The turn of events made that I first received the catalog of the the exhibition From Dada to Surrealism dedicated to the Jewish Avant-Garde Artists from Romania organized at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. I visited Amsterdam in May, a few weeks before the opening of the exhibition so I could not see the initial installment, and as it will be also hosted starting with November at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I will visit it only in a few weeks. However, a friend of mine from the Netherlands bought and brought me (to Quebec City from all places) the catalog created by Radu Stern, the curator of the exhibition. It’s an exceptional book, both from a graphic and content point of view, and it made for an exquisite Yom Kippur reading.


Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam, source


The book is organized in three sections. The first one includes three essays written by Radu Stern – one asking and answering the question ‘Why so many Jews?’ (in the Romanian avant-garde movement), and the other two analyze the moments ‘Zurich’ and ‘Bucharest’ in the evolution of the Dada and other avant-garde currents in Romanian culture in general and graphic arts in particular. The key theme of the essays are the cultural environment and the historical conditions that pushed many of the artists of Jewish origins to detach themselves from the mainstream currents in the Romanian culture characterized by the search for the Romanian ‘national specificity’ and look for alternate ways of expressing their own personalities, their search for new means of expression and for social justice. With the raise of extreme nationalism and antisemitism in Romania in the years between the two world wars the choice of modernity and synchronicity with the developments in modern art in Europe was both an aesthetic and a political choice. The most important in the group of artists presented in the exhibition were not only synchronous with the most advanced trends in European art, but actually part of the avant-garde of the avant-garde from the period of the first world war and of the Dada movement. The current exhibition as well as the book by Andrei Codrescu Post-Human Dada Guide make a convincing case of the roots of the personal, artistic and political choices made by these Jewish artists born in Romania in their becoming leaders of the avant-garde movement. (Codrescu’s book makes one step further in pointing to the fact that the anarchistic and creative nature of the Dada avant-garde ends by entering in conflict with the Communist doctrine, fact confirmed by the ultimate abandonment of the extreme left leanings by that part of the artists who were for a while tempted by the mirage of the proletarian revolution.)




The second section of the book presents the works of art. As I said I have not visited the exhibition yet, so I do not know if all the works are reproduced in the catalog, but even if these are not all, the selection is superb, the graphical conditions and the format make for a very comfortable reading, and the comments of many of the works are eyes-opening. The selection of the seven artists starts with precursor Arthur Segal, continue with some of the graphical works of Tristan Tzara, and bring many of the major works of Marcel Janco (Iancu), M.H.Maxy and Victor Brauner. The last two artists in the exhibition, Paul Paun and Jules Perahim belong to the second generation of avant-garde, the one who started their careers in the 1930s and continued it under the duress of the Communist dictatorship. Actually with the exception of Maxy all the other artists ended by leaving Romania, and either starting in new directions (as Janco who became one of the pillars of the Israeli school of art) or got back to their styles in the young days (Perahim in Paris, after leaving Romania and two decades of Socialist Realist intermezzo). The only observation I would make is that the selection could have benefited from including a few of the works of Janco in Israel, or of the late Perahim works (he had an exhibition in Romania earlier this year with works of surprising good quality) which would have shown their later evolutions (only Maxy is present with two later works). But even so, the gathering is remarkable, and I cannot wait to see directly for example the early works of Victor Brauner, or the works of Maxy, a testimony how great a painter this controversial figure (later) was  in the period between the two wars.


Victor Brauner - Portrait of Andre Breton, source


The last section in the catalog is documentary and includes detailed biographies of the seven artists and a historical chronology by Mijke Derksen which traces in parallel the history of the Jewish presence in Romania with the milestones of the evolution of the avant-garde and the biographies of the artists present in the exhibition. These are very useful for the overall putting in context that this exhibition succeeds to make. One information missing is whether the figures of the Romanian Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust (280,000 to 380,000) include the Jews from Northern Transylvania occupied by Hungary during the war, most of them deported to the death camps. Also mentioning the number of Jews currently living in Romania (below 10,000) would have added to the overall picture of a country where Jews lived for centuries and brought such an important contribution in art and other fields.


M.H.Maxy - Electrical Madonna, source


The exhibition opens in November at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Until then a virtual tour of the exhibition with some of the exposed works and more commentary is available at