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Eight Jewish Dada Artists


Through September 11, 2006

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

11 West 53 St., (5th and 6th Ave.), New York

(212) 708-9400




         George Grosz’s 1944 painting, “Cain, or Hitler in Hell” shows the Nazi leader with his iconic moustache and uniform sitting sadly, mopping his brow. Surrounding Hitler, Grosz captures his interpretation of eternal punishment, with fiery reds, whites, and yellows, dark blacks, and piles of skeletons. By casting Hitler as the Biblical Cain, Grosz draws attention to the question G-d asks of Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Grosz hints at the question that plagues Hitler as he mops his brow: Where are the six million Jews you should have treated as brothers?


         Although only a select, astute few could anticipate the horrors that the Nazis would be capable of in World War II, the post-World War I psychological and sociological landscape was a devastated one, disillusioned about the human potential for peace and brotherhood. This sentiment was acutely felt within the artistic community, which responded with two movements: Dada (of which Grosz was a member) and Surrealism. Dada was supposedly named randomly, when two poets stuck a knife in a dictionary, and the knife pointed to Dada, French for “hobbyhorse.” Dada arose in “revolt against a world that was capable of unspeakable horrors.” Surrealism, meanwhile, drew its inspiration more from Freud and his conception of the “unconscious” mind, and it attended to dreams and illusion.



Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), American, 1890-1976. “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows,” 1916, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



         In particular, Dadaism – which is the subject of a major exhibit at the MoMA, after occupying the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC – was a response to war. One artist declared that the movement’s aim was “to remind the world that there are independent men, beyond war and nationalism, who live for other ideals.” According to the authors of the new edition of Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition (Pearson Education, 2006), “The Dadaists aimed to wipe the philosophical slate clean, leading the way to a new world order With the rise to power of Hitler and his National Socialist Party, many avant-garde artists turned their attention to making anti-fascist imagery and exposing the insane thinking and sadistic brutality of the new German government.”


         The Dadaist, then, revolted against logic and reason, which “had led only to war. For them the nonsensical and the absurd became tools to jolt their audience out of their bourgeois complacence and conventional thinking.”


         Eight Jewish artists figure into the MoMA Dada show. Marcel Janco, born Iancu (1895-1984), was a Jewish-Romanian artist who escaped Nazi anti-Semitism in 1941 by moving to Tel Aviv, where he eventually died. Janco – who would later found the Israeli artist colony in Ein Hod – sculpted a mask of his fellow Jewish Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, which appears in the MoMA show. The paper, board, burlap, ink and gouache mask shows Tzara in ochre and purple, with a twisted, distorted face that appears terribly pained.


        Describing one of Janco’s masks, German poet and author of the “Dada Manifesto” (1916), Hugo Ball, described it in a diary as “not only did the mask immediately call for a costume, it also demanded a quite definite, passionate gesture, bordering on madness What fascinates us all about the masks is that they represent not human characters and passions, but characters and passions that are larger than life. The horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible.” Thus, in Ball’s view, Janco’s masks recall both a famous “Twilight Zone” episode and Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, where a portrait lays bare the moral depravity of the subject.



Man Ray.  “Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed),” 1964 (replica of 1923 original),

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



         Tzara (1896-1963), who appears in Janco’s mask, was a pseudonym of the Jewish-Romanian writer, Sami Rosenstock. Tzara helped found Dada through his writings, most notably “The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine” (1916) and the “Sept Manifestes Dada” (Seven Dada Manifestos) in 1924. The MoMA show includes an illustration by French artist Francis Picabia entitled, “Alarm Clock I (Réveil matin I)” (1919), which was the title page of the journal Dada (number 4-5), which Tzara edited. Picabia’s illustration shows a disassembled alarm clock, with chaotic gears and wires laid bare. Many Dada pieces address machinery and industrialization, suggesting that much of what previously was humanity has become robotic and cold.


         Also in the MoMA show are Jewish artists Hans Richter, Morton Livingston Schamberg and Arthur Segal. Richter (1888-1976) was born into a rich Jewish Berlin family. His father forced him into architecture, though he wanted to paint. Despite suffering partial paralysis from army service in Lithuania, he painted again and produced a new phenomenon, abstract films.


         Segal (1875-1944) was born into a Romanian Jewish middle-class family. His father, who ran a banking business, also discouraged him from painting, but Segal prevailed. After fleeing army service to Zurich, Segal developed the aesthetic idea of “equivalence,” by which he split his canvases up into equal geometric shapes and sought to devote equal attention to all parts of the paintings.



Marcel Janco, Israeli, born Romania. 1895-1984.  “Untitled (Mask, Portrait of Tzara), 1919,

Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne-Centre de création industrielle, Paris.



          Schamberg (1881-1918) was born in Philadelphia to a middle-class German Jewish family and became a supporter of Picabia’s blend of “machine paintings.” One reviewer described his work as a “wedding of an architect’s plans, machinist’s drawings and a strange sort of Egyptian relief.”


         Walter Serner (1889-1942) was also a Jewish Dadaist, but he converted to Catholicism. Jewish artist El Lissitzky, born Lasar (Eliezer) Markovich Lissitzky, famously illustrated the “Chad Gadya” and many Yiddish children’s books. Lissitzky was denied entrance to the St. Petersburg Academy because of his religion, but he studied with the same teacher as Marc Chagall. Lissitzky’s 1924 gelatin print of German collage artist Kurt Schwitters is exhibited in the Dada show. The portrait shows Schwitters wearing a tie that looks like a gas mask.


         Johannes Baargeld was the pseudonym of Alfred Emanuel Ferdinand Gruenwald (1892-1927), born to Romanian Jewish insurance director Heinrich Leopold Gruenwald. Baargeld grew up in Cologne and framed much of the Dada developments in Cologne until his untimely death at age 34. He was presumed to have frozen to death when lost in the fog while mountain climbing.


         But perhaps the most intriguing Jewish Dada artist is Man Ray (1890-1976). Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants. When the family members moved to Williamsburg when Ray was seven years old, they changed their last name to Ray, attempting to escape anti-Semitism. Man Ray adopted the name Manny or Man for similar reasons. Ray’s father worked in a garment factory and ran a tailoring business, and his mother was a seamstress. According to one online encyclopedia, Ray tried to disassociate himself from his family background, but he continued to use props with familiar significance: tailor’s dummies, flat irons, sewing machines, needles, pins, threads and swatches of fabric.“Cadeau” (Gift), which appears in the Dada show, is an iron with tacks attached to it. Instead of ironing clothing, Cadeau promises to rip the clothing to shreds.


         Ray was the first Dadaist to use photography. Photography is generally an orderly medium, but Ray invented the “photogram” which ruptured that order. In the photogram, Ray placed the objects he was “photographing” directly onto photo paper. When Ray exposed the paper to light, light exposed the empty parts of the paper, while the objects blocked the light. Thus, the finished photograph showed white where the objects had been, while the other areas became black.


         “Object to be Destroyed” is a ticking metronome that Ray conceived of in terms of “destructible” and “indestructible.” Ray placed a photograph of a woman’s eye on the metronome, and he would later rename the piece “lost object,” as Leach Dickerman and Matthew Witkovsky explain in one of the show catalogs, “The Dada Seminars” (National Gallery of Art, 2005).


         Ray’s objects to be destroyed and “Obstruction” (63 wooden coat hangers arranged as a mural), “Theatre of the Soul” (later titled “suicide”,which looks like a balance with teeth), and “Compass” (which shows a magnet attached to a pistol) represent not only the aesthetic responses of individuals opposed to the absurdity of war and fascism. Ray, with the other seven Jewish artists in Dada, bring a particularly Jewish perspective to the insistence on justice and what is now called tikkun olam. And it hardly seems a coincidence that so many of the Dada artists were Jewish.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.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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