|A Gift to Biro-Bidjan:
From Despair to New Hope
Bernece Berkman (1911-1979)
Toward a Newer Life
from the portfolio A Gift
to Biro-Bidjan, 1937
|A native of Chicago, Bernece
Berkman studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also
privately with Todros Geller and Rudolph Weisenborn. She later attended
Hunter College in New York and studied under the direction of artist Stuart
Davis at the New School for Social Research. Her works are included in
the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Museum of Art
in Pittsburgh and Seattle Art Museum.
Berkmanís mentors, Geller and Weisenborn, inspired her artistic development. Like Geller, she perceived art as a tool for social reform; like Weisenborn, she preferred to apply Expressionism in a Cubist manner.
In Toward a Newer Life, Berkman merges the current motifs of despair and hope with the Bible narrative of the slavery of the Jews in Egypt. This complex composition blends the Jewish slaves in Egypt with the workers of the Great Depression. They are surrounded by either Egyptian pyramids or by a modern industrial district with a smokestack.
Berkman intensifies the drama by the expressive gestures of the hands. One hand angrily grasps a machine part; others are extended upward. The large, illuminated figure in the center resembles one of Pablo Picassoís figures in the mural Guernica, an homage to the human suffering during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso completed the mural in 1937, the same year A Gift to Biro-Bidjan was published in Chicago.
Picasso based this figure in Guernica, with arms outstretched and looking up in anguish and prayer, on previous works that he created in the early 1930ís that presented his visual interpretation of the Crucifixion. Berkmanís figure uses arm gestures similar to the figure in the woodcut The Cry (1919), created by German artist Otto Dix (1891-1969). Dix, like Berkman, was socially conscientious and developed a style that was a synthesis of expressionism and cubism.
Although Berkmanís woodcut displays a scene of oppression and despair, she grotesquely titled it Toward a Newer Life. The theme of the slavery in Egypt followed by the exodus to the Promised Land serves as a message for universal social justice, as well as for the Jewish desire for a homeland.