Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London

Art, Identity, Migration

Interview with Sarah MacDougall about her Boris Aronson Exhibition

“Boris Aronson was a Jewish émigré artist, which is very key to our collection in terms of identity and the number of other artists we have in it who are also émigrés…”. Sarah MacDougall, curator of Ben Uri’s latest exhibition – Boris Aronson and The Avant-Garde Theatre Art 1917-1929 – discusses her thoughts on this collection of work with Kim Arrowsmith, social media intern.

Why did Ben Uri want this particular exhibition, the Boris Aronson exhibition?

It was the outstanding quality of the work that led us to want the exhibition. We had seen the excellent catalogue produced by Galerie Le Minotaure (Paris and Tel Aviv) and recognized both the very high quality and the individuality of Aronson’s work so we went to Paris to view it ourselves and were immediately convinced. It appeals on a number of levels: firstly, Boris Aronson was a Jewish émigré artist, which is very key to our collection in terms of identity and the number of other artists we have in it who are also émigrés.

Secondly, Aronson’s journey through different cities within Russia, then Berlin, Paris, and ultimately New York, where he settled and built his career, also reflects similar journeys made by other artists in the collection (many of the Russians, for example, went to Paris, like Chagall, and became part of the École de Paris – a grouping of largely Jewish émigré artists). Thirdly, we looked at the work, which is all from very early on in his career and is superb. Although we didn’t have any work by Aronson in the collection, we are delighted that Gallery Le Minotaure have since presented us with a fine, early Aronson figure study.

Our story starts right at the beginning of his career when he had immigrated to New York as an émigré and was having to find his feet. He gravitated towards the Jewish theatre, specifically the Yiddish theatre, as he arrived in his own words ‘with an awkward luggage’, that is, with a couple of books, some artists’ materials and very little English! He spoke Yiddish however and that was the common language that brought him to the Yiddish theatre. He brought with him extraordinarily innovative ideas in stage and design that had not been heard of yet in America. In Russia he’d mixed with the Russian Constructivist movement at the forefront of the Avant-Garde and he’d absorbed those influences and taken them into his own stage design. He was one of the first to disseminate these concepts in stage design in America.

When Ben Uri gets an exhibition like this from another gallery, do they make their own or do you take the exhibition as it is?

Yes, we always very much make it our own. We do what we call ‘contextualising’ an exhibition, by which we mean we relate it to work by other artists from a similar context (i.e. from a similar background, art movement or moment in history). These may be works from our own collection or outside of it. In this case, the works that would have been relevant from our collection had been recently shown at Ben Uri in an exhibition called from Russia to Paris, which celebrated our recent acquisition of a portrait by Chaïm Soutine and looked at this alongside works from our own collection by his Russian contemporaries who also went to Paris.

For the Aronson show we borrowed other contextual works from both Galerie Minotaure and from a private collection in the UK by a number of Aronson’s peers. Therefore, although UK audiences may not know Aronson or they may have heard of him but not really been familiar with the work, they would certainly have heard of Chagall and perhaps some of his other contemporaries, like Alexandra Exter, who was his teacher and was a very influential theatre designer. There’s good work of hers in the V&A, for example, but we borrowed a very striking design from Galerie Minotaure in Paris, which shows the power of Exter’s work. Aronson’s other contemporaries included Issachar Ber Ryback, whose work we do have in the collection, but the works we have were not relevant to the themes of this show, have been recently shown here, and one is about to tour with the from Russia to Paris exhibition to the Jewish Museum in Manchester. So we borrowed a Ryback along with work by Natan Altman, Isaak Brodsky and Pavel Tchelitchew to illustrate this broader context. This is something we are always keen to do to make sure that the exhibition has a new context with a relevance for our own audience and also is not just simply a repeat of a show that has been shown elsewhere.

I was wondering how you as a curator made it your own, is there a way you did that with your own interests?

Well, curating involves selecting the right works for the exhibition concept we want to illustrate and, as I’ve already said, to make the right context for the museum’s audience. So I didn’t take everything that was offered, I took a selection which I felt covered certain themes and stories. Through this selection I wanted to illustrate a number of things: Aronson’s own émigré journey, which is implicit in the sense that certain works were produced in certain places: e.g. the earliest woodcuts are right at the start of his career when he is a student; the later ones from his Berlin period; but the majority of works are from New York. Then I also wanted to show the different types of work that he created. For example, the woodcuts show him working outside theatre design and allow us to see how is absorbing modernist ideas from the constructivist movement and Alexandra Exter’s influence. Exter had been in Paris and mixed with the Avant-Garde and brought all these ideas back to Russia. She then disseminated them amongst her students so that they too became familiar with the most recent movements and innovations and could work through these ideas themselves. I also wanted to demonstrate how Aronson’s own work changed within this exciting decade – a decade that, as Aronson noted, was revolutionary both in politics and in the arts.

I also wanted to illustrate particular stories. For example, Aronson’s murals from the Yiddish ‘Unzer’ theatre, which are designed to show the evolution of theatre design. He starts off with very traditional Hasidic figures in the design and then they become more modern as the mural itself progresses. We have two designs for the murals and a couple of photographs of the actual murals, which are very rare and precious. The designs themselves are fragile and damaged but that is now an implicit part of their story and their survival. Aronson made designs for many different theatre productions, each of which have their own narratives too, which he tells through his designs, so those are also stories I was keen to bring out by hanging the works in groups that reflect these different productions.

The way you hang works in an exhibition should really illustrate the narratives you want to get across along with a supporting text (on panels and labels). This gives an audience a chance to dip into another narrative that maybe familiar to them, for example, by including work by and texts about Aronson’s peers. Chagall is probably the best-known and many people know and enjoy his work, so if they have that as a starting point that may lead them to decide to look at work by his contemporaries and how their narratives impact on the exhibition’s central themes. Again, that was again very much at the forefront of my thinking and planning.

Aronson, together with Ber Ryback who I mentioned earlier, were very significant contributors to modernist culture in modern day Ukraine. They were part of a movement called Kultur-Lige (or the Culture League), which they helped to found. It was specifically about celebrating Jewish culture and giving it its own voice, identity and visuals for the first time. Ultimately this movement was overtaken by greater world events with the Russian revolution, the First World War and the chaos of the aftermath. Initially, however the Jewish people from the Russian empire gained a freedom which they had never had before. They’d been subjected to very restrictive laws so with the lifting of those laws they were able to try and start establishing this visual culture that they’d dreamed of. Again, that seemed to me very important and I wanted to bring that out too (although it’s only a small part of this particular exhibition because it’s focused on the theatre design). Aronson and Ryback published their own manifesto called Oyfgang (which translates as the ‘Paths of Jewish Painting’), in which they celebrate the emergence of Jewish culture in a modern, specifically Jewish, art. They particularly praised a certain work by Chagall as the greatest expression of these ideas and I have the lithograph version of that work in the exhibition as well as a panel reprinting their manifesto.

I’m going to ask a little bit more about the art itself. The work – and I guess you could think of me as like a member of the public – to me the work seems quite simplistic in terms of subject matter. Is this related to being drafts for a theatre set or is this a characteristic of the constructivist movement?

I think the majority of the work does relate to specific theatre design and so though it’s visually very strong and condensed. I think that’s what you mean perhaps about it being ‘simplistic’, because in a costume design you need to convey a person or an idea in a strong, simple way. When you look at the designs for the production called The Tenth Commandment one of the characters is a man wearing a Tallit (the Jewish prayer shawl), yet he is dressed in a modern way with very round glasses and his Tallit is stylized. In fact, he’s very much a period character from a particular place and time. This is typical of what Aronson does. Another design shows a prosperous, fashionable Jewish couple. In the 10th Commandment we know that you mustn’t covet your neighbour’s wife, but there seems to be some coveting going on here! We have a design of a beautiful young woman, for example, and another of a very discontented-looking woman, who has perhaps been neglected. In fact, although we have a variety of designs they represent only a tiny part of the final production. This was the most ambitious production Aronson did in the Jewish theatre (in a highly successful partnership with the actor-manager Maurice Shwartz) and there were 350 costumes in all, from which we have 16. However, it’s not always possible now to relate a costume to what’s happening in a particular scene, but often they do combine a traditional trope from Jewish culture or religion (e.g the Tallit in the above example), but usually much stylised and boldly drawn.
I think the constructivist ideas perhaps come out more in the set design, where a cottage may be closed to represent the exterior in one scene, then cleverly opened up to reveal the interior in another. This was a revolutionary idea brought from Russia, where Aronson became familiar with ideas from Meyerhold and others. A scene from the production Stempenyu the Fiddler, which had a revolving stage, illustrates this. Before this, when there was a change of scenery, the curtain would drop down and everybody would go off behind the scenes and perhaps an orchestra would play a tune to keep the audience happy. What was crucial to Aronson and his modern productions was that you saw all the changes on the stage – he would combine the two so that you could have the exterior scene and then literally the roof would open up so reveal the interior, simply by revolving the set. You were aware of the mechanics of theatre and yet at the same time you also saw a very extraordinary design.

In a scene design which is no longer available, Aronson wanted to show a vision of hell and he envisioned it as a sweat shop inside a man’s brain. This design was enormous. It had a whole cut-out of the man’s head and inside were all these people. He had a fire pole with everyone repeatedly sliding down the pole to give the idea of hundreds of people working inside the sweat shop – and this was just one design! So obviously he had a very inventive mind and it was a case of combining bold visuals with innovative creations in the technical side of design too. He really captured the audience’s imagination and in some of the performances it was said that the play was not actually very good, but that Aronson’s designs were so amazing, both visually and technically, that they kind of outweighed the play’s imperfectins because the whole experience was so enjoyable and so exciting. I think that although Aronson was clearly a very gifted artist, he really found his métier in being able to apply his ideas to actual theatre in production.

Are the works in good condition or have they been damaged over the course of time?

They are in excellent condition and it’s amazing really because they were uncovered by the curators in Paris who were keen to discover more about Aronson’s early career and had been working with the family to do so. Sadly, the night before opened here in London, Boris Aronson’s widow, Lisa, died. She had been his assistant since 1943 (they married in 1945) and had worked with him on many of his productions. She has also worked with Galerie Minotaure to uncover these early works, which had been more or less hidden in the proverbial attic for a long time. This is probably because as Aronson enjoyed such a long, successful career people only knew the latest work and had forgotten all about his early works. It was only really through the Paris curators questions – ‘where is this early work, does it survive?’ – that uncovered this work, so they really must be congratulated. It is certainly a bit of a ‘find’ in curatorial terms.

Who was Aronson influenced by and who has he influenced?

He was influenced by Alexandra Exter, who was his teacher. She’d spent time in Paris early in her career and later returned there for good. She is a really major figure and it’s a pleasure to also show her work. She had started these studio workshops in Kiev that Aronson had signed up to at the beginning of his career when he was still a student. They worked together so well that when she did designs for the Jewish theatre in Moscow she invited Aronson to join her. He was definitely influenced by her and there is one particular design that you can really see that. He probably took the memory of this design with him and it re-emerged in his own work years later. Unfortunately, I couldn’t secure that design for the exhibition, but Exter was certainly a key figure both for Aronson and a number of his peers, including Tchelitchew, whose work is also represented in the exhibition.

Chagall is another key figure. Aronson’s later Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in the 1960s on was based very much on seeing Chagall’s designs in the Moscow theatre back in the 1920s, and he openly and warmly acknowledged that influence. The memory of Chagall’s work had stayed with Aronson all of those years and came out in that memorable production.

In terms of whether Aronson influenced other people as an artist, I think that’s hard to say because he moved around a lot and he was part of this wider movement, the Kultur-Lige back in Kiev. I think the artists in this movement also influenced each other but they were also very good at picking up ideas and experimenting with them at this early stage in their careers. Aronson obviously went on to specialise in a particular career as a designer, and in this way I should think he has influenced many other designers in Broadway. I think it’s more that the ideas he brought later became widely disseminated because he worked with many influential producers and writers on Broadway, where his work would have been seen by a wide audience. Later, his early innovations would just become the norm.

Who would be interested in this exhibition?

That’s a good question. I think people who know some of the artists like Chagall, who would like to more about his peers; also those interested in theatre design, specifically. But I think those who have a general interest in 20th century art and the spread of modernism. The issues that we have touched on in this interview also relate to Ben Uri’s strapline: ART, IDENTITY and MIGRATION, which all come together in this show. The exhibition shows how certain aspects of modernism were developed in different ways and then shown as pervasive throughout the 20th century visual culture – in Aronson’s case through theatre, in other of his contemporaries, like Chagall, though painting, or like Gabo, through sculpture.

I just have one final question, which is your favourite piece in the Aronson exhibition?

My favourite piece is perhaps not in the major work on show, the theatre designs, though I greatly admire many of those. I love, for example, Two Hassids, which perfectly combines a traditional subject matter with modernist techniques, and I love the Jewish Theatre murals, which are outstanding as well as rare and precious. However, my favourite piece is actually a study for a book design, where Aronson has wittily juxtaposed several images including Naum Gabo’s famous sculpted Constructivist Head; the head of a fashionable young woman with a head dress and lipstick, from either Berlin or New York; the Roman statue of Clytie. On the bottom right of the picture you see some cylindrical shapes, which could refer to the famous Tatlin tower or could be seen as funnels on the steamers which took the new immigrants to New York via Ellis Island. In this work, Aronson cleverly combines all sorts of artistic ideas from ancient (i.e. the statue) to contemporary art culture and also perhaps indicates his own place within it. To me it’s an absolutely fabulous and intriguing piece, even though it is not typical of the exhibition as a whole.

Interview by Kim Arrowsmith

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