Chicago artist’s long lost work at Oakton
Morris Topchevsky's "Century of Progress," 1933, from the Collection of Clifford Law Offices | Courtesy of Koehnline Art Museum
‘Eyewitness: Works by
Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, through Sept. 21
(847) 635-2633. www.oakton.edu/museum
Updated: August 24, 2012 3:26PM
Chicago social crusader and artist Morris Topchevsky painted many pictures from the 1920s through the 1940s.
But none of them would be called pretty, said Donna Korey. Korey is the co-curator of “Eyewitness: Works by Morris Topchevsky Comes to Oakton.” The new exhibit runs through Sept. 21 at Oakton Community College’s Koehnline Museum of Art.
“Rather than pretty pictures they were gritty, depressing pictures,” Korey noted because they reflected the people and places Topchevsky, who lived from 1899-1947, knew.
Those were hard years, the years shaped by world wars and the Great Depression, and Topchevsky’s art takes a clear-eyed look at the poverty, homelessness and other misery he saw.
Featuring one of the most “activist artists” of the Great Depression, Nathan Harpaz, manager and curator of the Koehnline Museum of Art, said in an email that the exhibit “will illustrate how (an) artist’s involvement can make a difference.”
“His artwork really is very contentious, so it’s about a lot of things that people have very strong opinions on even today almost 100 years later,” Korey said. That would be things like Communism, labor unions, workers’ riots, and economic disparities of the day.
His painting, “Century of Progress,” for instance, features unemployed workers in shantytown with the elegant pavilions at Chicago World’s Fair, in the background.
“I know we’re in a deep recession, we’re not in a depression,” Korey said, “but I think people will be able to connect to this in some way that maybe during the heyday they wouldn’t have been able to.”
Topchevsky came as an immigrant from Russia to the Chicago’s near West Side as a boy. He studied art at Hull House, then at the Art Institute. In 1925, he traveled with Jane Addams to Mexico where he visited poor areas, met local leaders and became aware of politically active artists like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. What he learned shaped his life and art.
He returned to Mexico later in his life for reasons of health and painted pictures of the people and places he saw there.
Topchevsky’s work might easily have been lost. However, while conducting research for a different art exhibit in 2001, Harpaz accidentally discovered some of Topchevsky’s artwork in the basement of the house of the artist’s deceased brother Alex Topp, also a painter.
“He went down there and there was like a time capsule of artwork from this period, and everything about this man’s life. I mean letters and invitations and correspondence to other people, and lots of different things,” Korey said.
Nobody knew the artwork was there, Korey added. It had probably been in the custody of Topp, moving from home to home, for close to 60 years. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, given such storage conditions, some of the artwork was damaged.
In 2004, Korey then a student of art history who was pursuing a second undergraduate degree, along with Amy Galpin, then a graduate student also at the University of Illinois at Chicago, were asked to take on the project of organizing the recovered works.
The two became co-curators of “Eyewitness.” To develop the show, they conducted extensive research, attempting to put together a picture of Topchevsky and what he had witnessed in the city of Chicago during his lifetime.
Korey searched a variety of sources, including historical societies, where she found archival photographs of similar incidents to those Topchevsky had depicted in his paintings. For example, there are eyewitness accounts of policeman using tear gas and billy clubs to contain protesting strikers, and homeless people sleeping in Grant Park, Korey said, and Topchevsky painted similar images.
Topchevsky’s ideas were controversial, Korey noted, and because subscribed to a Russian-style socialist ideology, much of his artwork was considered “subversive” at the time and destroyed.
But with the many works that remain, it’s possible to understand and respect Topchevsky’s passion for social justice.
This exhibit is, said Korey, “about the people like him that did not like the status quo, that wanted to try to change society and were trying to do something about it. They were trying to not only talk the talk but walk the walk.”