Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Prints of Dada's Co-Founder, Marcel Janco

Marcel Janco (Iancu) (1895-1984) a Romanian and Israeli artist, was the co-founder of Dadaism and a leading advocate of Constructivism. Janco was the eldest of four children, born in Bucharest to a wealthy Jewish family. He attended Gheorghe Şincai School and studied drawing with Iosef Isor. At Gheoghe Lazar High School, Janco met and became friends a number of soon to be influential people like Tzara, Vinea, Jacques C. Costin. Janco’s friends and collaborators often described him as melancholy, very handsome and charismatic. He was considered one of the leading Romanian Jewish intellectuals of his generation, very knowledgeable and was well-read in French literature. 

In October 1912, Marcel worked as Editor and Graphic Designer for the Symbolist magazine Simbolul, but he later moved on to work for a daily paper called Seara.  After the start of WWI, Marcel left Bucharest for Switzerland where he studied Chemistry at the  University of Zurich, then switched to Architecture and studied at the Federal Institute of Technology.  He and his brother Jules earned their living as cabaret performers; where Marcel played the accordion. It was here that they met Hugo Ball  in Cabaret Voltaire. Marcel was personally involved with the acts and performances at  Cabaret Voltaire which attracted people to their performances like the notable theorist Vladimir Lenin and psychiatrist Carl Jung. The Voltaire group later called themselves Dadaists. Janco illustrated the their advertisements, and his prints were used as to illustrate their almanacs, but conflicts with his friend Tzara lead him and Hans Arp to leave the Dadaists and they joined  a number of art Constructivist groups like Neue Kunst,  Das Neue Leben  and Artistes Radicaux.

It was also in December 1919, after Marcel went to France, that he met and married Amélie Micheline "Lily" Ackermann. Two years later, the Jancos moved to Romania, where they had one daughter, but another daughter died in infancy. The Jancos divorced  in 1930, and Marcel later remarried, this time to Clara "Medi" Goldschlager, the sister of Jacques G. Costin. The couple had one child, Deborah Theodora. 

The next few years saw Janco widely involved in architecture, and editing and illustrating for several journals and exhibiting his art. Janco opened up his own business, Birou de Studii Moderne, officially run by the fictitious Marcel Iuliu Iancu, and it was at this time that Janco had a "revolutionary" vision to change the face of urban design. Early in 1922, Janco and Vinea founded the historically important and longest-running Romanian avant-garde political/art magazine, called Contimporanul to which Janco contributed some 60 illustrations, 40 articles on art and architecture, and included a number of his architectural designs. Janco was also largely responsible for the magazine’s feature issue on Surrealism. He maintained a link between 
Contimporanul and Der Sturm, which republished his drawings, and the Vienna-based magazine MA also published samples of his graphics. Janco, with M.H. Maxy,   curated the Contimporanul International Art Exhibit of 1924, which reunited the major currents of Europe's modern art. It included works by Constantin Brancusi  Hans Arp, Klee, Richter, and Kurt Schwitters.  Janco also illustrated Pillat and Perpessisius’s Antologia poeţilor de azi, and produced drawings for Camil Baltzar's erotic Strigări trupeşti lîngă glezne. Around 1926, he joined with the Bucharest art collective Criterion, which exhibited at Dalles Hall in 1933, and he represented the Bucharest collective Arta Nouă, exhibiting at the Maison d'Art club.  He took on students in his Bucharest studio, including the future painter-photographer Hedde Sterne, Once Janco finally received his architect certification in 1934,  he wrote a text about the need and opportunity in Bucharest for modernist urban planning, called Urbanism, nu romantism. In 1935, Janco published Către o arhitectură a Bucureştilor, which recommended a "utopian" project to solve the city's social crisis. 

During the late 1930s Janco’s family and other Romanian Jews began to see and experience a wave anti-Semitism with the rise of Hitler and his followers. When the anti-semitic National Christian Party took power, Janco was coming to terms with the Zionist ideology, describing Israel as the "cradle" and "salvation" of Jews. In 1941, Marcel and his family left Romania and relocated to Israel. Once they were settled, he worked as an architect for the city of Tel Aviv, and he designed and helped to preserve Israel’s national parks. 

While in Israel, Janco became a noted participant in the development of local Jewish art, and he lectured at the Seminar Hakibbutzim college.   In May 1953, when he came across a deserted Palestinian Arab village, Ein Hod, Janco felt that the place should not be demolished, but rebuilt as an artist colony.  He became the colony’s first mayor and instituted a strict code for its settlement. The Ein Hod colony was also important in that the architecture cultivated pre-existing Arab-style masonry instead of building new buildings. Janco was also a founding member of Ofakim Hadashim. Also, during this period, Janco exhibited his artwork widely throughout Europe and had a retrospective of his art in New York City, in 1950.

Janco’s artistic influences spanned Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism,  Dada, Constructivism, and Surrealism. A lot of his prints were linocuts and silkscreens. His covers and illustrations for Simbolui are generally considered Art Nouveau and  Symbolist, but his own artistic preferences were closer to Cezanne and Cubism. Janco himself claimed that Dada was not as much a fully-fledged new artistic style as "a force coming from the physical instincts", directed against "everything cheap". His own work featured Dada found art, and supposedly he was the first Dadaist to experiment with everyday objects rearranged as art. He credited Paul Klee with having helped him "interpret the soul of primitive man". Around 1919, Janco had come to agree with Schwitters and van Doesburg to describe Constructivism as a needed transition from "negative" Dada. Futurism was of interest after Janco’s 1930 encounter with Marinetti.  Another major influence on Janco's work was Expressionism, via Die Brucke and  Kokoshcke, and later reactivated by his work with Der Sturm. After 1930, Janco returned to "analytic" Cubism. In discussing architecture, Janco first theorized that Abstract-Expressionistic decorations needed to an integral part of the basic architectural design. He said his own architectural work was entirely dedicated to functionalism, which included his furniture designs. By the time of World War II, he returned to Expressionism and then moved into the realm of pure abstraction, which he believed represented the artistic "language" of a new age. Soon after moving to Israel, Janco began painting brightly colored landscapes, and later he developed an interest in the Jewish tradition of interpreting symbols. Finally, Janco saw his Ein Hod project as the culmination of his work, and called it "my last Dada activity". 
Janco in Ein Hod in the 1950s

Some of his works represented Romania at New York City’s Futuristshow,1936
Dizengoff Prize, 1945, 1946, 1950, 1951
One of three artists displayed at first Israeli pavilion at Venice Biennale, 1952
Israel Prize, 1967
"Worthy of Tel Aviv" distinction, 1982
The Bucharest Art Museum (MNAR) organized a centennial Marcel Janco exhibition
The Cotroceni Palace featured Janco’s work in the "Jewish Art of Romania" retrospective, 2000

Monday, July 23, 2012

Beatriz Pestana-Osuna:Revealing A Hidden History

The prints of Venezuelan printmaker Beatriz Pestana-Osuna grabbed my attention for what I found and what I didn't find in her images.  Petsana-Osuna chooses to talk about a part of her heritage, that of being a Sephardi Jew, also known as the Hidden Jews. She has chosen to speak about her family's past, which she's been able to re-trace back four hundred years, as a part of her identity as a person and as an artist. The work she's created echoes the loss of place, endless migration and a people who have struggled to remain themselves in spite of an apparent cloaked disguise and wearing the proverbial  faceless mask to live, to survive.
For the uninitiated, a Sephardi Jew is a person descended from Jews who lived in Iberia before being expelled from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal in 1497. Those that did not leave could only stay if they publicly accepted another faith, like Christianity. Those Jews then fervently practiced their faith in secret. The traditional language of Sephardim is a form of Judeo-Spanish, also called Judezmo or Ladino. It is an Old Castilian Spanish Romance language, with elements of Turkish, and Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and French. The Sephardim have distinguished themselves in service fields of medicine and politics, and have been a valuable asset to the Christian and Muslim communities of Europe. During World War II, the Nazis almost completely wiped out entire populations of Sephardi Jewry from France, the Netherlands Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece during the Holocaust. Fortunately, their unique language and traditions were saved from being completely lost. They have migrated worldwide, although a small population of Sephardi remain in Spain and Portugal. 
The "Golden Age" of Sephardi Jewry was a two hundred year period where Jews welcomed and worked alongside the Muslims who invaded the peninsula of Spain and Portugal. They saw the Muslim Moors as their liberators from an enforced Catholicism. One group of the Sephardi are called Crypto-Jews. This the group from which Pestana-Osuna descends. Her Sephardic heritage hails from Spanish-Portuguese origin. Her images address her personal journey to connect with her ancestors’ experience. Her choice to make the people in these images faceless and shrouded, with only an Jewish star to identify themselves as being together is painful. There is an eerie feeling of people passing us as though they are on a long journey, but they aren't necessarily people that are 'with' us in this lifetime. The images also speak of a drifting through time, and a passage with no end in sight. It is a ghostly existence and we are transfixed to sit along the side of the road to watch the endless souls passing before us. These so-called Hidden Jews, these people who, patiently endured the ignorance of the people surrounding them, have been travelling forever similarly as have the Roma, only seeking their place, their time, their home, their families, and the freedom to practice their religion. 

While Pestana-Osuna describes for us her heritage, her past, we can understand the desire to belong to a place and a group. Thankfully, the Sephardi continue to survive and prosper. We see even in Pestana-Osuna's last image a collective group of people who gather under lights that identify them as being part of the same group.We can either see that in an historic context of Jews who were gathered in death camps during WWII, or we can see it as a positive step forward as these weary, long-traveled souls finally find the light to which they can gather  together, to be saved from the darkness. I choose to believe she's showing us the latter, and one can look forward to seeing their hope-filled future.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

El Gallinero: A Printmaker's Delight in Southern Spain

For those of you seeking a wonderful opportunity to sample the scenary and culture of southern Spain, El Gallinero will be something to remember. El Gallinero is a printmaking retreat run by artist Maureen Booth. She also offers classes for anyone wanting to try this medium we all know is wonderfully inkedup. 
Located nine miles,  a fifteen minute drive, south of Granada,  at the edge of a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this little oasis provides the artist a place to work and print in a private, sun-drenched studio. Nontoxic, solarplate, monotype, relief and intaglio media are available.  
One can visit the Mediterranean coast at Motril, which is only 40 minutes away, and if you want to ski, the Sierra Nevada ski resort is a mere 25 minutes' drive. El Gallinero's surroundings are some of the most sumptuous you'll find in this part of Europe.  There are lots of small villages, walking trails, mountain biking and outdoor dining in a true Spanish tradition of tapas, music and wine. A special treat  to whet an artist's creative appetite is a trip to Granada's medieval fortress, Alhambre, which is located close by. It is a must for an excellent day trip of Spain's Moorish history. 
For more information on this special place, contact Maureen Booth at Tel: +34 958 488972, +34 653 221571 (cell)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

James Lesesne Wells: African-American Printmaking Pioneer

As a part of our on-going series, History of Influential Printmakers, I came across the work of James Lesesne Wells and I think you will agree, his legacy in printmaking helped to promote the work of hundreds of young artists and he furthered the field of printmaking, especially for the masses of African-Americans whose opportunity to see and purchase original works of art were limited. 
James L. Wells was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1902, and raised in Florida. Wells’ artistic childhood was influenced by his parents’ religious beliefs, and his interest in teaching started as he helped his other run a daycare fro children. As a child, Wells used to stencil designs on the prayer meeting room walls of his father’s Baptist church and this lead him to study art. He attended the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute,  Lincoln University, and eventually earned both his Bachelors and Masters degrees at  the Teachers College of New York's Columbia University. He also studied one year at Stanley William Hayter's famed Atelier 17 workshop in New York.
Wells became a prolific printmaker and made his living for a time illustrating books and journals for the Crisis and Opportunity; two of the day's important black magazines.  Wells forged friendships with black scholars, including philosopher Alain Locke and historian Carter G. Woodson. These connections also led him to book illustration. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1929 and began teaching art at Howard University, where he would remain for thirty nine years. 
The Works Progress Administration used prints to make art available to the masses, this it was at this point Wells dedicated himself entirely to printmaking and developing his craft. Wells credited the impact of seeing a first ever exhibition of African sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as changing the way he thought about art and how much it affected his style from that point on. Another major influence upon his work was a trip he took to West Africa after his retirement from Howard. the images he saw there emboldened his use of color and powerful images. He loved the raw power of German Expressionist woodcuts and Cubism's use of African sculpture and ceremonial masks toward abstraction. The themes of his work often revolved around  mythological, religious, social/political messages, violence, seduction, and civil rights.  
Wells' work addressed the history and experiences of African-Americans and the working class, and after Wells married Ophelia Davidson in 1933, he became active in anti-segregation protests in Washington D.C. because her brother,Eugene Davidson, was president of the local chapter of the NAACP. 
Wells enjoyed numerous exhibits in galleries and museums worldwide, including the Corcoran, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Baltimore art museums, the Society of American Graphics in New York, Fisk University, a 50 year retrospective at Howard University,The Washington Project for the Arts and the Harlem Studio Museum.
James Lesesne Wells left a mark on the art world that goes beyond his own work as a painter and printmaker. He was also one of the earliest American artists to concentrate his efforts on printmaking.
Harmon Foundation, Gold Medal, 1931
Smithsonian Institution, First prize, Religious Art Exhibition, 1958
Van Der Zee Award, Afro-American History and Cultural Museum, 1977 
Presidential citation by Jimmy Carter for lifelong contribution to American art, 1980
"James L. Wells Day" declared by Mayor Marion Barry, Washington DC, 1984
Living Legend Award, National Black Arts Festival, 1991

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nigeria’s National Pride: Printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya

Wanting to explore some other parts of the globe, I recently came across the work of internationally renowned Nigerian printmaker, painter and sculptor Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya. He was born in 1932 in Agbarha-Otor in Delta State. The son of an Urhobo carver, he was raised as a Christian, but also learned traditional Urhobo beliefs. His family moved to  Benin City where he studied art under Edward Ivehivboje, and took drawing classes at the British Council Art Club. From 1953–1957, Onobrakpeya taught art at Western Boys High School, and  the Ondo Boys High School.
Onobrakpeya’s formal art training began at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, (now called the Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria. He was a founding member of the college art student group called the Zaria Arts Society, a.k.a. the Zaria Rebels. Onobrakpeya later said the group helped him shaped his artistic concepts and encouraged him to find his own style. He later attended printmaking workshops in IbadanOshogboIfe and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in Maine. 
As one of the first generation of artists whose training was based on contemporary Western traditions of representational art, much of his work still portrays a style more connected with his traditional Urhobo folklore, myths and legends. He uses elongated figures similarly found in Medieval Christian and Byzantine art, and discards the renaissance rules of perspective to conjure up his own version of the supernatural. Onobrakpeya also has developed a writing style (Ibiebe) of invented ideographic geometric and curvilinear glyphs. These designs incorporate his interests in Chinese, Japanese, Ghanaian and Nigerian calligraphy with Urhobo imagery. Ibiebe glyphs are abstract, and for Onobrakpeya they seek universal truths.
Onobrakpeya has received numerous prestigious awards, including the following:
                Honorary D. Litt. from the University of Ibadan
                Honorable Mention from the Venice Biennale
                Pope John Paul II Award
                Fulbright Exchange Scholar 
                UNESCO’s Living Human Treasure Award
                Nigerian Creativity Award, by the Federal Government of Nigeria

Since his first one-man exhibition in 1959, Onobrakpeya has exhibited his work widely throughout the United States, Europe and Africa. His work are included in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, The Smithsonian Institution, The National Gallery of Art in Lagos and The Vatican Museum.  He has also been included in several documentaries on Nigerian artists and his own work.
In a career spanning over fifty years, Onobrakpeya has discovered, innovated and perfected printmaking and relief sculpture techniques that are uniquely Nigerian. As a printmaker, he prefers to work in Relief, Collograph, and Etching. His projects range from historical portraiture, commentaries on social unrest, mythical tales and religious subject matter. The results of his efforts are rich, tactile surfaces and compositions with iconic figures, overlapped in a nebulous space. The colors are densely multi-layered and his images pulsate with life. They show a great appreciation for the complexities of dual existence both in this world and that realm of folktales, and cultural heritage. In that regard he share affinities with Paul Gauguin. His prints intertwine freely with his interests in other tangible media, and we are enriched from the experience.
Finally, in 1998,  Onobrakpeya created an NGO, called the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation. It organizes the annual Harmattan Workshops for international artist retreats in his home town of Agbara Otor. The foundation  encourages artists opportunities to improve and develop their skills, all the while increasing the public's awareness of African art .