew’”. All this is as little connected with the theme of the Irish play as the spiral, the crucifix and the animals.

Sergei Esenin

Further illumination is shed on Chagall’s choice of symbols by the poetry of Sergei Esenin (1895-1925), a Russian poet of peasant origin. Chagall wrote with great sympathy and warmth of Esenin in My Life, comparing his poetry favorably with that of Mayakovsky:

Does poetry need so much noise? [Esenin] shouted too, intoxicated with God, not with wine. With tears in his eyes, he would beat his breast, not the table, and spit on himself, not on other people. He waved to me from the rostrum. His poetry may not be perfect, but isn’t it the only poetry from the soul in Russia, apart from Blok’s?24

Such praise is not incidental to our theme. The throwing down of Jesus and the ascent to heaven of an animal as an alternate divinity, which we find in Chagall’s sketch, is a visual echo of Esenin’s apocalyptic poem of 1918, “Inoniia” (Otherland), which the poet dedicated to none other than the prophet Jeremiah:

Body, Christ’s body I spit from my mouth... I do not want to receive redemption through his sufferings and his cross... I do not want heaven without a ladder... I promise you an Othercity Where the god of the living lives!25

(The ladder is Jacob’s ladder to heaven; which may be fruitfully compared with the ladder in the upper right corner of Chagall’s draft).

Like Chagall, Esenin develops a new mythology wherein domestic animals have a new role: God is heaven, which is likened to a pregnant cow; its calf is a new sun, or Christ:

God has swollen above our place Like an invisible cow... Calve, oh Lord With a new Sun for our home!

The similarity between sketch and poem is overwhelming. For sure, while Esenin revives an ancient Aryan myth, Chagall returns to the messianic Jewish image of the red heifer. Both, however, testify to the end of times, and dream of the new world to come.26

The Word of Honor

Our humorous article in the home-made newspaper, ‘Chestnoe Slovo’, or ‘The Word of Honor’, provides as unexpected angle on some of the details of the conflict in the Studio over Chagall’s sketch. We learn that the anti-religious Dikii and his followers were all for the sketch; but the majority of the young group were against it. Yet the reasons given for the division are curious.

The Barbisonians A split has taken place among the Barbisonians in connection with a production about an Irish hero. Invited by the left wing of the Barbisonians, the artist Marc Chagall presented a sketch of a set depicting a green ram and a golden calf linked by a bloody spiral—a symbolic picture of young forces bleeding because of slipshod life conditions (the golden calf). This was seen as a hint at the civil war... Representatives of the right wing categorically asserted the inadmissibility of the actors moving along a “bloody spiral.” The director Dikii gave in to the demands of the majority. The artist Chagall drew up a bill for 50,000,000 rubles on the grounds that he had “no reason to give up his fortune”.27

The most curious thing about the ‘Chestnoe Slovo’ article is that the reasons given for the actors’ objections are clearly irrelevant. The downcast Christ is not even mentioned. The actors allegedly saw Chagall’s animals as symbolizing “young forces” bled by the wretched conditions of life, an interpretation that points toward a fear that the sketch might be understood as ideologically unsound—a dangerous hint at the Civil War, or a suggestion that Russia was now ruled by the golden calf.28 The conservative actors, we are told, disliked the idea of walking upon the red spiral, which they understood as symbolizing blood spilled in the Civil War. The whole interpretation is far-fetched. One senses here a red herring. Fear of frightening the authorities has generated a politically correct yet factually inaccurate account of the opposition to Chagall’s drawing.

The ‘Chestnoe Slovo’ article thus omits altogether what was obvious to everyone from a first glance at the sketch: that it was anti-Christian. In the eyes of the Communist authorities, the casting down of the main symbol of Christianity was merely an act of political correctness. For most members of the Studio, by contrast, casting down Christ was completely unacceptable.

Aleksei Dikii and Jewish Connotations

From its beginnings, the Studio had been united in a search for a new spirituality around the charismatic figure of Leopold Sulerzhitsky, a Tolstoyan with mystical inclinations. But Sulerzhitsky died young in 1916. Then, in the revolutionary years, a group of the Studio’s artists led by Michael Chekhov became infatuated with anthroposophy, propagated at the time by Moscow’s new “Templars” and “Rosicrucians”;29 their spiritual quest had a definite Christian orientation. Dikii was opposed to this religious atmosphere, and especially disliked the theosophic and anthroposophic leanings of Chekhov and other older members of the Studio. But Dikii and his atheist supporters were in a minority.

The incident with Chagall connected the name of Aleksei Dikii, who was not Jewish, with Jewish theater for the first time, to an extent determining his future fate. A few years later, in 1926, Dikii staged with great success Shalom Aleichem’s A Wedding in Kasrilovka at the Jewish studio of Belorussia. The following year, however, his opposition to the Christian mysticism of the Studio leadership broke out into open conflict, as a result of which Dikii and his group were forced to leave the theater. Dikii then left Russia, and in 1928 and 1929 he worked with Habima, which had by then finally settled in Palestine. Here he staged Shalom Aleichem’s The Treasure, and David’s Crown by Calderon. Dikii hoped that Chagall would be the designer for The Treasure, but the latter did not come to Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, Dikii had the stage filled with depictions of animals on headstones and he made the actors move as if flying in the way that Chagall often depicted people. This Palestine sojourn was obviously the cause for Dikii’s arrest in the Soviet Union in 1936 and his prison camp term from 1937 to 1942.30

The 1922 attempt at collaboration between Dikii and Chagall should be seen as a missing link without which one can hardly understand the director’s interest in Jewish themes in 1926 or his subsequent invitation to Palestine. At the same time, it raises the possibility that the actors of the Studio interpreted Chagall’s sketch as Jewish revenge on Christianity, in tune with the war on religion waged by the new powers-that-be. The specifically Jewish connotations of the red heifer were assuredly unknown to them. Instead they seem to have identified it as the golden calf, traditionally symbolizing materialism. Materialism was the triumphant Marxist ideology; in Christian antisemitism it was also associated with Jews. As is known, Jews massively supported the new regime. In this context the mention of Chagall’s financial claims in the ‘Chestnoe Slovo’ article take on an antisemitic hue, invoking stereotypes of Jewish greediness.31

Futurism Old and New

We can be sure that the Studio rejected Chagall’s sketch because of its destructive anti-Christian message; yet it is possible that the universal Constructivist language in which it was conveyed also incited their opposition. For the Studio’s actors might well have seen the Constructivist style as a demonstration, not only of Chagall’s loyalty to the preferred artistic idiom of the powers-that-be, but also to their ideology. It is often forgotten that the wider Russian artistic society related to the pre- and post-Revolutionary avant-garde in totally different ways—despite the fact that it often involved the same people. This change was directly linked to the perception of the avant-garde after the Revolution as a virulent organ of the hated new regime. According to the important Russian art historian, Ekaterina Bobrinskaia, by 1918:

... the Futurists’ aesthetic program had lost the charm of novelty. Futurism had acquired a definite literary and theoretic quality and no longer played a noticeable role in the art scene... Now Futurism was not so much a movement in art, with a specific aesthetic program, but a generic name for all kinds of so-called ‘left art’. In this interpretation the political contents clearly outweighed the aesthetic... In 1918-1919, under the influence of revolutionary events, there occurs a new radicalization of the Futurist aesthetics; futurism is now treated as an art that corresponds to the revolution’s deep spirit...32

Chagall was thus welcomed by the Russian intelligentsia as a pre-Revolutionary Jewish artist and avant-gardist; but he was also feared as an aspiring member of the post-Revolutionary political group that, for several years, controlled the arts in early Soviet Russia.

Chagall on his Moscow Quarrels: the “Irish” sketch...

What about Chagall’s account of his various Moscow bust-ups? On the rejection of his sketch by the First Studio actors, Chagall wrote only a few words, which can be found in his 1928 Yiddish article, “My Work in the Moscow Yiddish Theater”:

... in 1922 they kindly invited33 me to Stanislavsky’s Second Art Theater to stage, together with the director Dikii, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World... I plunged into it body and soul, but the whole troupe declared a strike: ‘Incomprehensible’. Then they invited somebody else, and the play was a flop.

In its way, Chagall’s account is no less problematic than that of the ‘Chestnoe Slovo’ newspaper article. The Studio received the title of Second Art Theater only in 1924. Chagall was invited as a stage designer and not a director. The company did not go on strike. The sketch was not rejected because it was hard to understand. The final version of the play did not fail because the décor was designed by Radakov and Libakov (who was also an actor)—the “somebody else” of Chagall’s account—but because it showed uncompromisingly a disgusting protagonist in a disgusting society, at times teasingly reminiscent of Russia. Finally, by 1922 the First Studio had little to do with Stanislavsky, who had not forgiven it for betraying his principles—“putting a knife in his back” as he put it. To sum up: in this account only the most general things are true.

... and the Quarrel with Vakhtangov

What did Chagall have to say about Vakhtangov? It will be recalled that Vakhtangov had invited Chagall to design the scenery for Habima’s 1922 production of An-sky’s The Dybbuk, but that the two had then fallen out. Vakhtangov had already directed plays at the First and Third Studios before Stanislavsky placed him in charge of Habima. Chagall’s mistaken reference to “Stanislavsky’s Second Art Theater” in his account of the “Irish” sketch incident is therefore interesting, suggesting a blurring between the naturalism of Stanislavsky and the later innovators of the Studio, like Vakhtangov. This is in keeping with Chagall’s more direct testimony, which in general is not so much untrue as overly vague.

There are quite a few instances in Chagall’s treatment of the Vakhtangov episode in My Life that appear somehow inadequate, yet are more exact in the Yiddish texts. A prime example is Chagall’s recollection of a meeting with An-sky as he presents himself as the ideal stage designer for The Dybbuk. In My Life Chagall recalls how, on returning from his fatal meeting with Vakhtangov, he first encountered An-sky:

He caught sight of me during a reception, embraced me and told me happily: ‘You know, I have a play, The Dybbuk. You are the only one who can stage it. I’ve been thinking of you’.34

The impression is created that at the time of the Habima production An-sky was still around, lurking in the background. Actually, An-sky, one of the founders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and its delegate for the Constitutive Assembly, had fled Russia for Warsaw because of the Bolshevik persecution of his party after its failed rebellion in Moscow in July 1918. The words Chagall quotes could have been said in the interval between 1915—when An-sky handed The Dybbuk to Stanislavsky — and 1917—when Chagall left Petrograd for Vitebsk. In fact, in his 1928 Yiddish article, “My Work in the Moscow Yiddish Theater”, Chagall dates the meeting exactly:

Back home... I remembered my last meeting with An-sky, at a soiree in 1915... He shook his gray head, kissed me, and said: ‘I have a play, The Dybbuk, and you are the only one who can carry it out. I thought about you’.35

Chagall met Vakhtangov after completing ‘The Jewish Theater’, his mural for Granovsky, and quarreling with him. Chagall alleged that this quarrel arose due to Granovsky’s naturalist inclinations. In fact, it was obviously a fight for control over the production. The fight took place in late 1920 or early 1921, just as Vakhtangov was returning to work on The Dybbuk after an interval of over a year. In My Life Chagall wrote ironically of his meeting with Vakhtangov:

Then the Habima theater asked me to take on the setting for The Dybbuk. I didn’t know what to do. At that time the two theaters were at war. But I couldn’t miss going to Habima, where the actors did not act but prayed, while they too, alas, praised Stanislavsky’s dramatic art to the skies.36

(Harshav connects the motif of praying with the decision to play The Dybbuk in Hebrew, the solemn language of prayer.)37

Note how Chagall here connects Habima with Granovsky’s theater, where they also could not break with the naturalist routine. Indeed, Chagall depicts Vakhtangov as more alien to him than Granovsky, and points to the idea that the root cause of the problem was the antiquated system of Stanislavsky. Of Vakhtangov, he writes: “The manager of Habima, he also acted in Stanislavsky’s theater and his productions were still unknown at that time”.38 As a matter of fact, since 1913 Vakhtangov had acted, not in Habima, but in the First Studio. In the 1928 Yiddish article Chagall originally wrote: “Vakhtangov (who had then directed only The Cricket on the Hearth) was a stranger to me”.39 This play, based on the novella of that name by Charles Dickens, had brought fame to the Studio in 1914—but it was not staged by Vakhtangov, but by the head of the Studio, the young director Boris Sushkevich, under the charismatic guidance of the selfless Sulerzhitsky, who never claimed his rights.

In any case, it is the famous Stanislavsky system that allegedly sows all the seeds of discord. Chagall in My Life dramatizes the conflict:

Then Zemach, the director of Habima, rouses me from my thoughts. Marc Zakharovich, how do you think The Dybbuk should be staged? You’d better consult Vakhtangov first, I replied. A pause. Vakhtangov slowly replies that all these distortions mean nothing to him, that Stanislavsky’s method is the only one. I have rarely been so infuriated. In that case, why did you bother me? But I control myself and reply that I cannot see the place of that method in the renaissance of the Jewish theater. And, turning to Zemach: —You will stage it my way all the same, even if I am not there! There is no other way! Feeling better, I left.40

(In the 1928 Yiddish article it is not Zemach but Chagall who puts the crucial question to Vakhtangov.)

But is Chagall transforming the facts too readily in order to paint a picture of “Chagall the innovator versus Vakhtangov the conservative”? Let us see what the facts were.

Vakhtangov was indeed Stanislavsky’s pupil and an actor in his Art Theater, but he early broke with Stanislavsky’s naturalism. As an actor at the First Studio he created expressionistic characters, such as the heartless machine-like merchant Tackleton in the adaptation of Dickens’ novella, The Cricket on the Hearth (1914). By 1920, and now working as a director, he had turned Chekhov’s comedy The Wedding into a parade of nightmarish monsters at the Mansurov, or Third Studio (“his own” group, which later became Vakhtangov Theater). In his second version of Maeterlinck’s The Miracle of St. Anthony, put on at the same Mansurov Studio, also in 1920, he reduced the environment to a minimum, and exaggerated characters to the point of the grotesque. Then, in late March 1921, Vakhtangov put on an innovative production of Strindberg’s Erik IV. This was a tragic grotesque performance, designed by the avant-garde artist Ignatii Nivinsky with cubist costumes, a stage design of intersecting planes and sharp angles, and outrageously exaggerated make-up—all emphasizing the contrast between darkness and light, death and life.41 In her classic study of Vakhtangov, Dina Goder writes of this 1921 production:

This was the moment of the break of Vakhtangov with the [Moscow] Art Theater, a theater that was, in his words, “naturalistic,” and “emphasized daily life too much”... A break that everyone had seen coming, and a break too passionately asserted in his own diaries... In his repudiation of love for the Art Theater, for the idolized Stanislavsky and the deeply respected Nemirovich-Danchenko, one can detect the protest of a son who has left his family but has carried away with him the education he received and his resemblance to his family. The daring and excess of his accusations against the “dead theater of Stanislavsky” are expressions of a revolt against the stifling love and care of a parent. Vakhtangov expressed the fervor of his own searching, the passion of his new infatuation with Meyerhold and, finally, his thirst for life understood as a creative act.42

Ruben Simonov, the great actor, is even more explicit:

Why did Vakhtangov exclaim in anger that “naturalism in the theater would die!”? Why did he affirm that all naturalists are like each other? Whose ideas did he confess and reflect on stage? Who was his immediate teacher, who had formed his brain and soul? It was, of course, L.A. Sulerzhitsky.43

Chagall had not the least grounds for representing the Vakhtangov of 1921 as a traditionalist dumbly holding to Stanislavsky’s system as the sole true faith. Even if he had little chance to hear of Vakhtangov in St. Petersburg between 1914 and 1918, or during his time in Vitebsk, back in Moscow he could have readily learned the new facts about Vakhtangov—had he wanted to.

In the years around 1920-1921, placing all blame on Stanislavsky’s system for one’s own failure was the easiest way. Art Theater was a favorite object of leftist criticism. The pre-Revolutionary liberal theater loved by the intelligentsia was now viewed as bourgeois and reactionary, not least because a group of its actors had left Russia in 1919 and was still abroad (and when they returned those who had stayed went abroad, headed by Stanislavsky).

But maybe Vakhtangov, as represented in Chagall’s dialogue, answered the way he did because of Nahum Zemach’s presence? The provincial Zemach was a passionate, belated follower of Stanislavsky—it was he who pushed the Moscow Art Theater to adopt the Jewish Studio. Vakhtangov was supposed to teach the rudiments of theatrical culture to the Studio troupe, which inescapably meant going through the drill of the ‘system’.44 Vakhtangov might therefore have been afraid that the undertrained actors would fall back on the provincial melodramatic style, the only one familiar to them before they had begun their lessons.

On the other hand, Vakhtangov was wary of Chagall, for he knew of his aspirations to control the staging process, as in Granovsky’s theater. Vakhtangov preferred Habima actors to his Russian fellow actors because they were his enthusiastic followers, and would do anything he said:

Here my every word is law. No one would doubt that creatively I am right... Therefore here I can achieve what one does not always achieve at our place [the First Studio].45

Vakhtangov did not think highly of such actors, and did not rely on them. His way of staging a play was to envisage the whole, do each part himself, and then teach the actors their parts.46 Vakhtangov would not yield some of this absolute control over the production to anybody. Aware of Chagall’s distaste for naturalist theater, Vakhtangov played the true believer in Stanislavsky to provoke the artist’s anger and thus end the meeting. (Of course, Chagall in his turn was consciously rude to Vakhtangov: it takes some hutzpah to come to Stanislavsky’s pupil and deny Stanislavsky’s system).

Another factor is also crucial for understanding the argument. It seems highly probable that Stanislavsky’s system meant to Vakhtangov something quite different from what Chagall had in mind; something other than outer verisimilitude with the sound of crickets and pasted beards. If Vakhtangov did indeed insist that only Stanislavsky’s way was suitable for The Dybbuk, he must have had his reasons saying so. Here one should recall that as early as 1918 it was decided to stage the play in Hebrew, in Byalik’s translation. The decision had its roots in dissatisfaction with the Russian version of An-sky’s play at the Art Theater. Vakhtangov and Stanislavsky had edited it, but the language still remained awkward. The idea of a Hebrew production was really a godsend, but of course it generated a new question of communication: how could the play be understood by an audience, the majority of whom knew no Hebrew?

The only way to maintain the attention of the audience was to ensure that the play was understandable in spite of the language. This called for intonations, mimicry, and gestures, all sufficiently expressive to communicate the necessary meaning. The Dybbuk was therefore tragic grotesque theater, the acting was expressionist; but it was not pure histrionics. Vakhtangov knew how to produce in the actor the right psychic state, to generate the right inner emotional content for the role that would bring forth the true outer behavior, gesture, mimic, and intonation.47 To do so, he mobilized all the psychic forces possessed by the actor, taking such ecstatic theater much further than did Stanislavsky; yet his method was still a development of Stanislavsky’s system. Without it, it would be impossible to understand a play in a foreign language.

In his book The Modern Yiddish Theater, Harshav tells a story that illustrates the point perfectly. One day the actor and director Mikhail Chekhov “visited a rehearsal directed by Stanislavsky’s disciple Evgenii Vakhtangov, the director of Habima”. Chekhov did not know Hebrew, yet after the rehearsal was able to tell Vakhtangov: “I understood it all except for one scene”. After this visit, Vakhtangov worked hard on this particular scene and, on his next visit, “Chekhov understood it perfectly”.48 We can conclude that Vakhtangov’s adherence to Stanislavsky’s method had its roots in a concrete problem of translation. This problem he solved wonderfully: his actors played in an ecstatically exaggerated way, and, as if by a miracle, every Hebrew sentence became intelligible to his Russian audience.

How Chagall hid his Sketches

The story Chagall constructs in My Life is aimed at showing that he met with Vakhtangov only once—on the occasion described above—and that there was no prehistory or continuation of their relationship: he simply did not work for Vakhtangov. But in fact, there was more than one contact, and the 1928 Yiddish article clearly indicates that there were sketches that remained in Vakhtangov’s possession: “I was told that a year later Vakhtangov sat for many hours with my projects when he prepared The Dybbuk.”49 In My Life there is something different: when Altman was working on the scenery for The Dybbuk, Chagall tells us, Vakhtangov allegedly stood for hours before Chagall’s murals and advised Altman to take them for his model:

It turned out later, as someone told me afterwards, that a year later, Vakhtangov was spending hours in front of my murals in Granovsky’s theater (Zemach himself admitted it), and at Habima they ordered another artist to paint “in the style of Chagall”.50

In his 1944 Yiddish memoirs Chagall mentions sketches he made for The Dybbuk:

I really didn’t have much luck with directors. Nor with Vakhtangov, who at first empathized neither with my art nor with my sketches for The Dybbuk in Habima... nor with Tairov, who was still sick with Constructivism; nor with the Second Studio [1916-1924, headed by Mchedelov]... All of them... asked me to make sketches, and later got scared of them.51

Perhaps Chagall did not want to mention these sketches in My Life because Vakhtangov had rejected them? Because that is what really follows from the above quotations. In Chagall’s dramatization of the argument, Vakhtangov does not only declare Stanislavsky’s method the only one, he also insists that “all these distortions” (in the French: toutes ces deformations) mean nothing to him—no doubt referring to a sketch on the table—the sketch by Chagall that Vakhtangov had rejected. Maybe it was really not because of Stanislavsky that they quarreled?

“Oriental Chaos”

In My Life Chagall psychologizes in order to explain Vakhtangov’s obvious dislike for him at their first meeting:

He’s a Georgian. This is the first time we have met. He is silent. We examine each other awkwardly. No doubt he can read in my eyes the chaos and confusion of the East, an incomprehensible, foreign art.52

Even if Vakhtangov was a Georgian (in fact he was half-Armenian, half-Russian), why should one Easterner be afraid of the “oriental chaos” in another’s eyes? On the other hand, Chagall was above all a fashionable Jewish artist from Paris. Why would Vakhtangov, a fashionable Moscow director, see him as a carrier of oriental chaos? And then, why would he fear Chagall’s “incomprehensible” art when, in the same year, he worked with the Cubist artist Nivinsky on a grotesque, anti-naturalist version of Strindberg’s Erik IV? Chagall is more explicit in his 1928 Yiddish article:

At the first rehearsal of The Dybbuk in Habima watching the troupe with Vakhtangov, I thought: “He is a Russian, a Georgian; we see each other for the first time—embarrassed, we observe one another. Perhaps he sees in my eyes the chaos and confusion of the Orient. A hasty people, their art is incomprehensible, strange...”53

Now it becomes clear: “hasty (fussy?) people” stands for “Jews”, “the Orient” means Jewishness: so it is Jewish art that Vakhtangov does not understand. The insinuation is that Vakhtangov was wary of Chagall’s Jewishness. The text of My Life, polished for a general Western public, could not afford such allusions. In Chagall’s 1944 memoirs, Vakhtangov simply acts as do all other directors: he becomes scared of Chagall’s “alien” work. Again, one suspects that “alien” stands here for ‘Jewish’.

But could Jewishness really have turned Vakhtangov away? Recall, Stanislavsky had placed Vakhtangov in charge of Habima, who performed in Hebrew, and even before this (in 1915) the two had The Dybbuk for production. Naturally, the conception of the play was humane and sympathetic, showing Jewish spirituality in the best light. After the Revolution the theater did not know what to do with the play, as the former ‘apologetic’ conception was no longer relevant now that Jews had received full rights while whole social strata had lost theirs. The production at Habima was the best solution. Vakhtangov himself had edited the play, which was too long, and introduced ‘The Passer-By’, the explaining figure. He knew the material inside out, and the text by heart. The Jewishness of Chagall’s work was known to Vakhtangov and could not have shocked him: the famous Chagall was invited to set the fantastic Dybbuk in his own fantastic Vitebsk, with its houses, animals, and Jews. That was his trade mark. As modern art researcher Ziva Amishai-Maisels puts it:

Chagall’s was an organic world in which people and animals, houses and signs—were all equally alive and there were no firm borders between them, as one flowed into the other in a style that would later be referred to as surrealism and, at the same time, in an expressionist way, swirl, twist, and move with energy.54

No one can say what Chagall’s sketches for The Dybbuk were like as they have not survived. The only credible explanation of why they were rejected is that they were different from what was expected of Chagall, the painter of Vitebsk. They were different, but they were still “Jewish”: otherwise, how could Vakhtangov have recommend Chagall’s work (whatever it was) to Altman as a model in 1921?

We can approach this issue from a different angle, namely, through the “Jewish art” of Habima. For Habima cultivated a very special kind of Jewishness that had nothing to do with real Jews. They could not stand Yiddishkait, which did not fit Habima’s high style. Efros ironized:

Habima’s initial well-being was supported by an amazing amalgam of Zionists, the Rabbinate, part of the Communist party, and those liberal antisemites who considered the language of the Bible the only thing bearable about the Jews... Habima lived with an alien mind... cloaking the devices of the Russian directors and the conventions of the Russian stage in a cover of modernized ancient Hebrew speech. Habima was Stanislavsky’s bastard child by an accidental Jewish mother.55

Chagall’s pictorial conundrums based on Yiddish idioms might have been too much for Vakhtangov. But when Altman offered his own, essentially negative visual solution for The Dybbuk, Vakhtangov at first rejected it too, deeming it “decadent”. Altman argued that his grotesque, ugly, distorted conception of the Jewish environment was that of the Jews themselves. As the Soviet critic Khrisanf Khersonsky reports:

They argued for several days. Altman shared with Evgenii Bogrationovich [Vakhtangov] his critical attitude toward the theme and the images of the play, repeatedly speaking about the tragic history of the Jewish people, about their religion of suffering, about reserved and passionate Jewish art, about the mutilated miserable human faces who look at us through the poetic images of legends. Vakhtangov began to relate differently to the artist’s sketches. No, this was not a departure from life but, on the contrary, a coming closer to its profound inner essence. This was not decadence!56

Khersonsky suggests that Altman had grasped the true—“cruel” and “mutilated”—essence of Jewish life. His interpretation is very close to that expressed in an article of 1914 by one of Chagall’s earliest critics, the Communist Lunacharsky, the future Commissar of People’s Education. Lunacharsky met Chagall in Paris, when he was a political émigré, and described his art as the fruit of a pitiful, distorted, sick existence. Such views must reflect something of the official position of the Bolshevik cultural establishment towards the Jews: it is relevant here that Altman was at the time an important figure in Lunacharsky’s Ministry. But since Altman was a Jew, a known innovator, and a specialist in Jewish art, Vakhtangov was finally convinced by him, suggesting to Altman a compromise: a more Chagall-like vision, not altogether condemning the Jews, as Altman wanted, but colored by understanding and warmth.

It appears that Chagall was rejected by Vakhtangov’s Habima, not as too Jewish, as he himself suggested, but rather as Jewish in the wrong way. For lack of evidence this must remain on the level of hypothesis. On the other hand, it is clear that Chagall might have been shunned by part of the Russian intelligentsia as too close to the authorities. This is very likely one of the reasons why, in My Life, he described his contacts with these powers with such biting sarcasm: in this manner he shouted for the whole world to hear that he had had nothing to do with them.


1. Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times. A Documentary Narrative, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 971 note 1. For the quotations in this paragraph see the documents from this period translated in Hashav’s book, pp. 241-75; and cf. Marc Chagall, My Life, translated from French by Peter Owen, London, 1965, pp. 138-141. For example: “Wearing a Russian blouse, with a leather case under my arm, I looked every inch the Soviet civil servant... My eyes blaze with administrative fire” (p. 138). 2. Benjamin Harshav, The Modern Yiddish Theater: Art on Stage in the Time of Revolution, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 68. 3. Abram Efros (1888-1954) was a Russian literary, art, and theater critic. In 1918, together with Iakov Tugenkhold, he wrote and published a small monograph on Chagall. Aleksei Granovsky (Abram Azarch, 1890-1937) was a Russian theater director, a pioneer of Jewish theater, and a pupil of Alexander Sanin in Petersburg and of Max Reinhardt in Berlin. Granovsky began his directing career in Riga, then in 1918 organized a theater for tragedy and established a Jewish studio in Petrograd, which, in late 1920, was transferred to Moscow and became the Jewish Chamber Theater, were Mikhoels, Zuskin, and Vovsi became stars. In 1928 Granovsky remained in Europe following a tour, and henceforth worked mainly in the movie industry. See Harshav, The Moscow Yiddish Theater. 4. The main figures of this change were Vsevolod Meyerkhold at Komissarzhevskaya’s theater and the House of Intermedias, and Nikolai Evreinov and Nikolai Drizen at the Starinnyi (Antique) theater. This new taste arose also at cabaret theaters (in Moscow at Baliev’s The Bat from 1907, and in Petersburg at Meyerkhold’s Lukomor’e (Wonderland) and its rival, Evreinov’s Crooked Mirror, from late 1908). 5. I am grateful to Professor Roman Timenchik for this information. 6. Harshav, The Moscow Yiddish Theater, p. 68. The monograph is translated in full in Benjamin Harshav, ed., Marc Chagall on Art and Culture, Stanford University Press. 2003, pp. 75-204. 7. For the towel incident, see Harshav 2003, p. 73 and Chagall, My Life, pp. 157-162. Natan Altman (1889-1970) was a Russian painter. He participated in the Bubnovyi valet (Jack of Diamonds) and Soiuz molodezhi (Association of Young People) exhibitions and, hence, was considered a member of the avant-garde. During WWI he was also an active member of the Jewish renaissance and a founder of the Society for Jewish Art. He made his debut as a theater designer in 1916 and, in 1918, created the futurist décor for the mass event staged in Palace Square in honor of the first anniversary of the October Revolution. He worked for Granovsky’s Jewish Chamber Theater and came over to Moscow with it in late 1920. In 1922 Altman became famous for his décor for The Dybbuk. He went abroad with Granovsky’s theater in 1928 and, like Granovsky, did not return. He worked in Paris until his eventual return to the USSR in 1935. 8. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, pp. 68-69. 9. Vakhtangov Evgenii Bogrationovich (1883-1922) was a Russian theater director. Semion An-sky (Shlomo Rappoport, 1863-1920) was a Russian-Jewish writer and collector of Jewish folklore and folk art. Cf. a recent collection: Gabriela Safran and Stephen Zipperstein, eds. The Worlds of S. An-sky, Stanford, 2006. The Dybbuk, with its mysticism and symbolism, is An-sky’s most famous play. Cf. S. An-sky. Mezh dvukh mirov (Dibuk). Tsenzurnyi variant. Publication, introduction and glossary by Vladislav Ivanov, in: Mnemozina. Dokumenty I fakty iz istorii otechestvennogo teatra XX veka, Bk. 3. pp. 9-63. English, in: “S. An-sky, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk): Censored Variant”; introduction by Vladislav Ivanov in: Gabriela Safran and Stephen Zipperstein, eds. The Worlds of S. An-sky, Stanford, 2006, Appendix. 10. Translated by Harshav as “My Own World”. Harshav believes that the diary was not published in 1922 because it was not yet finished. 11. Harshav Marc Chagall and His Times, pp. 82-84, with juicy examples. On the Yiddish version as the artist’s basic autobiographical text, see pp. 78-80. 12. Translated in Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, pp. 289-296. Chagall wrote this essay for Di Yidishe Velt: Monthly for Literature, Criticism, Art and Culture, published in Vilna by Kletskin, May 1928, No.2. 13. Most important are the publications of the Marc Chagall Museum in Vitebsk, such as the Shagalovskii sbornik series or Shatskih 2010. 14. The article was cut out from the faded Russian State (formerly Lenin) library copy, supposedly when Efros fell out of favor in the mid-1930s, and a new, white (and incomplete) photocopy of it has been pasted back, obviously in the relative freedom of the nineties. 15. Very strange things happen when quotes from Efros appearing in translation in Harshav’s texts are retranslated into Russian; phantom Russian sentences are created alongside the original Russian ones. For example, where Efros writes: “ves’ zal byl oshagalen”, the first translation gives: “the whole hall was chagallized”, which is retranslated, naturally: “ves’ zal byl shagalizirovan”. 16. ‘The Word of Honor’ was hand-written by the actors and mimeographed by the Art Theater secretary. Three or four issues appeared between autumn 1921 through to spring 1922, and a final issue in 1927 or 1928 after Michael Chekhov’s departure. The crucial issue for our purposes is the second. My discovery is described in detail in Helen Tolstoy, “The Dybbuk through the Eyes of Habima’s Rival Studio”, Partial Answers (Jerusalem), Volume 10, Issue 1, 2012. The museum has the original from which copies were mimeographed. Moscow Art Theater’s First Studio (after 1924 known as the Moscow Art Theater-2) has drawn the attention of historians only in the past two decades. The theater was ill-fated. Its two immensely talented leaders, Leopold Sulerzhitsky (1876-1916) and Evgeniy Vakhtangov (1883-1922), both died young. Michael Chekhov, the actor of genius who headed the theater after 1924, left it following a confrontation with the collective in 1927, and eventually emigrated. In the following years, despite its great artistic achievements, Moscow Art Theater-2 fell under increasing ideological suspicion for its mystical and idealist values. Its situation was not helped by the success of the great Art Theater of Stanislavsky: the authorities thought one theater for the intelligentsia was sufficient for Moscow. In 1936 Moscow Art Theater-2 was shut down altogether. Since then it has been all but ignored by historians. No wonder that after the fall of the antiquated taboos it became a focus of avid interest, both as a constellation of extraordinary talents and as a nest of spiritual opposition to the regime. Cf. Elena Poliakova. Teatr Sulerzhitskogo, Moscow, 2006; Liisa Byckling. Mikhail Chekhov in Western Theater and Cinema, Saint Petersburg, Akademicheskii Proekt, 2000; Khalizeva M.V. Ja, akter... A diary of the First Studio; same. Pis’ma zritelei Mikhailu Chekhovu, in: Mnemozina, Materials on the history of Russian theater, edited by Vladislav Ivanov, Bk. 4. Moscow, 2009, pp. 533-567, 585-616; Maria Polkanova, comp. I vnov’ o Khudozhestvennom. MKHAT v dnevnikakh I zapisiakh, Moscow, 2004, pp. 11-203; MKHAT Vtoroi. Opyt vosstanovleniia biografii, Moscow, 2010. 17. Benjamin Harshav, Chagall and the Lost Jewish World, New York, 2006, p. 166. 18. Kornei Chukovsky, Dnevnik, V. 1, Moscow, 1991, p. 219. 19. However, it soon turns out that his father is really alive and the “hero” is subjected to mockery. Then he tries to kill his father again and is caught. The father is still alive and the hero leaves the town, cursing it but considering himself a “real Irish hero.” The public opinion shares this appreciation. 20. Chagall, My Life, p. 154. Simultaneism was a Parisian abstract style in painting, a version of cubism invented by Sonia and Robert Delaunay around 1913; counter relief was a painting style based on collage and connected with the desire to introduce three-dimensionality. In Russian art it was propagated around 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin. 21. Chagall, My Life, p. 153. 22. Chagall builds a case of identification with the cow on a Yiddish pun: the cow is called behema in Yiddish, which also means “an idiot”; an artist is to normal people something like a village fool. Kornelia Ichin studied similar semanticization of space in another, later work from Chagall’s Biblical cycle: “Chagall splits the connection of times, placing his own image in the top right corner of the picture, which depicts the return of Moses to his fellow children of Israel, opposite the image of Moses in the lower right corner of the picture.” Kornelija Ichin, “Ob istochnikakh bozhestvennogo v tvorchestve Marka Shagala”, Toronto Slavic Quarterly, No. 19, Winter 2007, p. 308. 23. On apocalyptic motifs in Chagall’s painting of 1917 cf. Natalia Apchinskaia, Mark Shagal. Portret khudozhnika, Moscow 1995, p. 51. For Harshav’s interpretation see his Chagall and the Lost Jewish World, p. 166. 24. Chagall, My Life, p. 154. 25. Cf.: “Тело, христово тело/ Выплевываю изо рта. / Не хочу восприять спасения/ Через муки его и крест / <...> Не хочу я небес без лестницы / <...> Обещаю вам град Инонию, /Где живет Божество живых! <...>По-иному над нашей выгибью / Вспух незримой коровой Бог...” Cергей Есенин, “Инония” (1918)/ сб. «Россия и Инония» (Sergei Esenin, “Inonia” (1918) in: Rossia i Inonia. Sbornik [A collective volume], Berlin, 1920, pp. 69-80). 26. Aryan myths were described by the poet Valerii Briusov in his long 1916 essay “Uchiteli uchitelei” serialized in Gorky’s journal Letopis. 27. Ср.: Барбизонцы. В партии барбизонцев произошел раскол на почве постановки Ирландского героя. Приглашенный левым крылом барбизонцев художник Марк Шагал представил эскиз декорации, изображающей зеленого барана и золотого тельца, связанных между собой кровавой спиралью — символическое изображение молодых сил, истекающих кровью из-за халтурных условий жизни (золотой телец). В этом увидали намек на гражданскую войну.... Представители правого крыла категорически заявили о недопустимости хождения актеров по ‘спирали крови’. Режиссер Дикий подчинился требованиям большинства. Художник Шагал выставил иск в 50,000,000 рублей, мотивируя это тем, что ему «нечего отказываться от своего счастья». Дело дошло до Худсовета. Премьер-министр Б.М.Сушкевич проявил согласие быть посредником между барбизонцами и художником и даже вступил в переговоры с женой художника. ‘Chestnoe Slovo’, 2, 1922, p. 72. Evidently, this was another version, slightly differing from the sketch from Musee Nationale d’Art Moderne. 28. Indeed, with the onset of the New Economic Policy money became all-powerful, way beyond the prerevolutionary situation: food and goods were at last sold freely but very few had the money to buy them. 29. The ideology and rituals of Moscow’s new “Templars” and “Rosicrucians” (mostly theater people who after the clampdown on their circles in 1926 found their death in the Gulag) are documented and analyzed in the books by Andrei Nikitin: Mistiki, rozenkreitsery I tampliery v Sovetskoi Rossii, Moscow, 1998, 2000; Tainye ordena v Sovetskoi Rossii. Tampliery i rozenkreitsery, Moscow, 2006. 30. Vladislav Ivanov, Russkie sezony “Gabimy”, Moscow, 2005, pp. 166-167. 31. The money question was finally solved, but the décor for Synge’s play staged in 1923 was designed by artists Aleksei Radakov and Mikhail Libakov. 32. Ekaterina Bobrinskaia, Futurism, Moscow, Galart, 2000, pp. 181-182. 33. Harshav translates the obvious “liubezno” of the Russian original with the unlikely “lovingly”. 34. Chagall, My Life, p. 164. 35. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, p. 296; emphasis added. 36. Chagall, My Life, pp. 162-163. 37. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, p. 296 (note). 38. Chagall, My Life, p. 163. 39. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, p. 296. 40. Chagall, My Life, p. 163. 41. Ivanov, Russkie sezony “Gabimy”, p. 31; Nadezhda Bromlei, [Untitled], in: Vakhtangov E. Zapiski. Pis’ma. Stat’i, Moscow-Leningrad, 1939, p. 76; Bromlei, “Put’ iskatel’ia”, in: Evg. Vakhtangov: Materialy i stat’i, Moscow, 1959, p. 325; Andrei Malaev-Babel, The Vakhtangov Sourcebook, Routledge, 2011; Malaev-Babel, Yevgeny Vakhtangov: A Critical Portrait, Routledge, 2013. 42. Dina Goder, Teatr imeni Evg. Vakhtangova, Moscow, 2004, p. 5. 43. Ruben Simonov [untitled], Vakhtangovskie chteniia. Stenogramma, Moscow, 1988, p. 22. 44. In fact, Vakhtangov did not train them himself: the reason was his already failing health. He had stayed in hospitals most of the 1918-1920 period, and Habima was left in the care of his colleague Mchedelov, a director of Georgian origin also working at Art Theater who had completed Habima’s first Moscow production, ‘The Eternal Jew’ by David Pinsky. 45. Liubov Vendrovskia and Galina Kaptereva, eds. Evgenii Vakhtangov. A collection of articles, Moscow, 1984, p. 401. 46. Cf. Vakhtangov’s letter to Nemirovich-Danchenko: “Всю пьесу, все роли, до мельчайших подробностей, вплоть до жеста, интонаций и тембра голоса, мне пришлось играть самому. Пришлось делать каждую фразу, так как состав «Габимы» в актерском смысле, в смысле мастерства очень был слаб.” Ibid. p. 428. 47. Boris Zahava, Vospominaniia. Spektakli I roli, Stat’i. Moscow, 1982, pp. 42-57. 48. Harshav, The Modern Yiddish Theater, p. 19. Harshav states that Vakhtangov also was ignorant of Hebrew. Actually, he knew both texts by heart and knew the Russian equivalent of every Hebrew sentence. 49. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, p. 296. 50. Chagall, My Life, p. 164. 51. Marc Chagall, “My first Meetings with Solomon Mikhoels,” published in Yiddish in Yidishe kultur (monthly of the Jewish World Culture Union), New York, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan. 1944); English, in Mark Chagall and the Jewish Theater, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1992, p. 152. 52. Chagall, My Life, p. 163. 53. Harshav, Marc Chagall and His Times, p. 296. 54. Ziva Amishai-Maisels, “Chagall’s Jewish In-Jokes”, Journal of Jewish Art, Vol. 5, 1978, pp. 76-93. 55. Abram Efros, “The Artists of Granovsky’s Theater” (excerpt). Original publication in: Iskusstvo, Moscow, vol.4, 1928, Bks. 1-2, pp. 63-64. English in Harshav, The Modern Yiddish Theater , p. 59. 56. Khrisanf Khersonskii, Vakhtangov, Moscow, 1963, op. cit., pp. 303-304.

About the Author

Elena Dmitrievna Tolstaya came to Jerusalem from Moscow in 1973. She received her PhD in Russian Literature from the Hebrew University in 1982, where she taught Russian literature until 2012. She is now retired, married, and has three children. She has published books on Chekhov, the Jewish-Russian critic Akim Volynsky, and her grandfather Alexi Tolstoy.

About the Artist

Katya Zenina is a graphic designer and illustrator living in Moscow.


Text copyright © 2014 Elena Dmitrievna Tolstaya

Cover image copyright © 2015 Katya Zenina

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An earlier version of this essay was published in Around the Point: Studies in Jewish Literature and Culture in Multiple Languages, eds. Hillel Weiss, Roman Katsman, Ber Kotlerman, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

First Rounded Globe edition, November 2015.

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