Morris Topchevsky

(Russian-American, 1899 – 1947)

"At the present time of class struggle, danger of war and mass starvation, the artist cannot isolate himself from the problems of the world, and the most valuable contribution to society will come from the artists who are social revolutionists." -Topchevsky

Morris Topchevsky was born in Bialistock, Russia in 1899. He and his parents emigrated in 1910 to America to escape the oppressive culture that they had faced at home; a problem owing to their Jewish heritage. The social injustices that Topchevsky experienced as a child (four of his siblings perished in the Bialistock pogroms of 1905) would have a profound impact on him his entire life. He would come to see it as his calling to not only use his art to enlighten people to the inequalities going on around them, but to also teach others art, thereby "transmitting to them his passion and belief in art as a way to change the world." Topchevsky and his family had settled in Chicago upon arrival, and he began studying art the Hull-House with Enella Benedict and at the Art Institute, working with Albert Krehbiel. The budding artist chose to next enroll in art school at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City and in 1924 he took his first of many trips to Mexico. That same year the Mexican president Alvaro Obregón, decided that public works of art could play an important role in restoring a nationhood tattered by previous civil war. This decision would prove crucial to Topchevsky's art education. He attended school at San Carlos for the next two years, all the while soaking in the electric atmosphere that was crackling around him. He admired Mexican artists' revolutionary public art and consequently painters such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco heavily influenced his work. While in Mexico he visited poor neighborhoods and met with local leaders in order to better understand how and why Mexican muralists were able to so adeptly incorporate social messages into their monumental works, and in doing push their issues to the forefront of people's minds. He often met with Rivera during his visits in the 1920s and 30s and there is a great likely hood that he also met Leon Trotsky, who was living with Rivera outside of Mexico City at the time. Topchevsky most certainly moved in the same circles as Trotsky, Rivera, Frida Kahlo, James Cannon, Tina Modotti and others who were involved in the volatile happenings of the place that was Mexico City at that time. Topchevsky was in possession of a stack containing thirty or so photographs taken by the above-mentioned Italian artist Tina Modotti. Modotti, a former silent film actress, had developed into a leftist photographer who herself had been drawn to the Mexican capitol's bohemian scene in the 1920s. In 1925, while Topchevsky was in Mexico City, the noted Hull-House reformer, Jane Addams visited with him. Addams was in Mexico to view social conditions and to meet with the President of Mexico, members of the government and social and business leaders in order to discuss and advise on reforms. After Topchevsky's return to Chicago, he joined the radical Artists' Union and served as the secretary of the Chicago branch of the American Artists Congress, a left wing political group. He became a resident artist at the Hull-House under Jane Addams in 1926, and in 1931 taught two semesters at Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College (an innovative two-year program offered at the University of Wisconsin.) After another trip to Mexico in 1932 Topchevsky became a permanent fixture at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago as a resident art instructor. It was there that he felt that he was having the most impact. The Center gave him an arena in which to teach art to a mostly African American and underprivileged audience and reaffirm his own commitment to the issues to which he was so fervently devoted. He aspired to create work that would "be a means of helping the revolutionary movement of this country and the liberation of the working masses of the entire world." During the mid 1930s Topchevsky completed numerous works under the country's Works Progress Administration (no doubt spurred on by his experience with Mexican murals); one of which was "The Development of Man" at his beloved Lincoln Center in Chicago. He also completed several other works at schools and universities around Chicago and in 1937, authored the book American Today. By the early 1940s he had spent time in residence with the Taller de Gráfica Popular on several occasions. The Taller was the first self-supporting art workshop in Mexico and was located in Mexico City. His links to the Mexican muralist movement ran deep and it is evident in his murals and even more so in his lectures and teachings. Morris Topchevsky died in 1947 while living in Chicago.

  • Studied
  • San Carlos Academy, Mexico City, 1924-1926
  • Art Institute of Chicago with Albert H. Krehbiel
  • Hull House, Chicago with Enella Benedict and Jane Addams
  • Member
  • Art League, Chicago
  • American Artists Congress (secretary of Chicago branch)
  • Chicago Artists' Union, president 1940
  • Chicago Society of Artists, since 1928
  • Illinois Academy of the Fine Arts
  • John Reed Club, Chicago (founding member and illustrator of their first publication)
  • Awards
  • Goodman Prize, 1921
  • Author
  • American Today, 1937
  • Taught
  • Hull-House, resident artist under Jane Addams (1926-)
  • University of Wisconsin, 1931
  • Abraham Lincoln Center, Chicago, art director, (1932-)
  • References
  • Bulliet, Artists of Chicago
  • Kennedy (ed.), Chicago Modern 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New
  • Sparks, A Biographical Diction of Painters & Sculptors in Illinois 1808-1945
  • Creps (ed.), Biographical Encyclopedia of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers of the U. S.
  • Opitz (ed.), Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers
  • Mallett, Index of Artists, International-Biographical
  • Falk (ed.), Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975
  • Falk (ed.), The Annual Exhibition Record of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Dawdy, Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary
  • Yochim, Role and Impact: The Chicago Society of Artists
  • Becker, Art for the People: The Rediscovery & Preservation of Progressive & WPA Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943
  • U. S. General Services Administration, WPA Artwork in Non-Federal Repositories
  • Exhibited
  • Art Institute of Chicago, 1923-46 (14 times)
  • National Academy of Design, 1942
  • Chicago Artists Group Gallery, 1936-40
  • Increase Robinson's Gallery, Chicago
  • John Reed Club, Chicago
  • State History Museum, Madison, Wisconsin
  • Ministry of Education, Mexico City
  • Committee for Latin American Cultural Relations, New York
  • Delphic Studios, New York, 1935
  • New Jersey State Museum, 1936
  • Riverside Museum, 1939
  • New York World's Fair, 1939
  • Stevens Hotel, "Autumn Exhibition," Chicago, 1928 (Chicago Society of Artists only)
  • Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago
  • Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas
  • A number of galleries in Mexico City
  • Work
  • University of Michigan Museum of Art
  • Abraham Lincoln Center, Chicago, "The Development of Man" (WPA mural)
  • Holmes School, Oak Park, Illinois, "North American Children Working," (WPA mural)
  • several other WPA works ca. 1935 in and around Chicago area
  • Municipal Art League of Chicago, 1923 (prize), 1924 (prize)
  • Dr. Moises Saenz collection
  • Hubert Herring collection
  • The Richmond Museum
  • Mexican Ministry of Education
  • References Continued
  • Ganz and Strobel (eds.), Pots of Promise Mexicans and Pottery at Hull-House, 1920-1940
  • Harpez, A Gift to Giro-Bidjan: Chicago 1937, From Despair to New Hope
  • Mullen, Popular Fronts Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-1946
  • Sokol, Engaging with the Present, The Contribution of the American Jewish Club to Modern Art in Chicago, 1928-2004
  • Park, Mural Painters
  • Jacobsen, Art of Today: Chicago
  • Universal & Excelcior magazines of Mexico City
  • The Chicago Evening Post, The Chicago Daily News & Survey Graphic