Vera Berdich

b. Cicero, IL, 1915–d. Chicago, 2003

Vera Berdich was born in 1915 to Czech immigrants in Cicero, a suburb south of Chicago. The family moved frequently, following her father, a tool and die maker who wanted to live on a farm but had little experience doing so. He loved the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, and bought property in Wisconsin sight-unseen. It turned out to be mostly swampland. The family lived there on a houseboat for a time, eating game, fish, and wild berries. At age 8, her family settled in Riverside Lawn near the Desplaines River and forest preserve, enjoying a semi-rural life raising chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Berdich and her sisters grew up secluded and protected from the corruption of 1920s Chicago. Her parents were strict, and passed on a love of music. These early influences of nature and music inspired Berdich’s later work. She graduated from grammar school in 1929 and worked through J. Sterling Morton High School babysitting and housecleaning to pay for her books. Her art instructor there, Claudia Stevenson, encouraged Berdich to study at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC).

Berdich began night classes at SAIC, working odd jobs to save money. A friend helped her gain employment with a postcard company, where she did color separation and photo retouching. At age 26, Berdich left home and moved to Chicago, joining the Illinois Arts Project, where she first encountered printmaking. She was instantly taken with the etching medium, especially the opportunity it afforded to explore tonal effects. When World War II began, she took a course in drafting and worked for the American Steel Company.

She returned to the SAIC after the war, attending full-time and graduating with a BA in 1946. A year later, Berdich was hired by SAIC, where she founded the printmaking department and continued teaching until her retirement in 1979 as a professor emeritus. As a teacher, Berdich emphasized the medium as a creative means of expression rather than as a means of reproduction. She educated generations of young artists in printmaking at SAIC, and formed productive professional relationships with fellow professors Kathleen Blackshear and Whitney Halstead, who urged students to look beyond the classical Western tradition to the art of other cultures.

Berdich used experimental techniques, applying various colored inks by hand to the etching plate to create one-of-a-kind works. This approach to creating layered and subtle shifts in tonality is evident in her prints Things to Be Remembered, 1949,and View Through Distorting Spectacles, 1952. The latter is a fine example of her surrealist etchings, with its repetitive eyes and references to perception couched in a symbolist, dreamlike atmosphere. Berdich was one of the first artists in the United States to develop photographic images on copper plate intaglio, and in 1956 introduced a photo transfer method to canvas and paper. She also revived the use of nineteenth-century techniques, cliché verre, which involves the use of photographic materials without a camera; and à la poupée, a method of making color prints in which one plate instead of several is used. Berdich re-inked a single plate and employed numerous over-paintings.

Throughout the 1950s, Berdich won prizes at the annual Chicago and Vicinity shows at the Art Institute, and she exhibited her work throughout the U.S. and abroad in international print exhibitions. Retrospective exhibitions were mounted at SAIC in 1979, and in honor of her eightieth birthday at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1995. A large group of Berdich’s works are in the print collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lisa Meyerowitz

 

References

Berdich, Vera. Pamphlet file P-02604. Ryerson Library. Art Institute of Chicago.

Silverman, Lanny. The Unquiet Eye: Vera Berdich, A Retrospective. Essay by Franz Schulze. Chicago: Chicago Cultural Center, 1995.

Warren, Lynne, ed. Art in Chicago, 1945–1995. Chicago: Thames and Hudson and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 1996.