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Marcel Janco’s Art and Life

When you think of Jewish art the first thing that comes to mind is innovation. Daring, beautiful, undeniably avant-garde, and of course fashionably liberal, the truth is that it makes for great party conversation. If you ever do find yourself in that position, do not forget to mention the often forgotten Marcel Janco, whose work pushed the boundaries of artistic culture and society to its limits.

The fact that there is a museum in Tel Aviv that commemorates his lavish pieces is not enough of a testament not only to his work, but the man himself. Why is this? He was one of the first artists to break through social conventions and take part in the formation of what could be called “real” modern art in Israel- surprisingly not with the purpose of provoking but to inspire.

Janco, born into a Jewish family in Bucharest, was educated by modest means in the practice of what we would consider traditional artistry. In his youth he had the luck to travel throughout Europe which later modelled his theories on modernism, not only within the confines of artistic development but also life itself.

He returned to Bucharest in in his early 20’s to work as a graphic designer for a small and modern art newspaper called “Simbolul” where he met the famous Tristan Tzara. Together they went on to form the head-cracking theories of predisposed nihilism and apathy within the field of art. These theories, or better said mind-numbing ideas, were the launching pad from where the DADA movement later sprang out in Switzerland with the help of many other artists, both of Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds.

So what is my point?

The Ein Hod colony was a conglomeration of Jewish artists that really believed in the social-realist conception of art within the context of modernism, which eventually became Israeli abstractionism. What do all of these terms actually mean? That fancy conceptual art became more about Israel and mostly geared towards pro-Zionist ideology. But what did Marcel Janco want to accomplish through the Ein Hod colony?

It is likely he just wanted to find a peaceful place where he could paint, away from the bustling and dirty urban life of Tel Aviv. Yet, I believe he was trying to create a society in which Jewish artists would be free to express themselves as they wished, away from the discriminations of old Europe, and frankly the world as a whole. Whatever the case, the colony’s peace was at times disturbed by Palestinians claiming ownership of the land they had only turned into a mess and abandoned a few years prior to when Janco founded the colony. To this day Ein Hod is still a communal settlement with a population of around 550, where most of the settlers are somehow involved in art-making.

Janco’s legacy is definitely more than just a few interesting paintings to stare at and pretend you are an intellectual. He had an immense role to play in the formation of Israeli art, and I would go as far to say in culture as well.

The study of Jewish and Israeli art is increasingly becoming dim in the Western world, which in itself should be a reason to worry. Marcel Janco, although nowhere nearly at the artistic height of those such as Marc Chagall, not only played an important role in setting up of a historic art movement, but also had a hand in the creation, or better said consolidation of Israeli culture in its early days.

As the times were becoming increasingly grim for Jews in Europe, Janco left for Eretz Yisrael only to completely start over . In interviews he had claimed that although he had never considered himself a “Jewish artist”, he was without a doubt “an artist who was a Jew”, ultimately alluding to his own relationship to his ancestry.

In Eretz Yisrael he immediately became a part of the art scene that was taking roots in Tel Aviv, only to become a full fledged member of the famous Ofakim Hadashim-New Horizons movement which was an evident continuation of the modernist and post-modernist ideals that were born in Europe. Yet, with each passing year it put out works that were becoming increasingly Israeli, not only in form but in cultural definition as well.

After Israel became a reality post-1948, Janco, most likely bored with the then current state of art in Israel went ahead and founded a pseudo-socialist, utopian art colony in Ein Hod, where interestingly he became its unofficial leader. You are probably wondering if it was like a kibbutz with paint brushes? The answer is yes and no.

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