A Gift to Biro-Bidjan: Chicago, 1937
From Despair to New Hope
Preface and Acknowledgements
With the installation of A Gift to Biro-Bidjan: Chicago, 1937 – From Despair to New Hope, Oakton Community College now has two permanent exhibitions at the Ray Hartstein Campus in Skokie, Ill., that represent important chapters in the history of printmaking in Chicago. A Gift to Biro-Bidjan joins the exhibition Plucked Chicken Press: The Stone Prints of Will Petersen and His Contemporaries installed in 2001.
A few years ago, Karol Verson, a theater director and adjunct faculty member at Oakton, obtained the portfolio from a local resident who had stored it in his basement for many years. Verson recognized the historic significance of these remarkable works and the moral lessons they express. She became a second messenger who donated the portfolio to an educational institution to be researched and displayed.
This exhibition is an attempt to reconstruct the days of despair and hope in Chicago of 1937. It explores the struggle of idealistic artists to survive the Great Depression and to dream for better days. Despite their daily hardships, they courageously expressed their collective identity and supported their oppressed Jewish brothers overseas.
Although the text page in the portfolio indicates that the edition was limited to 200, the rarity of this work today suggests that this estimate was too high. Most likely, the woodcuts were inked and printed according to demand. The portfolio is included in a few museum collections, including the Spertus Museum, Chicago; Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and in several private collections.
The rarity of the portfolio also might be the result of poor conservation. The woodcuts were attached to non-archival papers that included the name of the artist and the title. Over the years, the acidic papers deteriorated the woodcuts.
While the list of the artists in the text page of the portfolio is alphabetic, except for Aaron Bohrod because of his seniority, the order of the woodcuts in the exhibition and in the catalog is thematic. It starts with images of persecution and despair and ends with scenes of “new life” and hope.
I owe acknowledgements and thanks to the individuals and institutions that generously assisted and guided me during my research and preparation of this project:
Rachel Topp, wife of the late Alex Topp (Topchevsky); David Silverman, grandson of Todros Geller; Noah Hoffman, nephew of Mitchell Siporin; artist and writer Louise DunnYochim; David Kiel, curator of prints, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Olga Weiss, curator, Spertus Museum, Chicago; Debora Wood, associate curator, Mary and Leigh Block Museum, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; David Sokol, professor of art history, University of Illinois at Chicago; Henry Srebrnik, associate professor of political studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada; Joy Kingsolver, director of Chicago Jewish Archives, Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, Chicago; Shoshana Schwartz, adjunct faculty member, Oakton Community College, for her Yiddish translations; Susan Teller Gallery, New York; and YIVO - Institute for Jewish Research, New York.