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Issues of the Day Why “Jewish Avant-Garde Artists from Romania” is of Interest


When I first saw the advertisements for the Israel Museum’s new exhibition, “Jewish Avant-Garde Artists from Romania,” it barely registered.  Later, when I scanned the fare at the museum on a day I decided to visit, something in the collection’s  description piqued my interest. I decided to take in the exhibit. I am very glad that I did.


The exhibition and the materials accompanying it, including an impressive brochure and a video loop of interviews with the people who had assembled the collection and explaining its significance, opened my eyes to an episode of cultural history with  a preponderant Jewish dimension.  

While the artistic and literary movement known as Dada or Dadaism (from which surrealism would later derive), involves no apparent Jewish content in the form of symbols and themes, the background of many of its leading proponents, particularly those who hailed from Romania, was decidedly Jewish.    

The question begging to be asked is, as reviewer Vlad Solomon put it in a article, why so many Jews? With respect to the Romanian Jewish artists,who were prominent at the center of the Dadist enterprise in Zurich, the answer is found in the values and structures of Romanian society in the first decades of the twentieth century, when only a fraction of Jews were awarded citizenship bythe last European  country to do so.

While  Romanian fascism reached its peak in the late thirties and early forties as manifested by the zealous collaboration of the Iron Guard with the Nazis,  it did not do so in a vacuum. Anti-Semitism had long existed in Romania as a religious phenomena, but also became a particularly powerful principle in secular culture with the rise of ultra-nationalism in the early 20th Century. The search for “national culture” became an idea and in this idea, the “foreign” and “degenerate” influence of non-Romanians, most notably of the Jews, had to be rooted out.



The Jewish artists whose work appear in the  “Jewish Avant-Garde Artists from Romania,” exhibit, which was first presented at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum in the summer of 2011, defied the conventions, both anti-Semitic and dogmatic, of the Romanian culture that rejected them. Together with non-Jewish artists elsewhere on the Continent, their art also ridiculed the prevailing social and cultural norms then prevalent in European society.

These artists dedicated themselves to the “anti-art” of Dadism, which rejects all conventions and received notions of aesthetics and culture. In the post-World I era, a major historical catalyst for Dada’s anti-art, these artists were Jewish rebels, resisting those who would expunge them by rejecting the authority and culture of the gatekeepers.

The artists, Arthur Segal (1875-1944), Marcel Janco (1895-1984), Tristan Tzara (1895-1962), M.H. Maxy (1895-1971), Victor Brauner (1903-1966), Jules Perahim (1914-2008) and Paul Păun (1915-1994) were prominent as painters, in theatre, and as writers, editors and critics. Their influence was felt throughout Europe, in America and further afield. Marcel Janco eventually made his way to pre-State Israel and his work are part of the collection of the Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod. Maxy advocated exchanges between European and Palestinian Jewish avante-garde painters and proceeds from one of the Dadist publications, The Ivory Bridge, went to the construction of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.    



The collection of paintings and theatre masks comprising the Israel Museum exhibit is not only a tribute to an important cultural phenomena characterized by path breaking works, but also a testimony to Jews who turned their back on their oppressors through the means of cultural and intellectual defiance. Their work lives on while those who suppress them have been consigned to oblivion.


“Jewish Avant-Garde Artists from Romania” will be on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem through April 14, 2012. 

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved