ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 70 Morris Topchevsky
Morris Topchevsky, leading leftist among Chicago artists, both by force of his talents and a driving personality, is frankly a propagandist. Only Topchevsky’s emotional impulses and great technical skills are such that his preachments have a minimum of the fustian of the soapbox orator. “Propaganda,” like everything else — everything — is fit subject for art so long as the artist is master, not the “message,” As the great Christian pictures (painted when Christianity was a burning issue) are offered in evidence, as well as the political paintings of Goy, Daumier, and George Grosz.
“At the present time of class struggle, danger of war, and mass starvation, the artist cannot isolate himself from the problems of the world,” wrote Topchevsky for J.Z. Jacobson’s book, Art of Today, Chicago 1933 and the most valuable contribution to society will come from 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 preset, 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.
Aims like that are apt to result, at best, in purposeful posters but in the case of Topchevsky, almost alone of Chicago artists and rare enough the world over, “art” comes from his brushes.
One reason may be that “revolution” is ingrained in him. Born in 1899 in Bicallstock (then a Russian city but now allotted to Poland) Topchevsky remembers hiding before he was 10 with the rest of his family for three or four days to escape a pogrom, on the heels of the unsuccessful revolt of Russians against the czar. His father was a mechanic in the iron works at Bicallstock, as well as a Jew, and was doubly in danger on account of his race and his participation in labor struggles.
Topchevsky remembers being puzzled over the religious issue, since many of the friends of his family were gentiles and on warm friendly terms. He couldn’t understand why gentiles as a class were hostile to Jews as a class, when personally the individuals were so friendly. His experience must have resembled that of a small boy in border states in the American Civil War, whose uncles arrayed themselves against each other, rifles in hand.
Topchevsky’s mother was of a line of weavers and dyers, which meant (in Russia) artists in textiles. It is from this side of the family he inherited any art instincts that may have been prenatally ingrained.
When he was 11, he and his mother came to Chicago to join his father who had left Russia the year before, and it is in Chicago that he has grown up. Drab landscapes are his visual memory of his native country, feeding the melancholy that is in his disposition.
In the public schools, he learned to speak and write English and acquired his general education. As soon as he was beyond early boyhood he went to work to help support the family, doing anything that came to hand, working as many as six or eight trades in a single year. Observation, sharpened by the memory of pogroms and persecutions in Russia, added to his fund of knowledge – and acute feeling – of the “class struggle.”
When he was about 18 his rounds of the trades led him to the sign-painting shops of the Thomas Cusack Company. He started as a helper, filling up the paint buckets, cleaning brushes and whatever else there was to do.
However, his job suggested “art” to him and so he entered the classes at Hull House of the talented Miss Enella Benedict, who had taught for years previously at the Art Institute. As he progressed in knowledge, his superiors in the sign-painting job let him use the brush to fill in big surfaces. They wouldn’t trust him with the more delicate tasks of modeling a plate of ham or the contours of a chorus girl, and Topchevsky gradually came to a realization, under the instruction of Miss Benedict and of Albert Krehbiel of the Art Institute, that he didn’t want to be a sign-painter anyhow. However, he qualified for his union card, which he still carries.
In order to shake off the spell of Cusack’s plant, Topchevsky in 1924 went down into Mexico, the fame of whose murals, done by Diego Rivera, was beginning to spread through the world. He stayed for two years, during which he met and talked frequently with Rivera about both paint and social subjects. But he didn’t make the mistake of becoming Diego’s pupil, for he sense so strong a personality in the Mexican that he would have to become either a littloe Rivera or battle with his master.
Instead, he journeyed back into the hills, astride a mountain burro, sketching both on his own and for a group of archaeologist from Mexico City, who were investigating the ruins of the ancient Spanish village of Tepoztlan, a considerable journey beyond the town of Taxco that since has become a paradise for artists. Topchevsky’s drawings of the ruins of Tepoztlan are preserved in the Department of Ethnology in the Mexican Ministry of Education, Mexico City.
Returning to Chicago in 1926, Topchevsky became an instructor in art at Hull House where he had received the greater part of his education. It was a living, but to pay off debts incurred on his Mexican trip he shouldered his union card and went back to his old job of sign painting.
In 1928 Dr. Hubert Herring, with whom he had been on the expedition to Tepoztlan, established the Mexican Seminar, and invited Topchevsky to return to Mexico City as a lecturer. He accepted, and for the next three years spent the greater part of his time in Mexico. Then came an invitation from Dr. Alexander Meiklejohn to lecture in his experimental college at the University of Wisconsin – the so-called “guinea pig college,” which frightened the red-ballers into spasms. Topchevsky did his part dyeing red the guinea pigs.
Returning to Hull House, he organized the children’s classes in art and then, in 1932, he went as art instructor to Abraham Lincoln Center, largely Negro, but interracial, where he has been ever since.
He finds Abraham Lincoln Center more difficult than Hull House, because the population shifts more readily and rapidly. Students who show promise are apt to disappear abruptly as they move away from the neighborhood, whereas the long-established Hull House lures them back from all quarters and even from other cities.
Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln Center interests him more. There is an enormous amount of talent on the south side, he says, particularly among the Negroes, who have a kinship with the Mexicans in “having a greater hold on life” than the average American. The Negro, he believes, is gradually finding himself, no longer aping white people, but examining and following racial impulses.
The greatest obstacles in the way says Topchevsky, who sometimes takes picturesque liberties with Noah Webster’s language, as “mysticism and prejudice.” By “prejudice” he means the well-known race prejudice of white versus black, but by “mysticism” he doesn’t mean anything in the Negro Psychology akin to “voodooism.” The “mysticism” read into the cultured Negro by his white brethren. If the Negro does something worthwhile, he is regarded as a phenomenon, something “mystical,” beyond average understanding. Whereas, to Topchevsky, the Negro talent is just another talented human being.