The stage like setting of the present work and the raw energy of the naked figures anticipates the Dada shows at the Cabaret Voltaire. The circular group of rope pullers are compositionally reminiscent of Matisse’s Dance of 1910, whilst the chiaroscuro and modelling of the figures harks back to Goya and his nightmarish visions (fig.1). The ominous blue cubist figures in the right part of the composition echo those of Otakar Kubin and Bohumíl Kubišta. This personal synthesis of various ideas and artistic styles into something truly new and original is a hallmark of Janco’s best works.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the golden age of modern art in central Europe. The nations encompassed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (modern-day Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia) consciously embarked on a process of modernisation of their economies and their cultural output, especially the visual arts. It was a time during which high culture enjoyed an especially privileged status and was greatly supported by the state. Architecture, the visual and plastic arts were perceived as indicators of a country’s level of civilisation and thus became a vital part of state representation. This led to a great, energetic current of cultural modernisation sweeping across the empire, in which each generation of new artists would develop novel intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual concepts and values. The modernisation of art took place in a similar fashion among the artists of every nation in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, because each nation closely observed what was unfolding in the others. International exhibitions and training at the academies in Munich, Vienna and Paris internationalised art and led to a fertile cross-pollination of new ideas and artistic movements.
Marcel Janco was the model exponent of this era of febrile innovation and high culture. He was one of the leading Romanian Jewish intellectuals of his generation, a multifaceted and talented painter, writer, theorist, publisher, architect, stage designer and theatre producer. His art encompassed Symbolism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism and Primitivism. While he is best known today for his involvement with Dada and Ein Hod, and for his impact on the Israeli avant-garde in the late 1940s and 50s, his oeuvre explores and bridges multiple genres. He was a leading exponent of Constructivism and a brilliant architect and urban planner who changed the face of Bucharest. At the heart of his intellectual and artistic quest, however, was always a philosophy of questioning the status quo and a love for artistic experimentation and for breaking boundaries.
Janco was born into a well-to-do upper-middle class family in Bucharest, and was raised in a cultured and tolerant environment. He moved to Zurich as a student to become an architect, but soon came into contact with Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and Richard Huelsenbeck. As well as exhibiting at the Dada group shows, Janco was also responsible for their poster advertisements, the stage sets and costume designs at the Cabaret Voltaire and for some of its productions. Purposefully wild and primitive in nature, these performances were intended to challenge traditional society and art. Disillusioned with Western culture and repulsed by war, the Dadaists violently attacked conventions in poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Their anarchic, uninhibited performance nights at the Cabaret Voltaire became infamous, shocking and exhilarating their audiences.
Janco saw Dada as an artform that was a force of physical instincts; he was interested in raw and primitive art, generated by ‘the instinctive power of creation’. Through its expression of energy and physicality, Inferno epitomises these concepts. The naked rope pullers appear like a macabre act or whirling marionettes on stage, controlled by the looming blue figures to the right, surely a reference to the powers behind the onset of the First World War.
Janco was greatly admired by his contemporaries. His impact on the development of western and central European and Israeli art and culture were significant. He was a true visionary who was generous in sharing his ideas with others. At the onset of the Second World War Janco remained in Romania despite having received a special passport and travel documents, to help Jewish refugees from other Nazi-occupied European countries. He was eventually forced to emigrate.
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