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

The Woodcut as a Social Communicator

Jacob Steinhardt, Terror and Flight, Berlin, 1922
 

Preface and 
Acknowledments

Introduction

The Biro-Bidjan Project

Biro-Bidjan and American Support

The Woodcut as a Social 
Communicator

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

 


The revival of the woodcut as a graphic medium started in the late 19th century. Artists like Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch transformed the woodcut from a narrative illustration into a tool to express individual ideas. They experimented with the wooden block to produce textures and tones that were more dramatic.

This trend continued into the 20th century with the emergence of German Expressionism. Most of the German Expressionists were graphic-minded. They made prolific use of the leading print mediums, especially the woodcut, using the sharp contrast of black and white and the hard, dramatic cuts to express their souls and to turn a small format into a monumental image.

Graphic works also had a solid tradition in the history of Jewish art. Jews used calligraphy to scribe in accordance with certain stylistic rules. The Jewish attachment to the book promoted the evolution of book illustrations. Jewish artists like Herman Struck, Joseph Budko and Jacob Steinhardt, who produced powerful graphic work with Jewish themes, inspired future artists. 

Herman Struck (1887-1944) contributed internationally to the development of etching and created prints representing views of Israel and Jewish culture in various lands. His student, Joseph Budko (1880-1940), followed his lead and turned to graphic art. Budko developed a style that combined personal attitude with Jewish mentality, a synthesis of Jewish tradition and modern artistic approach. He also revived the spirit of Jewish book illustration, elevating it to modern design.

In 1913, Jacob Steinhardt (1887-1969) and Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966) founded the Berlin Expressionist group known as Die Pathetiker (The Suffering Ones), which focused mainly on graphic arts. Steinhardt became one of the most prominent woodcut artists using a neo-Gothic or Biblical style and refining the technique of block printing.

The Federal Arts Program of the U.S. Works Progress Administration established a Graphic Arts Division in 1935. The replicated prints and public murals created during this period contained social messages that were targeted to a Depression-weary mass audience. The artists of A Gift to Biro-Bidjan, who were active members of the WPA, produced graphic art and public murals. 

In 1937, the Chicago Society of Artists began publishing an annual block-print calendar to expose Chicago artists to a wider audience and to finance the society’s activities. The Artist Calendar – 1937 was published in the summer of 1936 and featured woodcuts by 30 artists, including four artists who contributed to A Gift to Biro-Bidjan: Fritzi Brod, Abraham Weiner, Louis Weiner, and Todros Geller. This calendar project, used as a fund-raising tool, preceded the ICOR publication of A Gift to Biro-Bidjan.

Among the artists who participated in A Gift to Biro-Bidjan, Todros Geller was the most prominent graphic artist. He illustrated more than 40 books, and several books of his woodcuts were published. In the same year A Gift to Biro-Bidjan was produced, L.M. Stein published Geller’s woodcuts album, From Land to Land.

The artists of A Gift to Biro-Bidjan made remarkable use of woodcut techniques to promote their ideas. Black silhouette, where the artist carves out background spaces from the wooden block, was applied mainly for the motif of “despair.” White silhouette, where the artist carves out the area of the subject, was used primarily for the motif of “new hope.” The dramatic contrast of black-and-white woodcut emphasizes the symbolism of “dark” versus “light” and “despair” versus “new hope.”

Joseph Budko, Sabbath, ca. 1920s, Woodcut.
Herman Struck, Untitled, 1922, Lithograph