SENSUAL LIPS: A portrait by Victor Brauner,  “To My Beloved Sasa Pana,” from 1930
SENSUAL LIPS: A portrait by Victor Brauner, “To My Beloved Sasa Pana,” from 1930
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“Jewish Avant-Garde Artists from Romania” presents a fascinating historical approach and the selection of works on display, most of which have never been shown in Israel, is excellent. Surveying the beginnings of the Dada movement in World War I Zurich all the way to 1930s Surrealism, the exhibition resonates with the reality of present-day Israel in the way that it highlights questions about identity, center and periphery, effectively casting a critical light on the history of modern Jewish-Israeli art.

Literature on the art of this period has focused mainly on the work of Jewish artists from central and western Europe. A year ago the exhibition “I am a Romanian: The Bucharest-Tel Aviv Route,” ‏(curated by Haim Maor and Claudia Lazar‏) was held at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and showcased the work of 20 Romanian and 20 Israeli artists. The Romanian group included artists like Victor Brauner, while Marcel Janco was grouped with the Israelis. The present exhibition identifies both Brauner and Janco as belonging to the Jewish-Romanian Modernist avant-garde.

While Brauner, Janco and Tristan Tzara ‏(born Samuel Rosenstock‏) are well-known, the other four artists featured in the show are entirely unfamiliar − this is unfortunate, as they produced fine works of art.

The Israel Museum is the second stop of the present exhibition, which was originally commissioned for Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum. One might suppose that the Jewish museum’s decidedly ethnic lens encouraged the curators of the show to hone in on questions relating to the character and identity of the Jewish-Romanian avant-garde.

Short-lived

In the exhibition catalogue Radu Stern, one of the show’s curators, writes about early 20th-century Romanian nationalism, which glorified the prospect of an ethnically pure, homogenous nation. Stern surveys a selection of art posters and advertisements that articulate a nationalist rhetoric, inciting xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments, which had a direct effect on the artists in the exhibition.

Romania, it turns out, was the last European country to grant citizenship to its Jewish residents, in 1923 ‏(this was later revoked with the rise of Fascism in 1938‏). Romanian nationalism decried the participation of Jews in the arts, as this was considered the highest expression of the nation’s culture.

Stern’s explanation for the large following of Jews in the avant-garde ‏(five of Dada’s founding members in Zurich were Romanian Jews‏) is in keeping with historical understandings of the overwhelming Jewish presence in the Modernist movement at large. Many Jews hoped that their difference would not be an issue for the future-oriented Modernist movement, which championed the erasure of the past.

The Jewish artists responded to rejection with an outburst of intellectual and artistic creativity − in the form of journals and exhibitions throughout the 1920s, usually in Zionist contexts ‏(like fundraising for the construction of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem‏).
The emergence of what one might call the militant Jewish avant-garde was short-lived, inasmuch as the artists fled Romania due to persecution, which became increasingly violent with the rise of Romanian fascism. So, for example, Brauner fled to Paris in the late 1930s, Janco immigrated to Israel in 1941, as well as Paul Paun, 20 years later.

The historical information presented in the fascinating catalogue makes clear that Modernism and Dadaistic roots were present in the work of Marcel Janco ‏(and his brothers Georges and Jules Janco‏) and Tristan Tzara before they moved to Zurich at the start of World War I.
The selection of Janco’s work in the exhibition serves as a reminder of his extensive recognition by the international art world, and his special place in the history of Israeli art. Beside works from Israeli collections, like “Ball in Zurich” ‏(1917‏) from the Israel Museum Collection, are pieces on loan from the National Art Museum of Romania, mainly from period in which Janco returned to Romania after spending some time in Germany.

“Cafe Concert” ‏(1925-27‏) is a vibrant expressionist work, conveying a sense of urgency and turmoil. Janco’s examination of the interplay between space and surface in painting is evident in this piece, and in “Abstract Construction” ‏(1930‏), from the same collection.

The subject of space was also explored by Arthur Segal, regarded as the father of the Jewish avant-garde scene in Romania. Over the years Segal developed a theory of equivalence that effectively undermined the laws of perspective, granting all parts of the painting’s surface equal value, including the frame.

Portrait for my beloved

The selection of work by Victor Brauner ‏(1903-1966‏) is very interesting. His paintings from the ‘20s, housed at the Eco-Museum Research Institute in Tulcea, Romania, treat a range of subjects, from “Adam and Eve” to “Procession” − a painting that brings the human body to the threshold of abstraction. In Brauner’s “Adam and Eve,” Adam is shown staring wide-eyed at viewers, like a deer caught in the headlights, and Eve, who is usually depicted as an inciting-tempting figure, holds an apple in her hand but her gaze looks inward.

Another painting by Brauner is “To My Beloved Sasa Pana,” a portrait of the poet Alexandru Binder ‏(whose penname was Sasa Pana‏). This is a sensual, Surrealist portrait; the head of the writer floats against a red background that echoes in his sumptuous, full lips. The catalogue article ignores the painting’s overt homoeroticism, perhaps because homosexuality was often linked to anti-Semitism.

From the group, Brauner was the artist most engaged with Surrealism, a
movement that had a lasting impact on all members of the group. He kept close ties with the Surrealists and also painted Andre Breton’s portrait, who declared Bucharest the “new Surrealist capital” at the end of World War II. This vision soon faded in 1947, with the regime change in Romania following a short period of freedom.

Works by Maximilian Herman Maxy (‏1895-1971‏) include a portrait of the writer A. Dominic from 1925, from the collection of the National Art Museum of Romania. The influences of Cezanne and Picasso are marked here, but the painting also illustrates an awareness of other artistic movements, like the German Neue Sachlichkeit, New Objectivity. The subject of the portrait is imbued with the sense of somber observation, and the deconstruction of the image unfolds a complex, even bold, painterly construction.

Maxy’s portrait of a middle-class Jewish woman, made a year prior, is also superb. Depicting her as a kind of modern saint, the painting recalls Byzantine icons ‏(ubiquitous in Romania‏) alongside influences of the Russian avant-garde, which was then in its prime.
Maxy is one of this show’s unexpected highlights, along with Jules Perachim ‏(1914-2008‏), born Iulis Blumenfeld. In his work “Executive Council” from 1936, Perachim combines Goya’s satire with German Expressionism. The painting depicts four figures, sitting on modern chairs, exchanging hushed words in a way that does not bode well in the otherwise empty space.

Beyond displaying an excellent selection of works, the exhibition expands the historical perspective on the avant-garde and the place of Jewish artists within it. This show looks at works from the artistic periphery, what were in the past looked down upon as imitations of the “center,” but which are here examined on their own terms.