A Gift to Biro-Bidjan: Chicago, 1937
From Despair to New Hope

Mitchell Siporin (1910-1976)

Workers Family

from the portfolio A Gift to Biro-Bidjan, 1937
Woodcut, 8 x 9 5/8 in.
Oakton Community College
Gift of Karol Verson


Preface and Acknowledments
The Biro-Bidjan Project
Biro-Bidjan and American Support
The Woodcut as a Social 
The Title Page
Alex Topchevsky
William Jacobs
Aaron Bohrod
David Bekker
Louis Weiner
Mitchell Siporin
Edward Millman
Fritzi Brod
Bernece Berkman
Moris Topchevsky
Abraham Weiner
Raymond Katz
Todros Geller
Ceil Rosenberg

Born in New York, Mitchell Siporin was an infant when his family moved to Chicago in 1911.  He studied under Todros Geller  and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Siporin grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home where his family members admired the works of Jewish literary masters like Isaac Leib Peretz, the father of Yiddish literature; the humorist writer Sholem Aleichem; and Bialik, the Hebrew nationalist poet.

Siporinís early work reflected his interest in the labor movement and in other sociopolitical issues. During the Depression, he was a prolific member of the WPA project. He created several public murals, including those in the St. Louis post office; the Decatur, Ill., post office; and Chicagoís Lane Tech High School. His works are included in the Art Institute of Chicago, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in  New York.

In 1936, a year before Siporin created Workers Family, he painted an homage to social reformer and humanitarian Jane Addams as part of the WPA project. Addams was the founder of Hull House, which was near the Jewish neighborhood of Maxwell Street. In the painting, Siporin presents Jane Addams in the midst of poor women and children; next to them, a worker and a farmer shake hands.

The labor issue is the prime topic of Workers Family. It is a typical Depression-era scene with working-class people positioned in front of an industrial, urban landscape with smokestacks in the background that emit  thick plumes of dark smoke into the sky. Siporin stages the family as if they are sitting for a family portrait. It is a social-realist image that uses the medium of woodcut to create a dazzling contrast between the illuminated human figures and the dark buildings behind them.

Siporin displays three generations in Workers Family: the bearded grandfather in the back and the young boy in the front looking at his parents with anticipation. This motif of the continuity of values and traditions from generation to generation reappeared in 1938 when Siporin painted the murals in Chicagoís Lane Technical High School. In the four-panel mural Teaching of the Arts, Siporin presents allegories of drama, visual arts, literature, and music. In the teaching of the literature and the visual arts, old bearded teachers transfer the knowledge to the next generation.

In the context of the Biro-Bidjan project, Workers Family is a socialist resolution where the family as a whole participates in building new hope. 

Mitchell Siporin (1910-1976), Visual Art (left) and Literature (right) from Teaching of the Arts, 1938, Mural, Lane Technical High School, Chicago