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

The Title Page
 

From the portfolio A Gift to Biro-Bijan,
Chicago, 1937

Unknown (American), Title Page from the portfolio A Gift to Biro-Bijan, 1937, Color Woodcut, 9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in., Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 
Northwestern University, Gift in part from Louise Dunn Yochim.
 

 

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 red-and white-woodcut was attached to the black cover of the portfolio. There is no reference, on the image or in the introductory text, to the identity of the artist who created this woodcut; however, socially and stylistically it corresponds to Todros Geller’s work. 

Chicago publisher L.M. Stein, who produced the portfolio, had a lengthy working relationship with Geller and shared a similar ideology. Beginning in 1926, Stein published books illustrated by Geller and monographs of the artist, including the most extensive album, From Land to Land, which was published in 1937, the same year as A Gift to Biro-Bidjan. Stein and Geller, considered “radical progressives,” were part of the Chicago Jewish Left who believed in promoting the Yiddish language. The two supported the Soviet Union for its commitment to the Yiddish language and to the Jewish settlement in Biro-Bidjan. The selection of a socialistic red color in the title page woodcut reflects their ideology.

The text on Title Page, inscribed in Yiddish and English, is accompanied by two small images that reflect the “despair” against “new hope” themes of the portfolio.

The “despair” motif is expressed symbolically by smokestacks discharging dark plumes of smoke into an urban, industrial landscape. Since the Industrial Revolution, artists had used the image of smoking chimneys to portray the threat of the urban environment. Geller displayed two images using this motif in From Land to Land, produced in 1937 as part of the WPA project. In the woodcut Chicago Towers, the smoke spreads from the chimneys, almost engulfing the nearby tall buildings. South of Chicago is a somber scene filled with a dramatic view of smokestacks that resemble those on the title page of A Gift to Biro-Bidjan. In the context of the Depression, the smokestacks represent suffering and despair.

At the top of TitlePage, a human figure looks skyward and stretches a hand toward the rising sun for “new hope.” While the smokestacks of despair are expressionistic in design, the new hope image is inspired from Geller’s works of the 1920s, which were designed in the Art Nouveau style. The Jewish artist Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), who developed a “Zionist Art” by blending tradition and modernism, influenced his early illustrations. Lilien’s Art Nouveau-style images included the motif of light as a symbol of optimism, elevating the Jewish people from “darkness to a great light”. In the same manner, Bolshevik posters during and after the Communist Revolution used the rising sun as a symbol of the “new world order.” 

Todros Geller, Chicago Towers, 1937, Woodcut, from the book From Land to Land (WPA project). 
Todros Geller, Shabes, Illustration from Zelig Heller's book Alten Vegen, 1926

 


 
Todros Geller, South of Chicago, 1937, Woodcut, from the book From Land to Land (WPA project). 
Ephraim Moses Lilien, The Jewish  May, Postcard, ca. early 1900s.