|A Gift to Biro-Bidjan:
From Despair to New Hope
Morris Topchevsky (1899-1947)
To a New Life
from the portfolio A Gift
to Biro-Bidjan, 1937
was born in Bialystock, Poland. His father immigrated to the United States
in 1910, and the rest of the family followed later. Four of the Topchevsky
children perished in the Bialystock pogroms of 1905.
Topchevsky studied art at the Hull House and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His teachers were Enella Benedict and Albert Krenbiel. In 1925, he traveled to Mexico with Jane Addams to visit poor neighborhoods and to meet with local leaders. During his studies, Topchevsky worked as a billboard designer and painter. When he became ill from toxic paint, his doctor advised him to move to a better climate to improve his health. In 1926, he traveled back to Mexico.
His experiences in Mexico had a dramatic influence on his career. He was inspired by the Aztec and Maya sculptures and by the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). When Topchevsky returned to Chicago during the Depression, he applied the social messages and monumental effect of the Mexican muralists to his work. His works expressed the agony of the unemployed and scenes of Chicago’s industrial areas. In 1936, he painted the mural North American Children Working in Holmes School in Oak Park, Ill.
Topchevsky was the most politically radical artist of those who contributed to A Gift to Biro-Bidjan. In the book Art of Today: Chicago, 1933 (written by J.Z. Jacobson and published by L.M. Stein), he boldly revealed his revolutionary ideas:
At the present time of class struggle, danger of war and mass starvation, the artist cannot isolate himself from the problems of the world, and the most valuable contribution to society will come from the artists who are social revolutionists.
In all my work I have felt that movement of masses of people is the most important element. At first it was because I was fascinated by the problem it afforded. At the present, and I hope in my future work, it will be a means of helping the revolutionary movement of this country and the liberation of the working masses of the entire world.
In 1933, the year he was quoted, Topchevsky created the painting Century of Progress. He grotesquely displayed unemployed workers in shantytown observing the extravagant pavilions of Chicago’s World’s Fair, A Century of Progress, which celebrated the city’s 100 years of “advancement.”
To a New Life is a social-realist image that resembles Soviet scenes of Stalin’s era. New Life was also the title of the publication of ICOR, the Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union that sponsored the portfolio. The man and women in front are pioneer workers of the “new world order.” The man holds a hammer, a common Soviet symbol, in his hand. In his other hand, he holds a blueprint, a new plan for a “new life.”
The woman holds a book, which represents the ideology behind the new social order. The scene in the back breaks the realistic atmosphere by presenting a dream-like image of the Old Jew. Topchevsky curved largely into the wooden block to illuminate the workers and the surrealistic scene of the old man behind them. Like a theater drama, he proposes a solution for a new life, for which the Biro-Bidjan project is an optional response.
|Morris Topchevsky, Mexican Woman, Mexico, 1925, Watercolor, 13-3/4" x 11", Oakton Community College collection, 2002.29, Gift of Jim and Liz O'Shea||MorrisTopchevsky, Unemployed,
1934, Oil on canvas, 30 x 28 in., Private Collection.
|Morris Topchevsky, Century of Progress, 1933, Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in., Private Collection.|