Imagine a mid 20s, turn-of-the-century bohemian dinner party in an apartment on the northwest side of Chicago. The living room is packed with malnourished artists, tobacco smoke is floating only a few feet above everyone’s head. It’s just the way you might imagine one of Gertrude Stein’s gatherings across the Atlantic, where Picasso is at once charming an impressionable Parisian woman and telling off Hemingway or Miró. The only difference, of course, is that this party just so happens to be, on top of a get together for artists, a Shabbat dinner.
Ilana Segal, the curator of The Spertus Institute’s exhibit on Jewish Modernist artists in Chicago told me that these Friday night gatherings were, to put it lightly, all the rage. The exhibit is one installment in a six-part series about the history of Jews in Chicago. Jewish Modernism in Chicago may seem an unlikely scene, and yet there were enough artists to pack Jewish modernist printmaker Todros Geller’s apartment every Shabbat. His wife would cook, and they would sit and talk about Jewish art, and where they thought it might be going. Geller helped train artists, taught in a Jewish day school, and even tried to encourage artists to work and toy with Jewish ideas and themes.
The exhibit makes it clear that these artists, although perhaps not practicing, felt that Judaism was still an inexorable component of their identities, and, as a result, of their art as well. Despite the fact that their work was almost entirely modernist in its sensibility, they found themselves unable to keep their own Judaism from working its way into their craft. One of the most striking works in the collection is a depiction of a Shvartze Chasene—a black wedding—which is a haunting Eastern European superstition that if two orphans are to marry in a cemetery, a deadly epidemic will come to an end. The artist, Leon Garland, paints this folkish scene in a completely modernist style, and perhaps, as Segal explained, in order to “depict old world and old country scenes using the language of modernism.” Around Garland’s Shvartze Chanese hang seder scenes painted in Van Gogh’s style, cubist portraits of rabbis, and even Geller’s series of modern, stylized prints each focusing on a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. These artist took pleasure in obfuscating delineations separating Judaism and Modernism.
Similarly, Emil Armin–another central figure in the Chicago scene along with Todros Geller–was known for his decidedly modernist style, designed and printed cards for the Jewish New Year.
And yet as Jewish as these artists were, they were also independently modern. On display at Spertus is also a series of decidedly non-Jewish works of art–including a series of covers of Chicagoan Magazine, which was a response to The New Yorker. Morris Topchevsky, another artist in the group, was also a member of the Communist Party and used his work to create political pamphlets. The Jewish modernists of Chicago interacted and collaborated with other artists, experimented with various techniques and even helped put on the Grant Park Arts Fair. It was Chicago’s first open air art show and a way for artists to sell work that was perhaps too modern for the Art Institute next door. “They were just as mainstream as they were Jewish,” Segal explained to me as she showed me a photograph of Geller and several other artists–many of whom were not Jewish–at the Grant Park Fair.
The history and work of this unlikely movement can be seen at Spertus until the end of the month.