There are artists whose lives become, in retrospect, an allegory of the era in which they worked, and one of them was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), whose career is the subject of an unusual exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. Don’t be dismayed if her name is unfamiliar to you. It was certainly new to me, but it won’t be soon forgotten by anyone who takes this chance to see her work. This is an exhibition that evokes both the utopian dreams of the European avant-garde in the 20th century and the historical tragedy that befell Europe in the long nightmare of the Nazi era.
Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis traces the career of an Austrian who began her artistic development as a student at the legendary Bauhaus in Germany, where the faculty included such celebrated artists as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer, as well as the architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
In this heady intellectual milieu, where utopian political theories were combined with radical aesthetic ideologies to produce a pedagogical program guaranteed to offend established taste, Dicker-Brandeis proved to be an exceptionally gifted and versatile talent. Indeed, the range of her accomplishments is phenomenal, for it encompasses, beside paintings and drawings in both traditional and modernist styles, stage and costume design, architectural drawings and original designs for modernist furniture—all of which are well represented in the Jewish Museum exhibition. Also documented, alas, is the tragic fate of the artist herself: In 1944, at the age of 46, she was murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Even in the last, horrific chapter of her remarkable life, Dicker-Brandeis remained a heroic spirit. In 1942—before Auschwitz—she was sent to Terezín, where she somehow managed to teach the children in the concentration camp how to draw; and in 1943 she organized a secret exhibition, in the camp, of the children’s drawings. These drawings, which were not discovered until after the end of World War II, are also represented in the current exhibition. This is not the kind of work that’s likely to turn up in textbook histories of modern European art, but it nonetheless has something important to tell us about the survival of the creative spirit in the darkest period of modern European history.
About Dicker-Brandeis’ own work as an artist, it’s interesting to observe that after clearly demonstrating a precocious command of nearly every aspect of the Bauhaus aesthetic, she turned toward a more traditional mode of representational painting and drawing. Her portrait studies and drawings of the nude are the work of a mature talent; the most accomplished of them are a painting, Double Portrait from a Photo (circa 1938-40), and a stunning pastel of a reclining male nude, Nude Pavel Brandeis (circa 1938-42), a portrait—of a sort—of her husband. She also had a Communist phase, in which she produced anti-fascist agitprop posters in the photo-montage style better known to us in the work of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield.
It should be understood, of course, that much of Dicker-Brandeis’ art has been lost to posterity—destroyed, as she herself was, in the Nazi terror. What must also be recalled is Hitler’s implacable campaign to rid the German Reich of the modernist art he intensely despised. Germany in the pre-Nazi Weimar period had been one of the most vibrant centers of modernism on the international art scene. Its art galleries and private collections of avant-garde art were the most renowned in the Western world, and this, too, became one of the principal objects of Hitler’s wrath. As early as 1933, the first of several exhibitions designed to ridicule modernist art was staged in Karlsruhe, and in 1934 Hitler delivered his first speech condemning “degenerate art” in Nuremberg. The climax of this evil campaign came in 1937 with the enormous Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. Needless to say, the Bauhaus was closed, and it was in the aftermath of the Degenerate Art campaign that many German artists, art dealers, art historians and collectors fled to a safe haven in the United States.
Unfortunately, Dicker-Brandeis was not one of them. She was offered an opportunity to emigrate to Palestine, but her husband Pavel was denied a visa and she refused to abandon him. For a time, they found refuge in the Czech countryside, but that was short-lived.
Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through Jan. 16, 2005, and is accompanied by an excellent catalog.