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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 4)

Many of the artists exhibited here clung strongly to their Jewish identity and created art from within vibrant Jewish artst communities. According to curator Ilana Segal’s note, at this time Chicago had its own Yiddish literary group; one oil painting by Geller shows a portrait of the soulful-eyed Yiddish poet Ben Shalom. Artists spoke Yiddish at cafes, and Geller hosted Friday night get-togethers in his studio. All of the artists were members of the Jewish arts club “Around the Palette,” which was founded by Geller.

Until recently there has been near-silence about Jewish identity in art history. Art critic Margaret Olin has attributed this reluctance to mention the Jewishness of artists in art criticism as an assimilationist tactic, a reaction to the anti-Semitism intrinsic to modern art theory. As she writes, “assimilated Jews express themselves in the visual arts as individuals, not ‘as Jews.’” Part of what is so fascinating about this exhibit is that it captures a brief time when these Chicago artists were newly confronting their adopted homeland, still clinging to their Jewish identity and not yet concerned with assimilating. Their poor immigrant status meant they were still outsiders; they identified with the avant-garde, and with the worker and labor movements.

These artists were straddling two worlds, Jewish and assimilated, yet in that straddling, they made an effort to declare their Jewishness in their artwork. Geller encouraged his younger colleagues to incorporate Jewish subject matter into their work. Geller’s “Had Gadya” print and a handmade puzzle of a Hebrew aleph are presented alongside his completely secular works, such as a gorgeously colored landscape of a gritty steel Chicago.

One artist, A. Raymond Katz, successfully bridged the non-Jewish and Jewish art worlds: As Sandor, the European name for Alexander, he drew covers of The Chicagoan, a New Yorker–style magazine. There was no ostensibly Jewish content in these covers, and the artist Sam Greenberg even caricaturized Katz as a shaygetz, a non-Jew. Yet, after a trip home to Hungary, Katz was inspired to promote the use of Hebrew letters in modern Jewish decoration, specifically in stained glass designs for synagogues; he argued that the letters were more meaningful than standard Jewish motifs such as the Star of David. On display is his abstract print, “Holy Holy Holy & Final Mem.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.