Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art's forthcoming exhibition is Boris Aronson and the Avant-garde Yiddish Theatre, c. 1917-1929. It explores the avant-garde costume and theatre designs of Ukrainian-born Jewish émigré painter, sculptor, set designer, theorist and art critic Boris Aronson (1898-1980), a pioneer at the forefront of the international modernist movement. The exhibition presents more than 50 rare, original and little-known works on paper together with a small number of works by Aronson’s peers and related ephemera including books and photographs.
Aronson’s dynamic and innovative designs, boldly combining Cubo-Futurism and Constructivism, chart his personal, as well as artistic journey via Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris against a backdrop of war, revolution and artistic invention, through to his arrival in New York, where he settled in 1923. They reveal Aronson’s significant contribution to Jewish artistic culture in general and progressive Yiddish Theatre in particular, notably in the New York theatre between 1924 and 1931. Afterwards, Aronson went on to become one of the most prominent and influential figures in Broadway theatre design winning eight Tony Awards.
The son of the Rabbi of Kiev, Boris (Borukh) Aronson studied at Kiev art school from 1912-16, and at Alexander Murashko’s drawing school – a thriving centre of modernist culture. In this period Aronson established strong links with fellow young Jewish modernist writers and painters, including Issachar Ber Ryback, and became a fervent advocate for the creation of a new Jewish Yiddish culture. From 1917-18 Aronson was apprenticed to the pioneering Russian artist and designer Alexandra Exter, who profoundly influenced his subsequent development. Between 1918 and 1920, Aronson was one of the most significant figures in the Russian post-revolutionary avant-garde, as a co-founder and subsequent leader of the Kultur-Lige, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of Jewish culture, and in 1919, in collaboration with Ryback, Aronson published one of the first manifestos of progressive Jewish art in the Yiddish journal Oyfgang (Paths of Jewish Painting), giving special mention to Marc Chagall.
The exhibition opens with Aronson’s strikingly modernist Self-portrait of 1920, executed in Kiev, together with a notable Sketch of a book cover design from this period in which Aronson also directly references Naum Gabo’s Constructivist Head of 1916, revealing his close knowledge of and links to the Russian Constructivist movement.
Aronson left Kiev for Moscow in autumn 1921 and briefly worked for the Moscow Jewish Chamber (or Kamerny) Theatre, assisting Exter in the creation of set designs for a production of Romeo and Juliet, and meeting Chagall. In 1922 however, Aronson joined relatives in Berlin, where he studied in the workshop of the engraver Hermann Struck. In the same year a number of Aronson’s experimental xylographs (woodcuts) were included in the famous First Russian Art Exhibition organised by the gallery Van Diemen in Berlin, curated by David Sterenberg, Natan Altman, and Naum Gabo, and including work by Archipenko, Chagall, Gabo, El Lissitzky, Malevich and others. In this period Aronson published the books Marc Chagall (Berlin: Pertropolis, 1923) and Contemporary Jewish Graphics (1924), his reputation as a writer on art later easing his emigration to the United States. Afterwards, in Paris, Aronson designed sketches and costumes for Baruch Agadati’s Danses Assidiques (Hassidic Dances) – a project which perhaps anticipated his lively costume design, Two Hassides (1926) for his outstanding theatre project The Tenth Commandment.
In 1923, Aronson settled in New York, becoming the leading designer for the city’s Jewish theatres, firstly, for the experimental Unser Theatre in the Bronx, then most notably, as a collaborator with Maurice Schwartz in the Yiddish Art Theatre. During this period Aronson also developed his theories on stage design: that the set should allow varied movement; each scene should contain the mood of the whole play; and finally, the setting should be beautiful in its own right. The largest part of the exhibition explores a number of arresting set and costume designs from some of these ground-breaking projects, which illustrate these principles, including: Day and Night (1924), The Final Balance (1925) and The Bronx Express (1925) for the Unser Theatre; The Tragedy of Nothing (1927) for the Irving Place Theatre; and The Tenth Commandment (1926), and The Golem (1929) for the Yiddish Art Theatre. Aronson’s notable designs for Stempenyu, The Fiddler (1929), based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, anticipate his famous production of Fiddler on the Roof (1964), inspired by Chagall’s 1920 Moscow mural designs. Also included are colourful designs for New York mural projects from 1925, which celebrate the evolution of Jewish theatre.
Aronson’s arresting and inventive designs breathed new life into American scenography and were highly influential, initiating numerous changes in the American theatre. From 1930 onwards he was one of the Broadway theatre’s best-known and most prominent designers, creating multiple award-winning sets and costumes for nearly 100 plays, operas, ballets and musical comedies. He married his assistant Lisa Jalowetz in 1945 and she continued to work with him throughout his career; Aronson died in New York in 1980.
The work explored in this exhibition marks the birth of an autonomous post-revolution Jewish artistic culture in which Aronson played a major part, afterwards disseminating these ideas beyond Russia. The exhibition also includes a small number of contextual works by Aronson’s peers including Natan Altman, Isaak Brodsky, Marc Chagall, Alexandra Exter, Issachar Ber Ryback and Pavel Tchelitchew, together with related ephemera.
Ben Uri Museum
108A Boundary Road
London NW8 0RH United Kingdom
Ph. +44 (0)207 604 3991
Monday from 1pm to 5.30pm
Tuesday - Friday from 10am to 5.30pm
Sunday from 12pm to 4pm