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Marcel Janco: Dada art legend and Israel’s unsung hero

CM 25/08/2021 3

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The name Marcel Janco may sound familiar. One of the founding fathers of Dada and surrealist art in Europe in the early 20th century, his name is found in art history books next to geniuses like Salvador Dali, Man Ray or Pablo Picasso. But lesser known is the second part of his life, which is just as exceptional. 
After making aliyah to Israel from his native Romania in 1941, Janco made it his mission to preserve and protect the country’s authentic Arabic architecture. Following the 1948 War of Independence, the nationalist mood was to destroy any remnants of the past. The deserted Arab quarters of Acre, Ramle, Beit She’an and Tiberias were set to be demolished, as were huge areas of Old Jaffa. 

Dada, not demolition

This demolition was not only due to political reasons – the State of Israel wanted to create a new chapter, a new book, even – and some of the old stone houses in these areas were in poor condition. Yet, Janco saw it differently. He fought and argued for the Arabic architecture, much of it built by the Ottomans, to be restored and saved as part of the country’s heritage. 

By the 1940s, Janco was a world-renowned artist and under prime minister David Ben-Gurion, he was put in charge of locating sites to become national parks. In a complete turnaround – Janco, the European modernist, had suddenly become the defender of Israel’s heritage.
Far ahead of his time, he traveled around the country with his sketchbook looking for sites to protect and stumbled across the abandoned hillside village of Ayn Hawd (now called Ein Hod). Falling in love with the surroundings at the foot of Mount Carmel, Janco established an artist village in Ein Hod in 1953. Incidentally, some Arab residents of Ayn Hawd returned and settled further up the hill but their village wasn’t recognized by the state until 1992.  
Today, Ein Hod is a popular day trip destination for Israelis with its art galleries and craft shops, as well as being home to the Janco Dada Museum. Founded in 1983, a year before Janco’s death in 1984, the Janco Dada Museum houses a small collection of the great artist’s work spanning his life. And what a life…
 ONE OF Janco’s famous masks from 1917 on display at ‘Hey! Did you know that Art does not exist…’ (credit: The Sylvio Perlstein Collection: From Dada to Now at the Tel Aviv Museum) ONE OF Janco’s famous masks from 1917 on display at ‘Hey! Did you know that Art does not exist…’ (credit: The Sylvio Perlstein Collection: From Dada to Now at the Tel Aviv Museum)

Life in Europe

Janco was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1895 and his artistic talent was discovered early on. In 1915, he moved to Zurich to study architecture. Along with fellow Romanian Tristan Tzara and other artists such as Hugo Ball and Hans Arp, he joined artistic performances at the infamous Cabaret Voltaire. Away from the horrors of the First World War and in response to what was happening elsewhere, these artists formed the avant-garde Dada movement in 1917. Janco created covers for the Dada manifestos and sculpted masks that had a kind of tribal African style. One of the most revolutionary artist movements, Dadaism influenced modern and surrealist art, as well as poetry and later, architecture.
After a brief stay in Paris, Janco returned to Romania in 1922, where he painted classical landscapes and portraits of people, but in his avant-garde style. He eventually opened an architects’ office with his brother Jules, and together they designed over 40 buildings. These buildings are examples of the minimalist International style but every house had a touch of abstraction; a triangle here, a round window there.
But by 1940, the persecution of Jews at the hands of the Nazi’s Iron Guard was widespread. He witnessed many acts of antisemitism and his artistic publications were banned in Romania, though Janco defined himself as “an artist who is a Jew, rather than a Jewish artist.” He visited what was British Mandate Palestine to start preparing his family’s move but came back to Bucharest to do a final exhibition. This time Janco wasn’t so lucky. He witnessed the Bucharest Pogrom of January 1941, where Jews were trapped and kidnapped in the Choral Temple synagogue. His friend Jacques Costin’s brother, Michael Goldschlager, was one of the Jews whose corpse was left hanging on a hook, mocking kosher meat. Janco said these scenes made him a “militant Jew” and were depicted in later paintings and drawings such as Fascist Genocide. (His Holocaust art was not well received in Israel in the 1950s, as the general mood at the time was to honor the heroic survivors, not the victims).

Janco in the Middle East 

With help from England, Janco, his wife Medi and their two daughters left Romania through Constanta harbour, and arrived in Turkey on 4 February 1941. They made their way through French Syria and Transjordan before arriving in Tel Aviv on 23 February 1941. Following this turmoil, Janco went straight to work and his first job in Israel was as an architect for the Tel Aviv municipality. He also taught art and he had a great influence on local artists such as Reuven Reuben and Joseph Zaritsky.
It was David Ben-Gurion who had the vision to give Janco an important role in the Research and Survey department after the establishment of Israel in 1948. And what a debt Israel owes him. Today, who could imagine Tel Aviv without the old Arabic casbah of Jaffa? Who could imagine Acre without its mosques and minarets?   
At a heated meeting of the Council for the Preservation of Historic, Architectural and Religious Buildings in Old Jaffa in 1950, Janco said, “The modern city of Tel Aviv is not a pretty sight; indeed, it is ugly. And if there is one lovely spot – why ruin it? The antiquities of Jaffa can awaken within us the sentiments of the past.” 
Thankfully, much of Old Jaffa was preserved, though the majority of Jaffa’s Arab residents had to flee, and during the 1950s Old Jaffa became a retrogressive crime area nicknamed “The Wasteland.” Janco wanted to convert Jaffa into an artist colony but his vision couldn’t be realized. For much of the rest of his life he turned his attention and energy toward Ein Hod, promoting it as a refuge for artists. He taught art, returned to creating abstract oil paintings and designed ceramic works for public buildings in Haifa.
He received the Israel Prize for his contribution to the country in 1967. Yet today, few Israelis are aware of just how important a role this eccentric, avant-garde artist had on their country. Far ahead of his time, Janco knew the importance of preserving historic architecture and designing buildings in tune with their natural surroundings. More than anything, Janco showed that modern art and cultural heritage are not distant cousins.
Janco summed it up best himself:
“It would seem banal to remind architecture of the existence of a fraternity of arts. We are all aware of this lost sense of unity. The genius of all the great artists was given expression in both art and architecture. So many artists, painters and sculptors were also architects who created the temples and memorials that housed their works.” 
Modern Israel with its property developers and high-rise towers, could learn much from the life of Janco. In such a small country, where land is sparse, the preservation of its remaining natural environment and historic sites is more important now than ever. Marcel Janco could see this back in the 1950s – that to create a country’s future you also need to save its past.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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