Marcel Janco

Romanian-Israeli Painter, Sculptor, and Architect

Born: May 24, 1895
Bucharest, Romania
Died: April 21, 1984
Ein Hod, Israel
We had lost confidence in our 'culture.' Everything had to be demolished.

Summary of Marcel Janco

Romanian born artist Marcel Janco relocated to Zurich in his twenties and joined forces with his friend Tristan Tzara in developing the Dada movement. They eventually expanded their new aesthetic, based on a combination of Cubism and Expressionism, to three-dimensional works and then a kind of early performance art. Eventually Janco abandoned the militaristic anti-art of Dada and concentrated instead on a form of Constructivism. In the 1920s-30s he expanded his area of expertise to architecture and opened up a firm that would eventually be responsible for introducing modern architecture to Bucharest. Faced with the brutal persecution brought on by growing anti-Semitism in Europe, Janco left Romania and immigrated to what was then, the Palestinian Mandate. His immediate involvement with local artists had a formative influence on the development of modern Israeli Art.


Progression of Art


Cabaret Voltaire

This crowded canvas conveys the chaos, action, sound, and fury of a night at the Cabaret Voltaire. The jumble of performers, spectators, and inanimate objects fill the overcrowded space to bursting. One man on stage plays piano, one wrings his hands, one recites and a few dance. In the audience individuals are seen laughing, enraged, attentive, and also bored. The artist makes little distinction between the performers and the audience, instead emphasizing the morass of individuals as a whole. One of the masks for which Janco was known, is mounted on the wall above the stage, to the right of the image, as if overseeing the chaos. Janco's flat delineation of form, reflective of Cubist descriptions of space, is combined with a kinetic use to color similar to that noted in Futuristic works. His friend Arp called his style a kind of "zigzag naturalism."

This work provides a vital visual record of the sensory overload of sight and sound engendered by a night at the Cabaret Voltaire. The Dada artists who developed the idea for the Cabaret hoped to eliminate the distinction between art and life, and by extension, the performer and the audience. Accordingly, the Cabaret anarchy that would inflame the audience to the point where they lost control and became part of the performance. Hugo Ball later recalled how Tzara danced, Janco played an invisible violin, Hennings did the splits, Huelsenbeck drummed, and Ball played the piano as the audience booed, hissed, and screamed in fury.

Oil on Canvas - Lost


Mask for Firdusi

Janco's masks were to play a large role in the anarchic dances at the Cabaret Voltaire. They were created from scraps of cardboard, paint, glue, and sack-cloth, all crumpled and torn, with ragged edges and patchy paint. The finish was purposefully left rough and crude. The details of this face, with its beard, flattened planes and angular eyes and nose, indicate a variety of influences including Expressionism, the Cubist collage assemblages of Picasso and Braque, as well as both Japanese and Greek theater design. When worn, the dancer was meant to feel possessed by the spirit of the mask and transformed into a shaman of the sort found in primitive cultures. Hugo Ball described the result as "melodramatic and bordering almost on madness" while Arp called the masks "terrifying" and commented that they were usually painted "blood red."

It's conceivable that the notable raw finish of the mask, as well as the usage of red paint, were intended to evoke the blood, disfigurement and predominance of gas masks in war, which the Dada artists were staunchly against.

Janco's masks no doubt reflect his "faith in a direct art, a magical, organic, and creative art, like that of primitives." The shock and awe they evoked in the audience made them a germane part of the Dada creed and, in fact, they were part of their visual aesthetic from their first appearance at the Cabaret Voltaire to their eighth and final soiree in April 1919 at the Saal zur Kaufleuten. At this final occasion dancers wearing Janco's masks so incited the audience that the night ended in a mass brawl.

Paper, board, paint and twine - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Flower Geometry

Janco's abstract plaster reliefs answered Tzara's call for artists "to create directly, in stone, wood, and iron." In this example, he creates tension by juxtaposing Cubist elements, flattened organic shapes that adhere to the surface of the canvas, with Expressionist elements- colorful textured areas which actually protrude from the picture surface.

The irreconcilable contradictions of Dada, the meeting of nature and geometry, are noted within the title of the work. The execution of the work, creating and then destroying, fit in with the Dada interest in breaking down the hierarchy of fine art. Apparently the artist poured the plaster, then carved, painted and scratched it in order to create a deliberately coarse finish. Arp described the resultant effect as "the very opposite of the intellectual and mechanized art of the robots."

Works such as this plastic relief would become part of Janco's mature period, frequently embedded in the walls of the buildings he designed once back in Romania in the 1920s. They mark his transition from Dada, which he began to see as a "negative" art, to that of Constructivism, which he found more generative and therefore, positive. He felt that art should be incorporated into architecture the same way art should be incorporated into life, stating that abstract art "must be in architecture or disappear." The incorporation of relief as an integral decorative element is noted in the more than forty buildings he designed throughout Bucharest.

Painted Plaster Relief - Private Collection


Villa Jean Fuchs

This Janco-designed villa was the first modernist residence in Bucharest. It featured flat, clean, white facades, free of unnecessary exterior decorative elements, and light-filled interiors. The movement between the exterior and interior spaces was delineated through a smooth system of terraces and balconies. Instead of creating traditional windows, Janco created large ones (some spanning the entire width of the facade) that flooded the interior with light. A row of ocean liner portholes on the upper level in the Fuchs Villa, are a nod toward the Art Deco aesthetic. The overall geometric feel of the building, organized along lines, squares and rectangles, indicates the influence of both Cubism and Constructivism on his architecture. As Janco wrote, "modern architecture followed cubism."

Villa Jean Fuchs was a truly groundbreaking structure and, accordingly, was met with shock and skepticism on the part of many critics. Some thought the large window resembled "a morgue display window" and found "the garage like a crematorium." Nevertheless, Janco's pioneering vision marked a decisive step towards modernism in Romanian architecture and his studio (the Bureau of Modern Studies), operational between 1922 and1938, eventually enjoyed great success. Beyond the multiple modernist residences throughout Bucharest, he designed a number of office buildings as well as a private sanatorium. Many of these visionary buildings can still be viewed in downtown Bucharest.

Residential Building - 27 Negustori Street, Bucharest, Romania


Wounded Soldier in the Night

Janco created a number of works on this theme following the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. Instead of focusing on the concept of the heroic soldier, these works capture that of the injured, the praying, and the ones in retreat. In this particular work, for example, a soldier is depicted curled up like a fetus, his body enclosed within a mandala shape of the type noted in Indian representations. He is shown after having been injured and weakened, his body, squeezed into the limitations of the mandala, retreating into itself. The use of solid areas of bold color and black delineating lines adds an expressionist aesthetic to the work, appropriate to its existential theme. The depiction of the black rifle along the vertical, central axis stands in stark contrast with the dominant horizontal of the base of the canvas, upon which the soldier is perched in respite creating a tension accentuated even more by the flattening of the figure to the painted picture plane. Janco conveys the emotional effect of war on the soldier through the depiction of a claustrophobic space and an emphasis on the blue of both the soldier's skin tone and the night that swallows him. Far from the bloody reality of war, this soldier impresses the viewer with a sense of defeat.

Oil on cardboard - Israel Museum, Jerusalem

c. 1960s


Janco's Symbols bridges the artist's career as it was created during his Dada period but was reworked long afterwards when he was living in Israel, and had already adopted a more abstract mode of painting. A combination of abstract shapes and symbolic forms are described within an almond-shape reminiscent of a mandorla, that shape that comes about from overlaying two circles and usually symbolizes the interaction of opposing forces. It was used in the Christian era to describe the coming together of heaven and earth, the human and the divine. This painted framework confines the forms, suspending them in space and accordingly forcing them into a dialogue with one another. The densely colored forms flattened with heavy black outlines appear weighty, but are lifted, through their suspension within the mandorla, into the realm of the spiritual. There is a similarity with the works of Paul Klee, a Swiss artist who exerted quite an influence on Janco during his time in Zurich.

Janco's combination of abstract and figurative elements indicate his deep interest in the symbolism of shapes. He was fascinated by the Jewish tradition of interpreting meaning in symbols and affirmed, "I paint in Kabbalah." In his youth, affected by local artistic attempts at radically changing the direction of art, he had founded the Symbolist magazine Simbolul with Tzara. This venue enabled him to explore his early interest in evocative symbols. Janco professed his aim to "interpret the soul of primitive man, to plunge into the unconscious mind and the instinctive power of creation." The ability of abstract symbols to convey ideas and unite people became a main tenet for the New Horizons group seeking to create an artistic language for a new nation. Janco continued to work with symbolic motifs throughout his lifetime, producing numerous illustrations on Judaic lore and even incorporating Judaic symbols in his Study for the UN Building, New York (1960).

Oil on masonite - Janco-Dada Museum, Ein Hod


Imaginary Animals (Urmuz)

Janco produced a cycle of works known as Imaginary Animals during the 1960s and 1970s. The creatures depicted were born from his imagination but were portrayed in a naturalistic style. Imagined, abstract shapes with fantastic colors took on realistic aspects, becoming animal-like and biomorphic. In effect, within these works, the abstract became a living reality. In this example, Janco created an illusion of an animal paradise out of a collection of abstract, invented shapes seen flying through the sky, digging in the dirt, parading through nature. The resultant image provides the spectator with a feeling that he's viewing something naturalistic, despite being, down to the last detail, entirely imagined and abstract.

In this cycle of works, Janco revisited one of his earliest passions: the poems of the Romanian writer Urmuz. In 1923 Janco drew a portrait of Urmuz after reading his Bizarre Pages, a surreal collection of stories. In this painting he describes the kind of surreal confusion of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms described in Urmuz's work. Imaginary Animals (Urmuz) encapsulates his ability to blend the imaginary and the real and indicates the eventual adoption of a more abstract style from the late 1950s. Nevertheless, Janco never lost his ability to capture the real, managing to produce expressive imagery that reflected a careful balance between the two. As Hans Arp noted as early as their Dada days: "Janco paints concrete with an abstract hat, Janco paints abstract with a concrete hat."

Oil on canvas - Janco-Dada Museum, Ein Hod

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.

Early Training

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.

Mature Period

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).

Later Period

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.

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Affected Place [Betroffener Ort] (1922)

Reciting the Sound Poem "Karawane" (1916)

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