the Landscape Paintings of Marcel Janco

The exhibition centers on Marcel Janco’s interpretations of landscapes, on his oil paintings from his life in Europe and in Israel and on his work on paper, mainly from the 1940s onward. An important part of the exhibition focuses on sketches, sketch books and rare scraps of paper found in his estate and dating from the time he worked for the Research and Survey Department of the Prime Minister’s Office Planning Division.

As an artist, Marcel Janco always attributed more importance to form than to anything else. The topic of his painting always served as an “excuse” for the work. His landscape paintings feature the interplay between spaces and constructions bathed in light and shade in his inimitable style. His works portray concrete composition and abstract figuration. In most cases the landscape is merely a frame or stage set that serves the needs of the composition.  The events take place at the front of the painting, with the skyline, the mountains and the buildings forming a theatrical mise-en-scène in the background.

Trained as an architect, Janco saturated his landscapes with an architectural perspective. The oil paintings he created from the 1920s through the 1940s tended towards geometric structuralism. Towards the end of the 1930s Janco relinquished his attention to details and sought to provide only hints about the location of the painting, leaving the landscape open to reinterpretation that tended towards abstraction. His works were marked by the dark colorfulness of browns and dark grays and by structural angularity.

Marcel Janco left Europe at the end of 1940. His immigration to the Land of Israel in early 1941 led to two distinct changes in his relations with the landscape. First, as was the case with other contemporary artists who came from Europe, his palette of colors changed and became lighter, more colorful and more daring. Second, oriental elements began finding expression in his work as a result of his response to the vernacular construction in the Arab villages, the minarets of the mosques and the Arab residents themselves. Janco accurately captured the rhythms, creating harmonious works in which the physical and the human landscapes merged.

As opposed to the oil paintings that tend towards abstraction, Janco’s water color paintings on paper maintain a strong connection to reality and are extremely colorful. In his series describing sites in Europe and Israel, Janco accurately depicts the buildings, the bridges, the church turrets and the boats on the river. He designs them clearly, preserving all the details, so that in many cases identification of the sites is almost certain. The rapid line marks the details of the landscape, while the diluted color is trapped, seeking to differentiate between hill and dale, house and field.

At the end of the 1940s, Janco worked for the Research and Survey Department of the Prime Minister’s Office Planning Division, where he was tasked with designing and preserving Israeli national parks. As part of this job, Janco set out to explore the country. Armed with a notebook, he traversed the country from top to bottom and made quick pencil and ink sketches of the Israeli landscape. Janco’s estate contains hundreds of these landscape sketches, in notebooks or on the blank side of various documents.

From time to time Janco used landscape to create a synthesis between the abstract and the concrete. Most of his oil paintings, particularly from the 1950s onward, are conceivably landscape paintings or conceivably the artist playing with colored surfaces.

Eugen Kolb, director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the 1950s, expressed this well when he compared two of Marcel Janco’s works that deal with landscapes: “Look at these two landscapes, one ‘abstract’ and the other ‘concrete’ and geographically demarcated, hanging one beside the other. See how Janco was able to express the wonderful synthesis between human content and modern means of design.” 

Raya Zommer-Tal, Exhibition Curator