Hadassah magazine cover story
The Arts: Painting Out of a Corner
By Lisa Alcalay Klug
The genius of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis shone in Vienna, Berlin and Prague but most brightly at the end in Terezin.
“My life in art has redeemed me from a thousand deaths. Through my painting, which I have practiced diligently, I have atoned for a guilt I do not know the origin of.” Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, March 1938.
The Bauhaus-trained artist never settled on a single signature for her work. In a charcoal still life, she might opt for her first name alone. In an architectural sketch, she might pen her birth name, then switch to her married, hyphenated name on a painting or simply scratch her various initials into the corner of a textile design.
Like so much else in her life, why this brilliantly talented artist avoided a trademark signature remains a mystery. Perhaps she was constantly reinventing herself, struggling with self-doubt, fighting against conformity or grappling with a complex identity that broke so many norms. A Communist activist, teacher, architect, textile designer, sculptor and painter, she spent her last two years teaching more than 600 children in Terezin, the Nazis’ “model” propaganda camp in Czechoslovakia. In the end, it is not her name but a string of numbers—like those the Nazis forced on her and her fellow inmates—that suggest the brutality of her demise. On October 9, 1944, the Nazis deported her to Auschwitz-Birkenau, transport No. 167. Three days later, she was murdered in the gas chambers. She was 46 years old.
Bauhaus founder and famed architect Walter Gropius once said that had she lived, Dicker-Brandeis would have been the most important female artist of the twentieth century. Though she worked with such leading artists as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, she never saw her work headline a first-rate retrospective. But she is, at least symbolically, enjoying that now, with the flair and grand smile she flashes in the life-size photograph welcoming guests to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. This internationally acclaimed collection of her work and that of her students is entitled “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin: Vienna 1898-Auschwitz 1944— An Exhibition of Art and Hope.”
As visitors enter the museum’s temporary exhibit space, where the show continues under spacious skylights through September 1, posters in Swedish, Japanese and other tongues announce the exhibit’s previous showings. More than 12 years in the making, “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis” is the brainchild of Regina Seidman Miller and Elena Makarova, who were so moved by the artist’s story that it became part of their own.
Their groundbreaking presentation includes everything from a short discussion filmed in 2001 between Dicker-Brandeis’s dear friends to photographs, paintings, letters, designs and creations culled from around the world. Even the exhibit’s minimalist black and orange benches were built according to her designs. As a result, when visitors tour this chronological pageant and browse its extensive catalog, they vicariously experience the artist’s passion for the creative process. As the exhibit showcases her diverse talents and her unpredictable path, we watch a fascinating, ill-fated life unfold.
The show begins by documenting dicker-brandeis’s early years in Vienna, where she was born in 1898. As a child she loved art. Her widowed father wasn’t wealthy, but as a stationery store assistant, he supplied his only child with materials. She began formal training at 16. Her father and a stepmother she chose one day at the park (Simon Dicker actually followed his daughter’s advice and married the woman), were conflicted over her attempts to break out of a stereotypical female role. In 1919, at age 20, Dicker-Brandeis followed her influential teacher, Johannes Itten, to Weimar, Germany, for the opening of a revolutionary new school of art and design: the Bauhaus. Its influence, which pervaded her life, sets the context for the entire exhibit, which captures her love of the line, rhythm and tone of color and form.
The young artist flourished at the Bauhaus. Her natural teaching skills quickly emerged, and while still a student, she received the unprecedented honor of joining the faculty. She worked in a vast array of fields, exemplifying the renowned Bauhaus philosophy: integrating art and modern technology for the betterment of society. She excelled in practically everything—oil painting and architecture, costume, stage and furniture design, even political commentary. Her striking weavings, jewelry and handbags possess a timeless elegance.
“It’s hard to believe that everything in the exhibit, except the children’s work, was done by one artist,” says Miller, the show’s international coordinator. “It could be the work of 10 or 15 people. But it’s all Friedl.”
The first section of the exhibit continues through 1934, depicting Dicker-Brandeis’s growth as an artist. Her early years seem to conceal a secret behind the “sharp, often exaggerated forms and dramatic faces,” says guest curator Makarova. “The relationship between dark and light—light being one of the most important elements of set design—lends a three-dimensional quality to her compositions of color and form and awakens associations with multilayered stage sets. Her textiles remind one of pieces of scenery, opulent theater curtains and interiors as well as stage props.”
In this formative period, Dicker-Brandeis’s greatest talent, becoming “absorbed in the image,” is most obvious in her charcoal drawings and lithographs, Makarova says. She worked spontaneously and quickly, with masterful control of form, according to her imagination. Makarova observes: “These works, which at first seemed so open, concealed secrets: Something was happening ‘behind the scenes,’ which one could only guess at.”
In the mid-1920’s, Dicker-Brandeis and her first love, Franz Singer, a former classmate under Itten, launched the Atelier Singer-Dicker in Vienna. From Berlin to Prague and back to Vienna, they designed everything from luxury apartments and tennis clubhouses to a Montessori school building and wooden toy kits. Dicker-Brandeis’s convertible classroom furniture, seen in black-and-white photographs, was designed to bring children together, fostering the collaborative spirit she herself embodied. Her geometric studies of stackable tables and chairs culminate in actual rattan pieces and an innovative sofa that converts into a bed. The style is classic “less-is-more” Bauhaus, with form following function.
Disappointment also touched these years, as the impressive companion book, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: Vienna 1898-Auschwitz 1944 (Tallfellow/ Every Picture Press) explains. Singer went on to marry another woman, although his problematic affair with Dicker-Brandeis continued. She longed for a child, but he insisted she remain childless. Tragically, she complied and underwent a series of abortions that later prevented her from giving birth when happily married.
Like many artists and intellectuals of her generation, she identified with the Communist Party and rallied against the fascism enveloping Western Europe. The exhibit displays examples of the antifascist posters she created and distributed in the early 1930’s. During the 1934 abortive coup in Austria, the fascist government jailed her for Communist activities. In her painting Interrogation (1934, oil on plywood), the artist crouches in the corner, her ears burning red. Opposite her, a three-dimensional typewriter is void of actual letters. The typist’s hands resemble tentacles and the interrogator’s face is marked by disturbing teeth. The intense discomfort of Interrogation evokes The Trial by Franz Kafka, one of Dicker-Brandeis’s favorite books. The painting is a transitional work, underscoring her use of graphic elements.
Her arrest marked a turning point in her artistic development and her personal life. On her release from prison, Dicker-Brandeis fled Austria to embark on a new life in Prague. Within two years, she married a distant cousin, Pavel Brandeis, began teaching art to refugee children and, at last, seemed truly happy. She painted landscapes, still lifes, portraits and figurative allegories, in which the picture becomes a stage, with scenery and a back wall. “This depth develops from a precise, balanced and rhythmic composition,” Makarova says. The artist put her “trust in contrasts.”
Her art was also transformed, reflecting her growing appreciation of life’s simple beauty, nature’s tranquillity and her husband’s loving support. Instead of striving to change the world, she depicted it as it was. The muted vision of View From a Window in Franzensbad (1936-37, pastel on paper) documents her brilliance in blending colors to appear almost dreamlike, while retaining a realistic perspective.
With the advance of the Nazis into the Sudetenland in 1938, the artist’s fate turned again. The exhibit retells how she and her husband were forced to hide in nearby Hronov, where they took jobs in a textile factory. Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her accountant husband to learn carpentry, a skill that later saved his life as a forced laborer in Auschwitz. Although a friend acquired a precious immigration certificate for her escape to Palestine, she refused to abandon her husband. The Nazis deported the couple to Terezin in December 1942. Bound to her art, she brought along treasured supplies and books.
In the exhibit’s final section, an intimate classroom-size room, visitors see how Dicker-Brandeis’s unbridled commitment helped the children cope with the camp’s harsh realities. She and her husband redesigned the layout of several bunks and led the children in “redecorating.” Her original sketches, hidden, then retrieved after the war along with the children’s art, show their improved floor plans.
She designed costumes and sets for children’s theatrical performances. And in daily art lessons, she encouraged the children to relive happy memories and cultivate self-awareness. They drew Passover Seders and family gatherings, self-portraits and journals—all displayed here. The children worked on anything available, frequently on old ledgers, painting over numbers and blank columns. (Many of the works were previously published in I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems From Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, editor Hana Volavkova, expanded 2nd edition by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Schocken Books). Before storing each day’s creations, Dicker-Brandeis had her students sign and date their work, symbolizing a form of spiritual resistance, reclaiming their lost humanity.
“Dicker-Brandeis is one of the founders of art therapy,” Miller says. “She really did consciously understand the need of the art to be more than just picking up a pencil or a crayon and drawing. It was a way to save the children’s souls through their imaginations.”
Her friends from before the war remember her as highly temperamental. At Terezin, she was quiet, even calming. During her incarceration Dicker-Brandeis created 60 of her greatest works—landscapes, portraits, abstracts. They are noticeably different in style and technique. The shortage of paints and supplies determined the medium.
Because she devoted herself to the children, many of her works are unfinished, possibly studies for works she never had time to complete. It was only when the transports were suspended in the summer of 1944, before her husband was deported to Auschwitz and she volunteered to follow him, that she had a brief time to immerse herself in painting.
Unlike fellow artists compelled to document the devastation, Dicker-Brandeis avoided painting the horrors around her. Her art reveals no transports, crowds, disease, soup lines or corpses. Instead, she painted brilliant, defiant flowers that dance off the page. Yet her name appears nowhere. In marked contrast to earlier attempts to unearth her authentic signature, in Terezin, she abandoned the search. “She knew who she was there,” Miller says. “She didn’t have to sign her paintings.”
Because of the children, Dicker-Brandeis ultimately found her peace, her meaning. “She was finally a mother. She was finally a teacher. She didn’t have to struggle with herself as an artist, her relationships with men or with her family,” Miller explains. “As a farewell, she left a bright, luxuriant sea of flowers, painted on concentration camp cardboard, as though she wanted to remind herself and others that life force is eternal.”
The Triumph of Love and Determination
The world’s leading art museums might never have showcased the work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis without the passion of two women, one in Israel, the other in the United States.
International project director Regina Seidman Miller was 13 when she first learned about Dicker-Brandeis from her survivor mother, who found it easier to discuss an untiring art teacher than her own history. Her subsequent discovery of a book by art therapist Dr. Edith Kramer dedicated to the memory of her teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, motivated Miller to piece together the puzzle of the artist’s life.
In 1996, when she was living in New York, Miller contacted the Museum of Tolerance and learned that an Israeli researcher from the former Soviet Union was also working on Dicker-Brandeis. Guest curator Elena Makarova first encountered the artist while incarcerated in a Soviet prison in the 1980’s for advocating free expression through art. When her husband gave her a book on Dicker-Brandeis, Makarova thought, “If Friedl could teach children in Terezin, I can do it under communism.”
Miller and Makarova joined efforts. Together they searched out the artist’s work. The result was some 30 lenders and 400 works, many of which needed restoration. They then raised the $1.4 million needed to bring the exhibit to life. The funding grew from contacts made at countless teas, Shabbat dinners and museums around the world. Miller is still searching for funds for educational programs.
“It was only because we came to it from the heart that it happened,” says Miller, whom the Museum of Tolerance subsequently hired.
A third partner, Harvard-graduate Georg Schrom, is the exhibit’s designer. He is the nephew of Poldi Schrom, Dicker-Brandeis’s architectural partner in the 1930s. Georg Schrom currently lives in Vienna, in the same studio where Dicker-Brandeis and his aunt once collaborated.
The show opened in October 1999, thanks to a generous grant from the Austrian government, at the Palais Harrach in Vienna. In Berlin, Paris, Prague and Stockholm, “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis” continued to draw huge crowds to prominent art museums. In Tokyo in 2002, as many as 10,000 daily visitors were learning the story of this remarkable Jewish woman.