criticismExhibitions
Wednesday, October 20th, 2004

Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis


Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
By Ardyn Halter

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue (northeast corner of 92nd Street)
New York NY 10128

September 10, 2004 – January 16, 2005

Hana Mirjam Kohn (1931-1944), Watercolor on paper. This and all images courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

Hana Mirjam Kohn (1931-1944), Watercolor on paper. This and all images courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

On the morning of October 6th 1944 a transport of cattle cars set off on the tracks from Terezin to Auschwitz. It contained mostly women and children. Few of those children survived. Together with them on the transport was their art teacher in the Nazi camp Theresienstadt (Terezin), a woman they loved who had encouraged them there to paint, design and perform plays, seeking the creative within each of them. Like Janusz Korczak, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis joined the children on what for most was to be their final journey. She insisted on volunteering that day, incapable of facing continued separation from her husband Pavel, her first cousin, who three weeks earlier had been taken. He was to survive. At her death she was 46.

Days before leaving Terezin, Frield-Dicker-Brandeis hid two suitcases containing the children’s drawings. These came to light in the 1960s and were published in the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Several of these drawings are shown at the end of the exhibition in The Jewish Museum. At this point I would like to make a personal digression. When almost twenty years ago my father (Roman Halter) and I worked on Yad Layeled, the memorial in the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum in Israel to the one and a half million Jewish children who were murdered during the Shoah, we selected some of these drawings and paintings and made from them stained glass windows. It was our intention to create a visual link between the children of Terezin and those children and adults visiting the children’s memorial today. An abstract concept would not communicate to generations whereas the drawings made by those children can speak to each of us. We wished to emphasise the creativity of the lives that were lost rather than the murderous ways in which those lives were taken.

Atelier Singer-Dicker, Perspective view of the Lobby of Villa Heriot, 1932. Pencil and tempera on paper, 50.5 x 47.5 inches. Private Collection.

Atelier Singer-Dicker, Perspective view of the Lobby of Villa Heriot, 1932.
Pencil and tempera on paper, 50.5 x 47.5 inches. Private Collection.

At that time we were but partially aware of the range and sheer creative vitality of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The exhibition at The Jewish Museum, New York will run through to January 16th 2005 and serves to remind us not only of her energy and, even more, of the dynamic spirit of discovery shared by those within the Bauhaus school. Above all the exhibition permits insight into the life of one of the most human, caring and creative women of the twentieth century.

Intensely stimulated by the newly-formed Bauhaus in 1919, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis explored every available medium, studying under Gropius, Klee, Muche, Klemmer, Kandinsky and Itten. If Itten and Klee were the teachers to whom she felt closest in spirit, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was also drawn to ground her designs in a working understanding of practical techniques: woodwork; metal work; bookbinding; printing and typography; weaving. The exhibition and catalogue Friedl Dicker-Brandeis; Vienna 1898-Auschwitz 1944, text Ellen Makarova, coordinated by Regina Seidman-Miller, beside providing marvellous examples of her studies during her Bauhaus period also cover the most exciting period of her work when she teamed up with her lover Franz Singer to form the Aterlier Singer-Dicker. Their work was much in demand in Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Berlin and ranged from stackable chairs, modular furniture, to interior design, a tennis club house, a Montessori school including the design of the toys.

This exhibition demonstrates a wide range of her paintings and drawings. Some deserve particular comment: “Sleeping Cat,” (circa 1924), charcoal on paper with what might be an intentional or unintentional coffee stain that works on her delicate Foujita-like charcoal as essentially the umber ground of a Lascaux cave-painting of a bison (the drawing was discarded by Friedl but salvaged from the waste-basket by a fellow student). Or from her “View of the Moldau by Vysehrad,” (1934-6), a playful and delicate pastel and watercolour (mislabelled in the catalogue as an oil painting), whose delicacy fuses the childlike and the sophisticated. View from a window in “Franzensbad,” (1936-7) – a stylistic precursor of RB Kitaj’s “If Not, Not,” (1976.)

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Self-Portrait in Car, 1940. Pastel on paper. Jewish Museum, Prague.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Self-Portrait in Car, 1940. Pastel on paper. Jewish Museum, Prague.

“Self Portrait in a Car,” (1940) shows her in a carriage or train, the vehicle is not certain. The perspective gives the picture a sense of accelerated motion and her face is pared down to a few minimal marks, smudges in pastel as though in some premonitory way she sees herself moving towards her end.

As an artist, Friedl’s sheer leger d’esprit came most fully to the fore when designing and thinking on paper. The designs for the apartment of Dr. Reisner are in themselves masterpieces of late-Cubism, in particular the ground-plan for the bedroom combining the boldness of Juan Gris, the poised structure of Piet Mondrian and delicacy of Paul Klee. In these works, more than any others, the energy, excitement of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was best expressed. Her work communicates a zest for people. She is evidently happiest working in partnership with others or within the milieu of a school as student or teacher, or within her design partnership with Franz Singer. The Singer-Dicker practice flourished during the late 1920’s and their designs today still look modern and vital. And whilst at the height of her success as a designer, with an active client-base from Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie, she added to her overloaded schedule the role of a kindergarten teacher.

This exhibition is as much a time chart of two decades of central European aesthetics as an insight into the life of a gifted individual, respected and loved by her contemporaries and by the children she taught. It is an enriching and painful experience.


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