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Strange Worlds, immigration in the early 20th century

Geller captures the tensions of the Jewish immigrant experience in the early 20th-century United States. See learning resources here.

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

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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Kimberly Hemphill
    I notice that the colors on the traffic light are not in their usual order--red is usually (always?) at the top, not the bottom. Does this mean anything?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      They weren't always so. The arrangement evolved. I remember an intersection in Anniston, Alabama, that I drove through late in 1971 or early in 1972 which had no yellow light, and the green was on top! Seeing that, I recalled a high school teacher's mention of certain places where, during the McCarthy era of the 1950s the arrangement indicated that the communists (represented as the reds) should never be on top.
      (7 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Kimberly Hemphill
    Three years later, I'm watching this again, and I have another question! Dr. Zucker mentions that the title of this painting is "Strange Worlds" which leads me to wonder: how do we know that? Did the artist write it on the back of the canvas? Or was it titled when it was exhibited? Just curious!
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      We need to go back a few centuries for this. When pictures were made for patrons of the arts and hung in churches or palaces, there was often no need for a title. It was when they began to be "properties for sale and exchange" that titles came into use.
      Flash forward to the 20th Century, when "Strange Worlds" was made (in 1928). By then, titles were a normal thing. This painting belonged to the artist from its creation in 1928 until his death in 1949, then was transferred to a foundation which donated it onward to a museum. It's name was probably on record in the artist's will, in the transfer documents, and now in the little placque next to where it hangs in Chicago.
      (2 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Kate Basun
    How come there is no green light on the traffec light?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user cheery.reaper15
    Geller is clearly sympathetic towards the character portrayed, but I'm unclear as to whether he is suggesting that the gentleman is being rejected or he is rejecting the "strange world". Is it a bit of both?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Man] We're in The Art Institute of Chicago, looking at a painting by Todros Geller called Strange Worlds, but despite the title, it's a painting that is located just a few blocks from the museum, under the L. - [Woman] And 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. So Todros Geller uses that backdrop as a familiar point to invite viewers into this image. - [Man] Invite is such an interesting word, because the man who stares back at us is not what I would call inviting. - [Woman] I think that his facial expression looks tense, he looks worried, he looks tired. And we see the wrinkles and even the bags under his eyes, and his face is drawn-out and elongated. - [Man] The title isn't strange world, it's strange worlds, and there - Yeah. - [Man] 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. - [Woman] That foreground is actually extremely compressed, and then, you're launched into a much larger space. - [Man] 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, verus the foreground which, although also modern, feels much more static. - [Woman] It's dark, whereas the background is much lighter. There are many more figures and there's also brighter colors. - [Man] Chicago was in flux at this moment. There had been an enormous number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and 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. - [Woman] Eastern European immigrants were coming to Chicago and to the United States since the late 19th century. We also had immigration from Mexico, we had the Great Migration happening, as well. - And 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. So 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 - Yes. - with people bustling, disassociated from the land. It seems to cut across everything that people had understood as American. - [Woman] 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. And this, tied with fears around the rise of industrialization and concerns about the economy, lead to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. And Geller and the Jewish communities in the United States are living amidst heightened anti-Semitism. And the fears about what was happening elsewhere in the world also contribute to this. World War I and the revolutions in Russia and elsewhere lead to concerns about influences coming into the United States through immigration, but there was this tremendous dynamic between different communities and cultures happening in Chicago. And at the same time, in the wake of World War I, we see nativism emerging on a national scale. - [Man] Geller isn't representing his own experience directly. He came to the United States as a young man, but 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? - [Woman] 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. - [Man] So even people born here were experiencing a kind of alienation that he so beautifully represents. - [Woman] Yeah, 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. 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. - [Man] The way in which you posed that made me look at this painting in a different way. It's fractured Modernism, the way in which it has elements of Futurism, of Cubism, now makes me see that it's part of the subject matter of a fractured society and a lack of an answer as to how these pieces will come together. - [Woman] I think he's capturing this moment of alienation, and 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 wider audience. - [Man] And for me at least, that's often what great art does: it takes the experience of the specific and makes it universal. - Mm-hmm. (jazzy piano music)