Backstage at the ‘Tower of Peace’

‘Behind the Scenes,’ a new exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower, gives the public a chance to trace the whistory of Hebrew, Israeli theater through 90 years of costume, theater design.

Behind the Scenes exhibit 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Behind the Scenes exhibit 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Shalom Tower, Tel Aviv’s first skyscraper, stands awkwardly at the top of Rehov Herzl, looming over the city like the disembodied leg of a giant robot. It might seem merely another unfortunate glass-and-concrete legacy of 1960s Israeli architecture, but those who venture past the tower’s dated exterior are rewarded with a surprising gem: a cultural hub with a wealth of artworks and exhibitions exploring Tel Aviv’s artistic and historical heritage.
On the ground floor are two dazzling wall mosaics by local artists Nahum Gutman and David Sharir, each a love letter to the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa in millions of fragments of brightly-colored stone.
Ride the escalator one floor up, and you find yourself in an enormous public space packed with changing exhibitions about the early history and culture of Tel Aviv, including the story of Akiva Arie Weiss, the architect who helped create the city, and works by early Tel Aviv photographers Avraham Soskin and Shimon Korbman.
More adventurous visitors can even sneak an elevator ride to one of the tower’s top floors to take in the magnificent views over Neveh Tzedek and old Jaffa.
The most recent show to open in the Shalom Tower’s dedicated art gallery is “Behind the Scenes,” an exhibition of theater costumes and stage design from 1922 through the present. On display are works by some of the biggest names in Jewish and Israeli theater design of the last nine decades, including Natan Altman, Reuven Rubin, Nahum Gutman, Emmanuel Luftglass, Boris Poliakov, Arie Navon and Anna Khrushcheva.
This is the first time that many of the paintings, sketches and costumes have been on public display, and “Behind the Scenes” offers visitors a rarely glimpsed perspective on the history of Jewish, Hebrew and Israeli theater. A stage play is like a colorful butterfly – we witness it briefly in all its beauty and glory, but it soon vanishes forever, and the complexities of its genesis and development remain mysteries.
Yet though the public rarely gets to see them, a play’s costume and set designs live on even after the curtain falls and the audience goes home, says Prof.
Pamela Howard, a British opera designer who came to Tel Aviv to lead a workshop on costume design before the exhibition opened.
“When the performance is over, it’s ephemeral, it’s dead – but the artwork remains as a living heritage,” she says. “That’s what makes this exhibition so absolutely wonderful.”
Almost all the costume designs on display are in the form of paintings or sketches depicting a particular play’s characters, but there are some historical costumes on show, too. These works reflect not only the fashions and styles but also the cultural mores of the various eras in which they were created.
Noticeably, “Behind the Scenes” sheds light on the important role played by Russian Jewish artists in the development of early Hebrew theater. Among the early designs featured are works by prominent Russian artists Natan Altman and Boris Poliakov, who created costumes for seminal plays at Habimah Theater in Moscow and the Ohel Theater in Eretz Yisrael.
ALTMAN WAS a figure of great importance in Jewish art of the early 20th century. In 1918, together with artists Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky, he founded the Kultur-Lige in Kiev, a secular, socialist Jewish organization dedicated to the promotion of Yiddish culture.
The Kultur-Lige artists mixed traditional Jewish folklore motifs with the modernist aesthetics of Futurism and Cubism, and when Altman began to work as a stage designer for Moscow’s Habimah Theater in 1920, he brought these ideas with him.
On display in “Behind the Scenes” are some of Altman’s most successful works – the costumes for Habimah’s 1922 performance of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, a hassidic horror tale tinged with eroticism and once dubbed ‘Romeo and Juliet meet The Exorcist.’ In Ansky’s play, a yeshiva student dies of grief when his beloved, Leah, is betrothed to a rich man. His soul is transformed into a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit, and possesses virgin bride Leah. While rabbis try to exorcise the dybbuk, Leah struggles between marriage to a man she doesn’t love and a supernatural union with a disembodied soul.
Despite its setting in a 19th-century Russian shtetl, Altman mixed traditional Jewish and folkloric elements with colorful, hyper-modern costumes in the Russian Cubo-Futurist and Suprematist aesthetic. The results are slightly unsettling – the virginal Leah’s costume is a traditional white gown with Cubist elements, for example – but Altman’s work helped create a stunning stage production whose Jewish themes mesmerized an international audience (George Bernard Shaw and the king of England are reputed to have been fans).
Russian artist Boris Poliakov also fuses avant-garde concepts with more traditional imagery in his designs for the Tel Aviv Ohel Theater’s 1925 production of Russian play Jacob and Rachel. On display are a series of beautiful paintings of Jewish characters in a distinctive Cubo-Futurist style, with elements of the idealized proletarian figures seen in early Soviet propaganda posters.
THESE DESIGNS are still held up as examples today, notes Howard. “All my life I have studied the work of Boris Poliakov, and the composition and colors of his designs, and I often used them as teaching aides when I taught at Central St Martins College of Art [in London],” she says.
Howard also emphasizes the considerable influence exerted by Jewish theater in Europe, particularly in the early years of the 20th century.
“The early artists in particular had great influence on France’s early experimental theater,” she says.
“They also influenced Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which went to both Paris and London.”
These Russian Jewish costume and theater designers helped create the foundations of Israeli theater.
Habimah Theater, lauded in 2005 as “the cornerstone of the revival of the Hebrew language and culture as well as designing the culture of life in Israel itself” by writers Amos Oz, Yehoshua Sobol, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, started its life in Moscow. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Habimah was permitted to operate under the auspices of the Moscow Art Theater, and rapidly became a massive cultural force in the early years of the USSR.
The theater left the USSR for the US in 1926, and some of its members came to Eretz Yisrael two years later. Habimah became Israel’s national theater in 1958.
While the early designs focus on plays with Jewish and biblical themes, as Israeli theater matured, more and more foreign plays were staged. Notable among the later works on display are sketches by Israeli-born David Sharir, a leading contemporary artist who studied art and theater design in Florence and Rome. His designs for Habimah’s 1970 production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt are both expressive and amusing, bringing the familiar characters of the play to life.
Anna Khrushcheva’s gorgeous designs for the Gesher Theater’s 1995 production of Molière’s comedy Tartuffe won the Israeli Theater Prize for costume design and would not look out of place in an haute couture designer’s sketchbook.
Yet despite Israel’s vast wealth of theatrical treasures – as evidenced by the works on display here – the country does not yet have a dedicated national theater archive.
And despite the richness of Israel’s theatrical history – and the prominence of the art form in the country today – there is no national theater museum where treasures like those on display in “Behind the Scenes” can be available for permanent viewing.
Tali Itzhaki, curator of “Behind the Scenes,” told Metro she is grateful to the Shalom Tower for providing a space to show this exhibition, which has enabled the public to see artworks that would otherwise lie hidden, and which are an important part of Israel’s cultural history.
“We don’t have a national theater museum,” she stresses. “There is a small museum – the Goor Theater Museum on Mount Scopus [in Jerusalem] – and several places collect archival materials, like the Israeli Documentation Center for the Performing Arts at Tel Aviv University, and the Yehuda Gabai archive at Beit Ariella [the Tel Aviv municipality library]. The Cameri Theater has an archive that is open to the public. But not one of these places is set up to conserve museum materials.”
Without a dedicated national theater archive or museum, artworks are often inaccessible to the public or to researchers. Without proper conservation, these valuable items can deteriorate or, worse, get lost.
“The biggest collection of paintings is in Beit Ariella, but they don’t have the human resources or budget for restoration, cataloguing or for collecting additional material,” adds Itzhaki.
“And items like models or costumes, which are much harder to conserve – there is nowhere to keep them. They are disappearing. Artists keep items in their private homes, because they have no place to take them.”
Opera designer Howard says this situation is unusual since most countries do have some sort of national documentation center for students – and the public – to refer to.
“I was horrified to hear that there is no national theater archive in Israel where this material can be stored,” says Howard.
“It’s so important to know what to value, and to invest in one’s heritage. Israel has a fantastic history in theater, and I hope that this will not be lost.
In Jerusalem there is the Israel Museum. What’s the problem with having a few rooms there devoted to Israeli theater?” Meanwhile, “Behind the Scenes” will remain open to the public in Tel Aviv until July, after which organizers say they are hoping to take the show to other cities, including Beersheba, so that as many people as possible can see it.
“We definitely think that this exhibition should be in a theater museum,” concludes Itzhaki.
“Behind the Scenes” is on display until July at the Shalom Tower Art Gallery, Rehov Ahad Ha’am 9, Tel Aviv. The gallery is open Sun.-Thur. 10 to 5; Friday and Holiday eves 10 to 1. Free entry.