Monday 10 June 2013

Boris Aronson and the Yiddish Theatre at the Ben Uri Gallery

Two Hasids, costume design, 1926
Boris Aronson designed scenes, costumes and lighting for some of Broadway's most successful musicals including Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. He also designed the sets for for Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of the Nutcracker and picked up numerous awards over his long theatre career in the United States. However, his career started long before most of these musicals were written and included success as a writer, painter and costume designer. He was also a leading light in the hugely influential Kultur Lige, a Jewish artists' organisation founded in his home town of Kiev in 1918. His achievements in New York's Yiddish Theatre in the 1920's and 1930's are the subject of the current exhibition at my favourite London gallery - the Ben Uri in St. John's Wood. 

I first saw this exhibition "Ben Aronson and the Yiddish Theatre" at  the Tel Aviv branch of the Minotaur Gallery a few years ago.  The exhibition covers his early years in the Ukraine as an apprentice to the designer and avant-garde artist Aleksandra Exter, as well as a sojourn in Berlin before arriving in New York in 1923. Exter had a lifelong influence on him and recognising his desire to design stage scenery, invited him to assist her in the design of sets for the Moscow premiere of Romeo and Juliet in 1920. 

The Kultur Lige was established to promote Yiddish culture. It drew membership and support from writers, artists and various cultural figures with branches being established in almost 100 towns and villages in the Ukraine. The Lige established schools, childcare centres, evening classes for adults and children, music clubs and drama classes with the objective of developing a "new Jew" who could easily combine the qualities of universal and Jewish culture. Over the period of its lifetime it included amongst others Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, Josef Tchaikov, Nathan Altman, Issakhar-Ber Ryback and Sara Shor - many of whom were Aronson's friends and fellow students of Exter. Aronson managed the committee that organised the Lige's first exhibition in Kiev in early 1920. The exhibition included two of his own works which unfortunately have not survived.

At the end of 1921 he moved to Moscow, continued studying and painting and frequenting the theatre, being particularly impressed and influenced by the experimental work of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov. More importantly he studied closely the sets and costumes of their productions including those designed by Chagall, describing Chagall's mural in the Jewish Chamber Theatre as "the best of his works". Together with Exter, they had a lasting influence on Aronson - not least their devotion to Constructivism. This is reflected in his 1927 design for the cover of Der Hammer, a socialist magazine in New York.

Costume for Baruch Agadati's oriental dance, 1923
In 1922 he moved again, this time to Berlin which was by then host to a large emigre Russian and Jewish artistic community. During his year in Berlin he published two books - Contemporary Graphic Jewish Art and a work on Marc Chagall. So, by the age of 24 he was an accomplished artist, writer and organiser, but more was to come. In Berlin he met and worked with the dancer Baruch Agadati, a pioneer of avant-garde choreography (and who went on to be a pioneering Israeli film maker!) who attempted a synthesis of ancient folk dances and modern ballet. Aronson produced various sketches for Agadati's dances as well as designing costumes for him. 

In November 1923, Aronson arrived in New York with what he described as "awkward luggage...some drawings, two books, a pair of socks, a membership in a union of German artists, paintbrushes, crowded emotions, little money and less English". Being fluent in Yiddish enabled him to quickly find work - New York being one of the world centres of the language during the 1920's. His initial work involved book cover design, illustrations for children's books and covers for Der Hammer. His work during this period exhibits his continuing commitment to Jewish content and also to the principles of Constructivism. Several items from this period are included in the exhibition including some of the books and magazines - one of the highlights for me.
Cover design for Der Hammer magazine, 1927
He also continued to write in Yiddish magazines including articles about theatre design and when the Jewish Theatre Society opened "Unzer Teater" (Our Theatre) in 1924 he was appointed principle stage designer. The theatre was housed in a small building in the Bronx - then heavily Jewish. Aronson later wrote that "Out of seventy Yiddish theatres in New York, I ended up in a tiny theatre in the Bronx...(where) no-one knew for sure if they would be paid or not, but they had an adventurous spirit and were concerned with the experimental". They were indeed and his work for the costume and stage designs of two of the theatre's three productions "Night and Day" and "The Last Result" are on display at the Ben Uri and show just how experimental those times were. Strapped for cash, Aronson made use of different fabrics and colours in the actors' costumes to create a mood or to highlight the personality of a character. For example, the costume for "the devil" is dominated by grey and black for mood whilst the crimson lining of his coat is a reference to the fires of hell. The plays were well received including by non Jewish American critics.

He went on to work at two more Yiddish theatres - the Schildkraut and Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre, achieving particular fame at the latter where he designed the revival of the Yiddish classic The Ten Commandments in 1926. Aronson's time in the Yiddish theatre ended soon afterwards with his desire to appeal to a broader audience taking him to Broadway in 1932 and to several decades of success.

Design for The Circus 1926
This son of a rabbi from small town Ukraine ended up a very long way from home but always acknowledged the influence of his formative years. Born in a time and place that produced many outstanding artists, significant numbers of whom were Jewish, Boris Aronson was one of those occasional figures that are able to excel in many fields, in his case painting, writing, costume and set design. This incredible set of skills is something rarely seen today. The exhibition runs until June 30th - go and see it! The Ben Uri Gallery, still looking for a home worthy of its collection, is also exhibiting some of the treasures from its permanent collection including works by Soutine, Grosz and London's own "Whitechapel Boys" including Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg. All the more reason to visit. 

Stage design for Bronx Express, 1925

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The Moscow avant-garde, constructivist architecture and the Tretyakov Gallery

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Sonia. Thanks for your kind comments. Aronson was such an interesting figure. Great exhibition too!