Marcel Janco - Biography and Legacy
Romanian-Israeli Painter, Sculptor, and Architect
Ein Hod, Israel
Biography of Marcel Janco
Born to a wealthy family in Bucharest, Marcel Iancu was an emotional, dreamy boy, who recalled his childhood as a time of "freedom and spiritual enlightenment." From a young age, he felt guilty about his wealthy lifestyle and developed a desire for social justice. In 1912, he began his artistic career by creating illustrations for the Symbolist magazine Simbolul, co-editing it with his friends Ion Vinea and Tristan Tzara. Other early influences on the artist were the work of Cézanne, Cubism, and Futurism.
At the outbreak of World War I, Tzara, Iancu, and his brother Jules moved to Zurich, where Marcel changed his surname for the more easily pronounceable 'Janco.' He studied architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology where he was inspired by the philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk - the concept that decor should be integral to architectural design. These three young Romanians, along with Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hugo Ball, and Emmy Hennings, created an artistic collective that would eventually become known as Dada.
Disillusioned with Western culture and repulsed by war, they violently attacked convention in poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. In February 1916, they started infamous, anarchic performance nights at the Cabaret Voltaire. Inside the Cabaret nothing was taboo. Sex, death, vomiting, painting, nonsense verse, African chants, drumming, and kinetic, masked dances were rampant and shocked and exhilarated their audiences. Janco served as set designer, costumer, and performer at the Cabaret in addition to being responsible for crafting the terrifying masks worn by some of the performers. The artist described a typical audience at a Dada soiree, usually found both booing and screaming, as a collection of "painters, students, revolutionaries, tourists, international crooks, psychiatrists, the demimonde, sculptors, and police spies." Additional significant Dada projects produced by the artist include posters, plaster reliefs, and a set of colored woodcuts.
The artist himself was later described by fellow Dada artist Hugo Ball as "A ladies' man, handsome and tall, with broad shoulders, winsome ways, and other qualities that no girl could resist for long." In late 1919 he married Lily Ackermann, a dancer, with whom he had a daughter. It was around this time that he began to find life in the Dada cabal disruptive, and to resent Tzara's love of self-promotion. He began to conceptualize Dada as having "two speeds," (one positive and one negative) and gravitated away from what he saw as Dada's destructive nihilism and spiritual violence, alternatively embracing the socialist ideals offered by the Constructivists.
By 1922, Janco had returned to Romania where he was still known as Marcel Iancu. Here he became a vital nexus for modernist currents, joining Das Neue Leben and the Radikale Künstler along with Arp and Hans Richter and attending Theo van Doesburg's First Constructivist Congress. He founded the modernist magazine Contimporanul (1922-1932), writing articles on a range of subjects including design, abstraction, architecture, film, and theatre. He believed in the power of primitive art, noting in 1924: "The art of children, folk art, the art of psychopaths, of primitive people are the liveliest ones, the most expressive."
Janco continued working in illustration, sculpture, and oil, but at this time also significantly established an architectural studio known as the Bureau of Modern Studies. Influenced by Le Corbusier and Marinetti, the artist aimed to turn old-fashioned, stale Bucharest into a modernist landmark. By 1940 his studio had designed some 40 buildings across Bucharest including private homes, apartment blocks, and a sanatorium. His projects were defined by both function and beauty, incorporating sculpted reliefs in plaster (Imobilul Jacques Costin - 1933), triangular decorative panels (Imobilul Solly Gold - 1934), ceramics, stained glass, fresco, and innovative utilitarian details such as dual kosher pantries (Stelea Spatarul - 1935).
His first marriage to Ackerman ended in divorce in 1930, and Janco married Clara Goldschlager, the sister of a childhood friend, Jacques Costin, with whom he had another daughter. Greatly affected by the atmosphere in Bucharest created by the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Iron Guard, his brother in law's murder, and the Bucharest pogrom of 1940, Janco and his family relocated to Israel (then Mandatory Palestine).
On arrival in Israel (under control of the British Mandate until 1948) Janco worked as an architect, taught art and produced numerous sketches reflecting his experience in Bucharest including Two Nazi Soldiers Abusing a Jew and Tearing Out his Beard (1942) and Jews Forced to Wash Windows (1941). These works were intended to exorcise the horrors of the Holocaust that he had personally witnessed in Romania and the stories of other Jewish refugees. Janco noted that these works were not well received in Israel as the local population was, at that time, trying to look forward to what would be, not backward to what had been.
Accordingly, he began to use a brighter palette, more reflective of the local Israeli light, and, although still exhibiting the Cubist and Expressionist style for which he was known from early in his career, a more abstract style. He joined forces with other artists, such as Joseph Zaritsky, in founding the Ofakim Hadashim (New Horizons), a group devoted to capturing the local landscape with bold, expressionistic brushwork and a style similar to that being developed in Europe at the time.
The artist never adopted abstraction completely because, as he explained to Hans Richter, "I believe that one must always say something, but without being deformist or expressionist, my painting is oriented to make a strong expression, like you find in folk art." Indeed, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, Janco used a figurative abstract style to record the personal cost of war in his iconic Wounded Soldier series.
In May of 1953, Janco established an artistic colony in a deserted Arab village near Haifa named Ein Hod. Here he attempted to create a sort of utopian society. Janco called Ein Hod his "last Dada activity" and, during his time there, created his last Dada works. He died in 1984, just one year after the opening of the Janco Dada Museum.
The Legacy of Marcel Janco
Best known for his Dada years, Janco's oeuvre explored and bridged multiple genres, from Dada to Constructivism to Israeli Modernism, and influenced artists in many fields including architecture, painting, and sculpture.
His architectural theories and modernist creations in downtown Bucharest inspired the next generation of urban planners. Many survived the appropriation of personal property by the Communist regime, the revolution of 1989, and are thus still standing. A walk around downtown Bucharest reveals at least 18 residential and business buildings designed by Janco.
Janco was a formative influence on the art of the new Israeli nation, influencing Zaritsky, Stematsky, and Streichman;, as well as 'fathering' Ein Hod. He mentored a new generation, influencing the Neorealistic work of Michail Grobman and Avraham Ofek. Today, at the Janco Dada museum, the Ma'abadada (Dadalab) continues in Janco's eclectic style - staging exhibitions of his work, and continuing the Dada philosophy of questioning and experimentation.