Recalling a time when making art was a life-or-death proposition


Think about it for a minute: what forms of communications have truly revolutionized our daily lives? Netflix? The iPhone? Twitter? It may seem strange now, but way back in post-revolution Soviet Union, a group of writers, thinkers, artists and general rabble-rousers were engaged in an creative foment that would put the wonks at Apple to shame. It’s true that the forms of communication they had in mind–painting, theater, photography–aren’t high-tech by today’s standards, but their mission was aimed at cultivating a huge shift in the consciousness of the masses. Wresting high-flown artistic practices away from the elite, these practitioners envisaged pressing forward-thinking disciplines such as filmmaking, performance, photography and architecture into the service of social ideals. They dreamed of a kind of art that would be experienced in every day life, and also belong to the masses.

Sound exciting? The story of these revolutionary Russian art-makers has twists that would put a Shakespearean tragedy to shame. Because as much as the Bolshevik revolution sparked an incredible artistic flourishing, the Stalinist era that followed clamped down on the movement’s most vocal innovators.


One of those innovators, Solomon Mikhoels, the artistic director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (aka GOSET), is the subject of a tribute during the New York Jewish Film Festival, and some of his work can be seen in a related exhibit at the Jewish Museum, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater. In the new-found artistic freedom of the years following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Jewish theater companies such as Habima and GOSET became a catalyst for modernist experimentation, revolutionizing existing concepts of theater and scene design. The exhibition is comprised of paintings, costume and set designs, posters, photographs, film clips and theater memorabilia–many of which have never been exhibited before.

And during the NYJFF, you can see one of Solomon Mikoels’s plays in action. Jewish Luck is based on Sholom Aleichem’s stories about a daydreaming entrepreneur who specializes in doomed strike-it-rich schemes, and is an adaptation of the GOSET stage production. Seen in conjunction, the film and the exhibit offer a vital look at the exhilaration (and danger) of creating art in a revolutionary time.

Buy tickets to Jewish Luck: Sun Jan 18: 1

Explore posts in the same categories: festival dispatches, NY Jewish Film Festival, on @ the walter reade

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