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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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.”

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