How Jewish Artists Helped Reinvent Chicago

After The Great Fire, a People and City Remade Themselves

In Sickness and in Health: Leon Garland’s 1932 painting ‘Wedding in the Cemetery’ is based on an old legend that if orphans marry in a cemetery during a cholera epidemic, their dead parents will intercede to stop the scourge.
Courtesy Spertus Museum
In Sickness and in Health: Leon Garland’s 1932 painting ‘Wedding in the Cemetery’ is based on an old legend that if orphans marry in a cemetery during a cholera epidemic, their dead parents will intercede to stop the scourge.

By Laura Hodes

Published November 23, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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What is striking about the exhibition is the sense of reinvention that all these artists share, despite their diversity in style. All were first- or second-generation Americans. This was a unique time period when the great mass migration from Eastern Europe of Jewish immigrants coincided with the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world; Jewish immigrant artists identified with its spirit of rapid re-creation.

These artists saw a parallel between Chicago’s rebirth and their own reinventing of identity. Modernism, just like emigration, gave them the opportunity to transform themselves: Artists tried on new styles, experimenting with Cubism, Surrealism, simplified Naturalism and with different materials — dropping and rejecting styles and materials as they saw fit. Reacting to the conservative standards of the Art Institute of Chicago, they learned to create from their own points of view.

This act of using art as a means toward personal reinvention and identity transformation is encapsulated in the small bookplate of Louis M. Stein on display, which was drawn by Todros Geller, the “Dean,” or father-figure, of Chicago Jewish artists in this period. Stein was born Yitchak Leyb Fradkin in Ukraine in 1883.

But when he immigrated to Chicago in 1907, he adopted a new name and established a printing house that published high-quality art books, many of which were collaborations between Yiddish authors and Jewish artists. Among the more notewothy examples was “Land to Land,” a collection of Geller’s woodcuts. Geller’s fanciful bookplate depicts Stein as a turbaned man on a magic flying carpet, escaping to exotic worlds far away from the Ukraine shtetl or even the new shtetls of Chicago.

Geller also reinvents himself in his artwork in his adopted city. On the title page of “Land to Land,” a goat stands on the shore of Lake Michigan with Chicago’s skyline in the background. In Geller’s art, the goat is a motif representing the artist himself — the rugged Eastern European figure, here reflecting his status as a successful transplant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, the New World, still holding on to the old country.

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