Poet of Black Thoughts
“Strange Worlds” (1928) was the most unforgettable painting in “They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration”, an exhibit mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013. Beneath an angled steel girder of the Chicago ‘L’, the hustle and bustle of the Loop is contrasted with the piercing red eyes and angular face of a wizened old immigrant from eastern Europe. The spell of the familiar is broken as workaday downtown Chicago is viewed as strange through the eyes of a stranger.
That remarkable canvas was not permitted to travel the three blocks south on Michigan Avenue to the Spertus Institute,possibly climate control was the issue. Drawing mostly from their own collection, however, curators at the Spertus have assembled a variety of similar work by the same artist, Todros Geller.
An ominous feeling pervades most of these pieces, even in the folkloric “Yiddish Motifs”, (1926) a portfolio of seven woodcuts depicting Jewish life in Chicago. These are not the heroic workers or simple, honest peasants of Social Realism. These are Jews, a people who have intermittently but persistently been persecuted worldwide for over two millennia. The themes are ordinary enough, but the designs have a flat, angular dynamic that owes much to the German expressionism of that time. The storefronts on Maxwell Street feel a little too claustrophobic, the horseradish grinder a little too intense, and the Chasidic dance more desperate than joyous. There is nary a whiff of sentimental nostalgia. This is not Marc Chagall.
The exhibit includes many cityscapes of Chicago. They are all dark and foreboding, emphasizing the heavyset clunkiness of typical factories or residential property. It’s a cold, dark, scary world—even the Michigan Avenue bridge which, as seen from below, towers above the viewer like a medieval fortress.
Most dramatic are the pieces that seem to express the threat looming over the Jewish diaspora in the decade preceding the Holocaust. The historical narrative chosen was the story of Sabbatai Zevi, the seventeenth Century self-proclaimed Messiah who converted to Islam when confronted by the Turkish Sultan. Geller depicts him with sympathy rather than contempt. The biblical narrative chosen was the book of Job. Possibly feeling that Job’s suffering was too great to be depicted, Geller focuses our attention on his three philosophical friends who notably fail to empathize with his situation. He depicts them with oversized heads, much like the comic coneheads seen on Saturday Night Live forty years later. More tragic is his woodcut from 1937, “The past shall not be repeated”. Given its own vitrine in the center of the gallery, it depicts a mass execution of Jews being burned at the stake. The design is rent with fire, terror and dismay. It might be considered a psychotic, paranoid vision except that it turned out to be all too prophetic.
The Past Shall Not be Repeated
This is identity-based art, though more as a “hedge against assimilation” for the hundred thousand Yiddish speakers in Chicago rather than to confirm the moral superiority of an elite and compassionate art world. Aesthetics is mostly not given high priority. None of the oil paintings have the mystery, glow, liveliness, and appeal of “Strange Worlds”, which only appears here as a rather mediocre reproduction. “The Poet of Black Thoughts” (1929), however, has a lot to offer. Four elegant blackbirds swirl around the thoughtful face of a sensitive young poet. It may be the earliest example of the kind of self-centered, whimsical, psychological realism that would soon dominate figure painting in Chicago.