Marcel Janco’s life history can be divided into two main chapters: 46 years in Europe and 43 inIsrael. Born in Bucharest, Romania in 1895, his artistic talent became apparent early on. From his teacher, Josef Isser, he learned the foundations of classical art that would continue to influence his work throughout his life. A sociable young man, Janco surrounded himself with poets and writers his own age. Together with several of his high school classmates, he startedSimbolul and Chemarea, literary journals in which his drawings were first published.
In 1915, at the age of 20, Janco went to Zurich to study architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology. He thus spent World War I as a student far from home in a neutral country, safe from the horrors of war. In this tranquil atmosphere, he joined a group of young artists performing at the Cabaret Voltaire. The founders of the avant-garde Dada movement, they challenged what they considered the fallacious values of bourgeois society and art. The shows they put on at the cabaret were utterly different from anything the burghers of Zurich were used to. Janco played an active role in all the group’s activities, designing the masks they wore in their performances and participating in the shows, which invariably drew incensed and hostile reactions from the audience. In addition, the Dadaists mounted exhibitions, issued manifestos, and published a journal. During this period, Janco also belonged to Das Neue Leben (New Life), a group that organized artistic and intellectual activities and was involved in the establishment of the Association of Radical Artists.
In 1922, after a brief stay in Paris, Janco returned to Romania. His paintings were now mostly of local landscapes, peasants, and interiors, classical subjects which he depicted in a modernist style. His work displayed cubist and constructivist elements along with dark coloration, particularly browns and grays. He was also active in the avant-garde movement in Bucharest, serving as one of the founders and editors of Contimporanul, a journal published from 1922-1932, to which he contributed not only art work, but articles as well. And he was involved with several other groups of Romanian artists who were similarly striving to promote the principles of modernism.
In Romania, Janco opened an architects office with his brother Jules, which was responsible for the design of over forty private homes and public buildings. In the early stages of his architectural career, his work showed the strong influence of his teacher, the Swiss architect Karl Moser. Although his designs are generally described as examples of the International Style, Janco’s unique signature is clear in all of them. They are marked by clean elegant lines, without any ornamental additions, and an intriguing juxtaposition of shapes – a round window here, a triangle there. The buildings often convey the sense that the viewer is looking at one of Janco’s abstract paintings, with the disparate forms in the composition coming together to create a harmonious whole.
Despite his professional success in the country of his birth, in 1940, at the start of World War II, Janco decided to move his family to Palestine in the face of growing anti-Semitism, the persecution of Romania’s Jews, and the Bucharest pogrom. When he arrived in Palestine he was already a noted artist, a modernist deeply enmeshed in the European avant-garde. Once here, both his style of painting and his architectural work underwent a striking change, with the Mediterranean light finding its way into his palette. He found a job in the Research and Survey Department in the Planning Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, where he was responsible for designating and planning national parks. He formed a strong emotional bond with his new homeland, crossing it from east to west and north to south. Wherever he went, he carried with him a sketchbook in which he recorded what he saw, and then reproduced the scenes in vivid colors on his return to the studio. His paintings from this period depict the landscapes and people of the country, as well as its heroic struggle for independence.
In 1948, a group of local artists joined forces to form a movement they called New Horizons, marking a turning point in modern art in Israel. Janco was one of the founding fathers of the movement, alongside the prominent artists Yehezkel Streichman and Joseph Zaritsky, and designed the poster for its first exhibition, which bore a donkey with its head shaped like a palette. His work, with its combination of figurative aspects and constructivist elements, had a significant impact on the character and identity of contemporary Israeli art. Janco brought to the local art scene his rich experience, the principles of European modernism prominent in his art, and the spirit of Dada that animated it.
In 1953, Janco made a visit to the deserted Arab village of Ein Hod on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. Struck by the beauty of the landscape and the vernacular architecture, he vowed to find a way to reclaim the site. Advertising in the organs of the artists’ and sculptors’ associations in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, he invited artists to make their home there. He himself joined the first group of settlers in Ein Hod. Janco was also a teacher, mentoring generations of artists, beginning soon after his arrival in Israel when he joined The Studia, an art school run by Streichman and Avigdor Stematsky into which he introduced the spirit of the avant-garde. Later he taught in a variety of institutions, as well as in courses conducted in Ein Hod. Many of his former students attest to the unique teaching methods he employed.
The last twenty years of Janco’s life were particularly productive in terms of both his artistic work and his public endeavors. He actively promoted the village of Ein Hod, as well as writing articles about a range of subjects that drew his interest. In 1967 he received the Israel Prize in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the country. His oils from this period evidence a near total return to the abstract and geometric shapes.
Marcel Janco passed away on April 21, 1984. He left behind a prodigious estate consisting not only of oil paintings and drawings on a wide array of themes, but also writings, sketches, and architectural plans, all part of a resplendent legacy that will occupy researchers for many years to come.