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Art As Optimism And Therapy – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis At The Jewish Museum

Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
September 10, 2004-January 16, 2005
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
Phone: 212.423.3200

Oftentimes, one will find it far more useful to engage a piece of art in terms of what issues it raises and what questions it asks, rather than what ideological statements it offers or answers it proposes. This technique proves particularly constructive, and perhaps even imperative, when analyzing a difficult piece or body of work that largely resists its viewers’ attempts to oversimplify it and to cheapen it. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’ work resides in this realm of inquisitive art, rather than resolute work that promotes a definitive ideological position.

Dicker’s work at once attends to the boundary between art therapy and fine art and to the notion of art from and about trauma. It engages the question of the role of children’s art and optimistic perspectives in relation to “high” art and to the Bauhaus’ pragmatic aesthetic in design, primarily theater design, architecture and interior design. Ultimately, we will find that Dicker resolutely barricades herself against a regular critical vocabulary with which to contextualize her work, and precisely because she not only emerged prolific in so many different realms but also managed to find a cohesive tie that binds between them, she defines her own new arena with its unique language of analysis and criticism.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, where she studied with notable artists Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, amongst others. This column referred to the Bauhaus previously in the context of Anni and Josef Albers, so suffice it to say by means of impressionistic summary that the Bauhaus was an avant-garde, German school that shunned superficial frills that it felt tended to hijack aesthetics, instead attaching utmost significance to the practical – the bare essentials. The Bauhaus found meaning in the entire gamut of aesthetic experience, from textiles to furniture, costume and interior design to sculpture to glasswork, areas hardly granted entrance to the canon previously.

Dicker was born in Vienna and then moved to Prague, the Czech countryside and finally the Terezín ghetto and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where she was murdered on October 9, 1944. Dicker’s work, though created amidst a difficult life (“difficult” understates, to be sure), shines from within. The exhibition catalog, sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, quotes Zdena Turkova, who notes a comment she made to Dicker on one of her paintings: “I do not know why anymore, but I had told Friedl once that people from the area compared the Ostas mountain with a coffin. And she was such a sensitive person – the picture turned dark. Pavel [Pavel Brandeis, Friedl's husband] asked Friedl: ‘Why is it so black?’”

This example diverges from Dicker’s usual habits of coloration; her flowers, figures, designs and landscapes feature a palette that is at once robust, bright and pure. This optimism and beauty, to Dicker, was inherently intertwined with children. “The best allies against ‘ready-made production,’ against clichéd aesthetic conceptions, against becoming paralyzed in the stagnating adult world are artists and children,” she wrote in 1943. In her “Children’s Drawings,” a scholarly sort of work that she presented at an education “conference” in Terezín that attended to art therapy and art education, Dicker wrote, “The drawing classes are not meant to make artists out of all the children. Their task is to free and broaden such sources of energy as creativity and independence, to awaken the imagination, to strengthen the children’s powers of observation and appreciation of reality.”

Echoing Picasso’s “Once I painted like Rembrandt, but it has taken me a lifetime to draw like children,” Dicker launched a Deweyesque educational model by which she taught the children of Terezín to observe correctly, without compromising her students’ creativity. Recycling some of the Bauhaus “design problems” and studies and mixing in some of her own, she managed to simultaneously cultivate some very talented artists and also to provide art therapy for children, many of whom had seen their parents murdered before their very eyes. By stressing observation and the values embedded even within some of the most elementary work, she was able to further her educational goals and her supportive, curative ones as well. In a way, her students – nay her children – healed her as well, and helped preserve her sanity in a hell that would ultimately engulf her.

Though Dicker’s work preserved a fresh optimism – and she hardly drew her devastating surroundings in the way many of her Terezín peers felt they ought to be recorded and preserved – some works, try as they might, failed to find a warm note. In “Interrogation 1,” which refers to Dicker’s imprisonment in 1934 when she was caught hiding illegal documents (she was quite politically active), the artist sits in the foreground, with her back to the viewer, scared, ashamed and traumatized perhaps, as a man sits above her scowling angrily. Beside him, a typewriter and a pair of just barely human hands record the interrogation. The painting contains a largely black color scheme, and with the exception of a dash of red in the top leftmost corner, all the colors are muddied, secondary and tertiary tones. The background employs thickly applied paint that expressionistically delineates forms. Dicker’s ears are red, to reference the bright light shined on her. “I felt my ears were burning,” she later wrote.

“Lady in a Car” is a self-portrait in a style loosely reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” and it shows the artist sadly looking out the window of a car as it travels down a road with a red roofed house on the side. The structure of the painting suggests paralysis in the cropped foreground (the figure literally lacks legs with which to move), and the figure is quite removed from the landscape. The large black shadow that all but dominates the left side of the painting lends the piece an ominous feel. Clearly, something evil is afoot.

Because the temptation is so strong to dismiss Dicker’s art as kitsch, as more engaged in healing and in “bettering” the world than in making important aesthetic statements, it is vital to remember that her work violates so many boundaries, and that each work actually stands up to close analysis, like “Interrogation 1″ and “Lady in a Car.” Where other artists we have explored in this column, such as Art Spiegelman and Joe Kubert, see value in recording trauma and in preserving memories, Dicker found it more useful for her purposes to preserve a flowery optimism within Terezín and to supply her children with an optimistic vision that served as a beacon to higher truths.

Like artist Georgia O’Keeffe, whose artistic repertoire featured almost exclusively flowers and skulls, Dicker forged a vocabulary of beauty, a smokescreen of joy and naïve childish perspective, from which evil rarely manages to rear its ugly head. Dicker’s art heals, literally, in its stubborn refusal to grant horror a venue of expression. In this sense, she offers a new type of Holocaust art, very heavy on the art side and somewhat adamant on the Holocaust side. Dicker honestly felt that art provided an underpinning – a universal aesthetic language that everyone could speak if he or she only learnt the alphabet – that could keep its literate clients safe and happy. Unfortunately, it ultimately could not protect her.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

For more information on the Simon Wiesenthal Center (LA), please see http://www.wiesenthal.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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