ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 81 Todros Geller
Jewish art and Jewish culture, besides being bludgeoned with every club the Nazis and other anti-Semites have invented, are being whipsawed within the race itself in the clash of Zionism and Communism, according to Todros Geller, Chicago painter since 1918 and a profound student of Jewish art through the ages.
Each of the racial political factions, Geller has found by experience, is seeking to line up and restrict art and the other cultural forces, making an intellectual life hard for sturdy individualists like himself.
Geller, born in the Ukraine (1887), then a part of Russia, was scarcely conscious of his Jewish blood until the October revolution of 1905 drove his father and the various other members of the family into a garret. The 19-year-old boy whose features were not markedly Jewish (and are not now) came in from the streets where he had witnessed massacres of the pogrom, himself unscathed. He knocked at the locked door of the garret. It opened on sound of his voice. His father peered out.
“Jewish Eyes,” which Geller painted in Chicago many years later, are a record of the terrified expression he saw in his father’s face. Those eyes still haunt him, despite psychoanalytic theories of getting rid of nightmares once they are boldly and completely rationalized, as in his canvas. The family fled the Ukraine and in early 1906 reached Montreal.
However, the full realization of his Hebraism hadn’t even yet dawned on Geller. Terroristic acts of czarism were incidents of war and revolution. But when Geller encountered in America Jews who were making their living as tailors and in other menial and badly paid labor — Jews with intellects that should have made them leaders in the arts and sciences among people who regarded them with unthinking contempt — it was then that Geller became genuinely race-conscious.
Instead of driving him to despair, it spurred him to a determination to find out what it was all about.
Geller could number himself, without vanity, among the “young intellectuals.” He had been well-educated in the Greek Catholic seminary of the city of Vinnitza, his birthplace so well that, at 13, he had been given a certificate that conferred on him the privilege to teach, which was his boyhood ambition.
In Vinnitza there were three advanced schools: the government school; a Jewish school; and the Greek Catholic school. The Jewish school was poorly equipped and Geller’s father, a grocer in easy circumstances, wanted something better than that for the boy. The government school received only a very limited number of Jews, and the elder Geller wasn’t politically powerful enough to get Todros admitted. So to the Green Catholic seminary he went, in a class where there were only two other Jewish boys.
But in the school, there was no treatment to set him and the two apart from the others. The Jews of Vinnitza were better off in this respect than in most other cities.
In Montreal during the three years following his landing there in 1906, Geller studied art at night, working in the daytime. It was his first formal art instruction. Thence he went west to Winnipeg where he worked as a photographer, and in 1918 he came to Chicago. Here, he entered the school of the Art Institute and eventually got his diploma.
All this time, he was reading everything he could find on Jewish art, interested particularly in the problem whether there was really a strain typically Jewish. He not only read but experimented, in both paint and woodcutting, with the motifs he discovered that seemed to him thoroughly racial.
His eager intensity was reflected in his work, and he became a successful exhibitor in Art Institute shows and shows around the country where the originality of his talent was observed and appreciated by alert students of art, gentile as well as Jew.
In 1926, he published a volume of woodcuts, Jewish in their subject matter in the main, which netted him $1,000. >With this money, the first in quantity he had possessed since landing in Montreal, he went back to Europe, chiefly in pursuit of his question as to whether there is a “Jewish art.”
In Paris, he visited and talked with Marc Chagall, Russian Jew like himself and acknowledged leader of the Jews in “the modern movement.” (Picasso and Matisse both have Jewish blood in their veins in appreciable quantity, but neither is even remotely “purposely” Jewish in his art.)
In London, he visited the British museum and examined piles of illuminated medieval manuscripts — ditto, the Cluny Museum, Paris.
He went into the ghetto at Prague where there are ancient synagogues, decorated by artisans who were working there about the time Giotto and Michelangelo were working on Christian churches in Italy.
He visited Palestine, where Zionist scholars are at work collecting data about everything Jewish that has been left in Jerusalem following the taking of the city time after time, from the sons of Israel by the Babylonians, the Romans, the Mohammedans, the Christian Crusaders.
After four or five months, he returned to Chicago with vastly increased knowledge but with no definite convictions.
Since then, however, assimilating all the facts he found and combining them with recent discoveries in Syria by expeditions sent out by Yale University and the Academy of France, he has traced an interesting and apparently significant strain.
In Syria, there were discovered in the ruins of a synagogue fresco painting illustrating 18 Old Testament scenes, dating back to almost 240 B.C.E.
In Syria, too, there has been found a face of Christ resembling the faces in the Catacombs of Rome, with facts indicating to Geller that Christianized Jews may have been responsible for both.
Mosaics, Geller finds indicated, were a development by Jewish artists and craftsmen — though he takes no stock in the theory that the word “mosaic” is derived from “Moses.”
There are in the medieval illuminated manuscripts illustrations, he finds, definitely of ghetto scenes, along with illustrations of Old Testament stories, indicating the hand of the Jew instead of the Christian.
These, along with the mosaics and the Syrian frescoes, are “pictorial” — with naturalistic pictures of human beings.
“How does it come,” I asked Geller, “in view of the stern commandment of Moses against the making of ‘any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth’?”
“Well, you know,” he replied, his eyes a-twinkle, “what happens when a law is passed against something everybody wants to do. Besides, these ancient artists discriminated. There are very few pictures illustrating stories of the five books of Moses in the range that is definitely Jewish. These artists preferred such subjects as are found in the books of Ruth, Esther, and Job.”
After the medieval manuscripts, Jewish art apparently languished for a time. Geller next finds its recurrence in the 18th century days of the philosopher and very human thinker, Moses Mendelssohn. In Mendelssohn’s circle appeared the German painter Oppenheimer, very academic but with no racial fear. Following him came Bender, also German-Jewish, influenced by the style of David in France.
They were not particularly “Jewish” in their impulses but there arose, shortly after them, Mauriz Gottlieb in Poland, who died at 22 in despair over winning a gentile girl but who managed with all his melancholy to leave behind him 200 canvases. Gottlieb inspired a “school” of ghetto painters — painters of ghetto scenes and types.
After him presently arose Polish Jew Hirschberg, who broke away from “academic” methods and who became definitely the prophet of Chagall, Sloane, and the other Jews of the “modern” movement.
Geller, in addition to his studies of Jewish art, past and present, and to his painting of Jewish subjects, is a successful teacher of art. It will be remembered that, at 13, his Greek Catholic priests pronounced him a teacher and gave him a certificate. In his struggles since with the world, he has lost nothing of his ability and interest in teaching.
But in his instructing, he is not Jewish — nor does the Jewish impulse dominate his art to the exclusion of all else. Geller is thoroughly Americanized, speaks with no accent, and follows eagerly the social and political trends in his adopted United States. He is a “liberal,” proud of a friendship with Emma Goldman dating back to his days in Montreal, and with the late Alexander Berkman — treasuring them as people.
Of late, he has worked on federal projects. His most important assignment there was to go down into Oklahoma and paint the Osage Indians. There, he met and contracted a friendship with the distinguished writer, John Joseph Matthews, part Osage, who traveled with him in search of Indian types.
It was not Geller’s first trip to the southwest, however, as he had already made the pilgrimage to New Mexico (once the American artist’s Mecca, as Old Mexico is now), and he did a series of woodcuts of New Mexican types he found around Santa Fe.
But for the most part, Geller has painted Chicago, and he has contributed notably to “the American scene” with his powerful “Black Venus,” a cabaret girl of the black belt around 35th Street, along with other personages that have arisen in contemporary American civilization.