Marcel Janco: Dadaist Art in a World Gone Mad

How does art react when the world goes insane? Marcel Janco, a Romanian-born artist turned international star, reflected on this vision of the world and created Dadaist art.

May 17, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History
dadaist paintings by marcel janco
dadaist paintings by marcel janco


In January 1941, unprecedented violence broke out in Bucharest, perpetuated by the notorious Iron Guard – a fascist group of Romanian radicals who rebelled against the attempts of dictator Ion Antonescu to remove them. Antisemitic and viciously nationalistic, the Legionnaires led by Horia Sima murdered Jews, communist sympathizers, and other “national traitors,” sowing chaos and destruction in the city. 


Amidst the madness, one man watched the violence unfold, unable to come to terms with those new realities. It was then that the Jewish-Romanian artist Marcel Janco, who was already recognized for his contributions by the time fascism took over Romania, made the most difficult decision of his life. After long years of struggle and hope, he finally decided to leave Romania. The Strălucești Abattoir Murders, his friends’ stories, and the events he witnessed in those days inspired the horrors depicted in his many drawings. 


Janco wondered what art could do when the world went insane. Swaying between styles and ideologies, Marcel Janco ultimately found his answer in Dadaist art: an artist loses if he starts ignoring the madness around. 


Before Dadaist Art: A Jewish Intellectual In The Paris Of The Balkans 

marcel janco portrait photos
Marcel Janco during his stay in Zurich, 1916, via Europeana; with Janco pictured in the mid-1950s, via National Photo Collection of Israel


Born in 1895, Marcel Hermann Iancu recalled his childhood as “a time of freedom and spiritual enlightenment.” He spent his early years surrounded by prominent Romanian intellectuals in rapidly-growing Bucharest. Around this time, Romania had increased its territory and recently built its nation and invested into its capital, laying the foundation for an unprecedented cultural renaissance within its borders. The interwar period produced international stars like composer George Enescu, sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, painter Ștefan Luchian, and playwright Eugen Ionesco. Janco was fortunate to meet most of them in the Romanian capital.


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Unlike Enescu and Brâncuși, who were both ethnic Romanians of humble origins, Janco, the future co-inventor of Dadaism and adept of Constructivism, was born into a well-standing Jewish-Romanian family. Marcel Janco received a stellar education that allowed him to pursue a career in urban design, painting, architecture, and several other applied arts. 


Several overlapping legacies influenced Marcel Janco during his early days. His Jewish heritage coincided with his Romanian upbringing; his interest in Western Constructivism rivaled his fascination with the Russian Avant-garde. His artistic connections stretched all over Europe, and his curiosity knew no boundaries.


The growing Symbolist movement influenced Marcel Janco’s early years in Romania. Conquering all forms of art, it swept over Europe, acquiring particular popularity in the Balkans and Russia. Symbolism originated in France and inspired a new generation of artists who departed from the previously popular Realist and Neoclassical movements. 


Symbolism first invaded literature, propagated by such notable Romanian poets as Alexandru Macedonski and Adrian Maniu. The new aesthetic brought emaciated forms, romanticized decadence, and heavy use of symbolic language in poetry. It was in those Symbolist clubs that Marcel Janco first met the Romanian literary elite and built a long-lasting friendship with Tristan Tzara


Marcel Janco And Symbolism

janco romanian inferno dadaist art painting
Romanian Inferno by Marcel Janco, 1915, via Sotheby’s


Compared to this “sophisticated pessimism,” reality felt drab and dull. Thus, in 1912 Janco joined the Symbolists as an editor of their primary art magazine, Simbolul, and went as far as to ask his parents to support the enterprise. In the end, Symbolism, as well as the Art Nouveau movement, took off in Romania, thanks in part to it Janco’s enthusiasm. Almost every prominent Romanian artist of the time dabbled in Symbolism, including Tzara, who later viewed his Symbolist experiments with embarrassment. On the other hand, the artist Ștefan Luchian and his infatuation with Art Nouveau left a lasting and more successful imprint on Romanian art. Luchian’s decorative panel Spring perfectly reflects the aesthetics of those days. Although fascinated by Luchian, Janco did not follow in his footsteps.


Janco wanted to go beyond symbols. Symbolism was neither rebellious nor revolutionary enough for the young artist. Later in his life, Marcel Janco would write: “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished.” He first found the means of disassembling reality in the absurdist poems of a Romanian clerk-turned-literary-connoisseur Urmuz. Inspired by both the rise of Futurism with its anti-establishment absurdism and its pro-active view of reality, Janco decided to leave Romania and see the new art trends for himself. He was particularly interested in Sonderbund, a group of artists who introduced Modern Art to Western Germany. However, Janco’s path led to Switzerland, the birthplace of Dadaist art. 


Janco In Switzerland: The Start Of The Dada Movement 

marcel janco cabaret voltaire painting
Cabaret Voltaire (reproduction of the lost original from 1916) by Marcel Janco, 1960’s, via Janco-Dada Museum, Ein Hod


After the start of the First World War, Janco had little wish to stay in Romania. The only place in Europe where war did not interfere with art, in his eyes, was Zurich. Janco’s pacifist sentiments and his intense resentment of war shaped not only his political and cultural ideas but also his life. Janco’s thoughts about Dadaist art all sprung out as a protest against a reality that blindly embraced violence. 


In Zurich, Marcel Janco studied chemistry and architecture. He soon ran out of money and turned into a cabaret performer, playing the accordion in nightclubs. It was one of those evenings that Janco, Tristan Tzara, and Janco’s younger brother met Hugo Ball, a German author best known for developing “sound poetry.” Janco’s search for new forms and his infatuation with the rebellious ways of Futurism brought him to what was later known as Anti-Art. 


In war-torn Europe, a group of young and educated people protested like no one else: they transferred the madness of reality to the stage of their small club, thus founding Cabaret Voltaire. With grotesque masks and absurd costumes, they mocked both contemporary art and contemporary politics. 


janco tzara portrait mask
A Portrait of Tristan Tzara by Marcel Janco, 1919, via Centre Pompidou, Paris


Tzara claimed to have coined the word Dadaism by opening a random page in a dictionary. While this story perfectly illustrates the frivolous and rebellious nature of the movement born from Cabaret Voltaire that wanted to set all rules aside, it may not be entirely accurate. In a way, Dadaism was a creation of Ball, Janco, Tzara, and the rest of their company. 


During his time in Zurich, Janco made significant contributions to Dadaist art, creating his paper costumes and masks. One such mask went on to become the most recognizable portrait of Tristan Tzara – a twisted form of a face with a monocle. This mask-portrait illustrated Tzara’s idea of the so-called “approximate man” — an abstract human being.


Between Nihilism And Art For Art’s Sake

janco flower geometry painting
Flower Geometry by Marcel Janco, 1917, via Centre Pompidou, Paris


Janco’s anti-war sentiments and rebellious spirit were not his only motivations for escaping to Dadaist art. Through Dadaism, he could also show the madness of the world to all those who treated the rise of radical ideologies as the new normal. With his stage props, masks, and costumes, Janco showcased the absurdity of everything that was happening around him. 


He created Dadaist art for art’s sake, blending trends and experimenting with forms. His canvas depicting an evening at Cabaret Voltaire, for example, mixes the brightness of Fauvism with the sharp angles characteristic of Primitivism. Relying on collage and montages, Janco rebelled against traditional drawings and created absurd, often funny, and always strange pieces. Janco was partially inspired by the folk masks of his native Romania, as well as by his discovery of the various trends of African folk art that he did not fully understand.


While Tzara turned to Nihilism in art, Janco saw something different in his fellow Dadaists’ absurdist performances. The world could go mad, but Janco had to show it while remaining sane. Thus, he joined the Constructivist movement and started exhibiting with them. He supported their Neue Kunst while still creating Dadaist art. By the end of the First World War, however, Janco began drifting closer to the German Expressionists, drawing inspiration from their style. This influence was made already evident in his 1917 painting Flower Geometry, where Janco tried to combine colorful textured areas protruding from the canvas with Dada asymmetry. The artist would address Expressionist and Dadaist motives many times in his life – always when war was on his mind. 


An Architect And Painter

marcel janco villa fuchs architecture
Photo of Villa Fuchs designed by Marcel Janco, 1928, via META Cultural Foundation, Bucharest


During the interwar period, Janco spent his time torn between his beloved Romania and Western Europe. Fascinated by Theo van Doesburg, Janco became the pioneer of Constructivism in Romania. In 1927, he envisioned what would later become his most iconic feat as an architect – Villa Fuchs in Bucharest. Combining flat white facades with spacious light-filled interiors, Janco created a series of terraces and balconies connected by simple passages and accentuated by porthole windows. Inspired by Constructivist Principles and the elongated forms of Brâncuși’s sculptures, Janco redefined Romanian modernism in architecture. 


Brâncuși’s theory about the spirituality of form, his experimentation with Romanian folklore, and Constructivist ideas influenced Janco to such an extent that he decided to do in architecture what his compatriot did in sculpture. To achieve this, Janco set up an architectural bureau named Office of Modern Studies


janco solly gold apartment
Photos of Solly Gold apartments designed by Marcel Janco, 1934, via META Cultural Foundation, Bucharest


The public’s controversial reaction to Villa Fuchs only increased Janco’s fame, attracting more commissions. Soon enough, Janco built modernist villas in the most fashionable districts of the Romanian capital, many of which are still prominent today. Celebrated for creating Bucharest’s first Cubist lodging for his friend Poldi Chapier, Janco soon designed an apartment building for his family and their tenants. Working simultaneously as an architect and as an editor of the Contîmporanul, Romania’s longest-living Avant-garde magazine, Jancu developed connections with the most prominent European intellectuals and artists. 


In the 1930s, Janco joined the world-famous philosopher Mircea Eliade’s art society, Criterion. It was then that Janco became interested in urbanism, convincing the authorities of Bucharest that his city required regulated city planning. His functional attitude to art pushed him toward constructing practical and pristine-looking residential buildings that combined easy access with minimal decoration and peculiar forms. Janco’s Solly Gold apartments and his Alexandrescu Building were, perhaps, the most representative of his works, showcasing Janco’s interest in blocky design and artistic clarity. His connection to Eliade also helped Janco secure many of the commissions at the time. 


Tragically enough, Eliade and many other Romanian intellectuals in the late 30s soon fell under the influence of the growing nationalist movements and fascism. Janco could only watch the craze taking over Romania, unable to change the outcome. With the rise of the Iron Guard, Janco’s Jewish heritage became an issue, as well as any other deviations from the illusionary Romanian descent. Even Ion Vinea, Janco’s friend from his youth and a prominent poet, faced criticism for his Greek roots. 


Janco Leaves Romania 

janco wounded soldier dadaist art painting
Wounded Soldier in the Night by Marcel Janco, 1948, via Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Janco left Romania unwillingly, forced out by the growing fascist movement. Like many intellectuals of Jewish origin, Janco renounced all nationalism, including even its Jewish variation. He proudly wore the nickname of “cosmopolitan Jew” that the Romanian right-wing radicals bestowed upon him. Janco turned to Zionism, while his friend Tzara turned to communism, favoring the romantic and libertarian interpretation of Marxism. When the world once again went mad, Janco could do nothing but fight with his art. 


The artist moved to British Palestine and Israel with his second wife and their young daughter. His art continued its international course. Janco survived the Second World War and lived to tell the tale in several of his paintings, some of which were the product of the horrors he saw in Bucharest before leaving the country. Others, like Wounded Soldier, were Janco’s Expressionist reflections on the Israeli-Arab conflict in 1948. 


Becoming an international star, Janco displayed his work at the Israel pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and even organized an art colony in the once-abandoned settlement of Ein Hod


janco imaginary animals dadaist art painting
Imaginary Animals (Urmuz) by Marcel Janco, 1976, via Janco-Dada Museum, Ein Hod


While living in Israel, Janco adopted a more abstract way of painting. However, his Dadaist past never left him. In the 1960s, he produced The Symbols, a painted framework of forms suspended in space reminiscent of Paul Klee, whose art he once valued when living in Zurich. 


Perhaps, in a world that seemed too mad, Dadaist art could indeed make those around Janco see his point. Janco often returned to Dadaism in his later life. In his series of Imaginary Animals, for example, he once again remembered the poems of Urmuz and his Symbolist youth that led him to Dadaist art. His illusion of an animal paradise combined abstract shapes and fantastic colors. In the end, for Janco, the abstract became a new reality. 


Dadaist Art And A Cosmopolitan Jew

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Crowning of Spring by Marcel Janco, 1970s, via Janco-Dada Museum, Ein Hod


Janco modernized not only Romanian but also Israeli art, bringing the legacy of Constructivism from Romania to Jerusalem. Charmed by local landscapes, he joined other artists and, once again, sought new ideas while never letting go of his old fascinations. Marcel Janco played an important role in the development of the Israeli Avant-garde, designing a couple of Mediterranean Modernist villas in Tel Aviv and expanding his artistic village in Ein Hod.


In his later years, Janco wrote: “I am still very close to Dada, to the true Dada which at the bottom always defended the forces of creation, instinctive and fresh, colored by the popular art that one finds in all people.” Once scorned and persecuted for his cosmopolitan attitudes, Janco made his universalist approach to art a quest that demolished borders and never diverted from reality. When he died in Ein Hod in 1984, he was an international star with an unparalleled reputation.


An urban planner, a designer, an art theorist, a painter, Janco always believed himself to be a Dadaist at the core (despite his later disagreements with Tzara.) Never departing from his Jewish heritage, he treasured his Romanian legacy. In many ways, Janco was one of the most versatile and multi-faceted artists of the twentieth century. His work reflected the ingenuity of Avant-garde and tapped into many styles and forms while always reminding the world of what it could be if creativity were given free rein.

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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.