Todros Geller, Strange Worlds

Todros Geller, Strange Worlds, 1928, oil on canvas, 71.8 x 66.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago), a Seeing America videoSpeakers: Sarah Alvarez, Director of School Programs, Department of Learning and Engagement, The Art Institute of Chicago and Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at a painting by Todros Geller called “Strange Worlds.” Despite the title, it’s a painting that is located just a few blocks from the museum, under the “L.”

Sarah Alvarez: [0:18] The “L” is not a strange world to people who live in Chicago. Rather, it’s a part of daily life, and was for people living in Chicago in 1928 when this painting was made. Todros Geller uses that backdrop as a familiar point to invite viewers into this image.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] Invite is such an interesting word because the man who stares back at us is not what I would call inviting.

Sarah: [0:41] I think that his facial expression looks tense, he looks worried, he looks tired. We see the wrinkles and even the bags under his eyes. His face is drawn out and elongated.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] The title isn’t “Strange World,” it’s “Strange Worlds,” and there is this bifurcated quality. There’s everything that’s in the foreground — the newspapers, the face of the man, the drapes that he wears, the diagonal of the stairs going up to the elevated tracks — and then there’s everything beyond.

Sarah: [1:08] That foreground is actually extremely compressed, and then you’re launched into a much larger space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] The world beyond is full of energy, full of dynamism. It reminds me of Italian Futurism, where speed and movement and modernity was so important, versus the foreground, which although also modern, feels much more static.

Sarah: [1:27] It’s dark, whereas the background is much lighter. There are many more figures and there’s also brighter colors.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] Chicago was in flux at this moment. There had been an enormous number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Geller was an immigrant from Ukraine who fled pogroms in 1906, went to Montreal, became a photographer, and then comes to Chicago and enrolls in classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sarah: [1:51] Eastern European immigrants were coming to Chicago and to the United States since the late 19th century, and we also had immigration from Mexico. We had the Great Migration happening as well.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] By Great Migration, we’re talking about large numbers of African Americans moving from the South to the industrial cities of the North. This was a moment when the agricultural traditions of the United States were being transformed, and we were becoming [an] increasingly industrial culture.

[2:15] When you look at this painting, you can imagine how vividly this must have expressed that new industrial modernism and how threatening that was. A foreign figure in this new city with people bustling, disassociated from the land, it seems to cut across everything that people had understood as American.

Sarah: [2:33] In 1924, President Coolidge, in signing the Johnson-Reed Act, said that “America must remain American.” This quote and this act come after a wave of anti-immigration sentiment. This, tied with fears around the rise of industrialization and concerns about the economy, led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

[2:52] Geller and the Jewish communities in the United States are living amidst heightened anti-Semitism. The fears about what was happening elsewhere in the world also contribute to this. World War I and the revolutions in Russia and elsewhere led to concerns about influences coming into the United States through immigration.

[3:07] There was this tremendous dynamic between different communities and cultures happening in Chicago. At the same time, in the wake of World War I, we see nativism emerging on a national scale.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] Geller isn’t representing his own experience directly. He came to the United States as a young man. We know that Geller was part of a community that was thinking about what Jewish identity meant as it became part of American culture. Could it remain Jewish and also become American?

Sarah: [3:34] Experiencing modernity and all of the changes that it brought about was not difficult only for people who were coming from another country and maybe didn’t speak the language or didn’t have the same cultural associations.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] Even people born here were experiencing a kind of alienation that he so beautifully represents.

Sarah: [3:49] This isn’t a portrait of any particular person. It’s someone that, presumably, many people could associate with, whether it was themselves or someone older in their family that had come here. He looks out at us, potentially making a decision to turn his back on modernity that’s behind him. But at the same time, we get to see that modernity.

[4:07] So we, as viewers, are propositioned to think about what we might do in this situation. Would we join them? Would we stay with him? Where would we want to be? And he’s almost prompting the viewer to consider this question rather than posing a response to it.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] The way in which you posed that made me look at this painting in a different way. Its fractured modernism, the way in which it has elements of Futurism, of Cubism, now makes me see that as part of the subject matter, of a fractured society, and a lack of an answer as to how these pieces will come together.

Sarah: [4:35] I think he’s capturing this moment of alienation. It’s very poignant for him as a member of the Jewish community, but there’s something universal about the image that allows this to be accessible to a wider audience.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] And for me at least, that’s often what great art does. It takes the experience of the specific and makes it universal.

[4:52] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”AICGeller,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Sarah Alvarez and Dr. Beth Harris, "Todros Geller, Strange Worlds," in Smarthistory, September 19, 2018, accessed May 21, 2024,