1895: The Man Who Birthed Dadaism During a War Is Born

Marcel Janco helped create the irreverent art movement Dadaism during WWI and, sick of violence, moved to Israel.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Marcel Janco at work.

May 24, 1895, is the birthdate of Marcel Janco, the Romanian-born artist and architect who was involved in the birth of the Dada movement. After immigrating to pre-state Israel during World War II, Janco also founded and led the artists colony at Ein Hod.

Marcel Hermann Iancu was born in Bucharest and raised in an upper middle-class family. His father, Hermann Zui Iancu, was a textile merchant; his mother, the former Rachel Iuster, had been born in Moldavia.

In 1980, several years before his death, Janco, looking back on his youth, noted that, “I had the fortune of being educated in a climate of freedom and spiritual enlightenment. My mother, [...] possessing a genuine musical talent, and my father, a stern man and industrious merchant, had created the conditions favorable for developing all of my aptitudes.”

French for 'hobby horse'?

When he was still in high school, Janco befriended several other future Dadaists: Tristan Tzara, then known as Samy Rosenstock, and Ion Iovanaki, who was to become Ion Vinea. Janco served as graphic designer for Simbolul, the avant-garde poetry magazine founded by the two.

In 1914, after World War I began, Janco went to Zurich, where he studied, first, chemistry, and then architecture, at the Federal Institute of Technology. He was joined there by two of his brothers, and by his friend Tzara.

It was in 1916 that they and others, including Hugo Ball, founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, which brought an edgy, pacifist and anti-establishment form of performance art to the staid Swiss banking center. Marcel was in charge of stage and costume design, and also performed.

One theory regarding the origin of the name “Dada” says that it was at a meeting of artists at the cabaret that someone stuck a knife into a French dictionary and its point alighted on the French word for hobby horse, dada.

Dadaism was more of an attitude – a type reflected in the way the name was chosen -- than a movement. Be that as it may, it turned up in a number of cities, starting towards the end of World War I and into the early 1920s.

Anarchistic and avant-garde, it expressed itself in the visual, stage and written arts, and was characterized by a rejection of bourgeois values, militarism and ideology in general.

Michaela Mende-Janco, the artists's granddaughter, looking at a restored fresco.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Zionist born in blood

Although Janco was always proud of his Dada involvement, and late in life established the Janco-Dada Museum at Ein Hod, his artistic interests, and his livelihood, were constantly evolving. His development into a Zionist was a consequence of years of exposure to vicious anti-Semitism in his native Romania, to which he had returned in 1921.

He had spent the next two decadesworking as an architect, helping to turn Bucharest into a center of modernist design (much of which was later destroyed during the country’s years under communist rule). The event that finally made Janco decide he had to get his family out of Romania was the Bucharest Pogrom of January 1941, three days of blood-letting, that left 125 Jews, including his brother-in-law, dead.

By the end of February, Janco, his wife, Clara Goldschlager, and his two daughters, one from an earlier marriage, were in Tel Aviv. 

In Palestine/Israel, Janco produced and taught art, and was involved in conservation work. After independence, he worked for the government office that surveyed the country’s open areas and set aside land for national parks.

Whereas the general approach in those years was to bulldoze over the remains of abandoned Arab towns and villages, at least in the bigger cities, Janco was able to persuade the authorities to preserve existing structures. It was he who was responsible for having Old Jaffa, for example, designated for artists' studios and galleries.

A sculpture stands untouched amid the charred remains of a garden in Ein Hod.Credit: Hagai Farid
Merav and Micha Almon-Feigin sorting belongings on Monday in the yard of their Ein Hod home.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

In 1953, it was Janco who thought to turn the ruins of the Galilee village of Ein Hawd – Ein Hod in Hebrew -- whose Palestinian residents had been expelled during the 1948-49 war -- into an artists’ community, of which he served as its first mayor.

Today Ein Hod continues to thrive as an artists colony and tourism draw, despite suffering substantial damage during the Mt. Carmel forest fire of 2010, which killed 43.

Marcel Janco died on April 21, 1984, at the age of 89.