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!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • 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.