Fembio Special: Women Artists - an Exhibition by Almut Nitzsche and FemBio e.V
(Friedl Dicker-Brandeis; Friederike Dicker (Geburtsname), Bedřiška Brandeisová)
born on July 30, 1898 in Vienna/Austria
died on October 9, 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oświęcim)/ Poland
Austrian-Czech architect, interior designer, photographer, craftswoman, painter, stage designer and art teacher
125th birthday on July 30, 2023
In Weimar, Friedl Dicker was one of the most successful students of the early Bauhaus. In Vienna she wrote architectural history as one of the most important representatives of Neues Bauen (New Building). In addition, she was passionate about painting, created graphics, sculptures and stage sets, and designed both furniture and jewelry. Active in the communist resistance movement and murdered by the Nazis at the age of 46, this accomplished interior designer, architect and committed social critic was overlooked until rediscovered due to some 4,000 children's pictures that survived from her time as an art teacher in the Theresienstadt ghetto.
OUT OF THE EGGSHELL: FIRST STEPS
In stark contrast to the majority of the best-known artists of her generation, Friedl Dicker came from a modest financial background. Karoline, her mother, died when Friedl was barely four years old; her father Simon worked as a salesman in a stationery shop. Despite limited finances, he granted Friedl, his only child, her heart’s desire and the sensitive, high-spirited girl was allowed to complete an apprenticeship in photography at the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt in Vienna (1912-14). She then paid for lessons in the textile department of the Imperial and Royal School of Arts and Crafts. (Kunstgewerbeschule). When she joined Johannes Itten‘s private school in 1916, the Swiss artist had a profound effect on her: he helped her to leave the old, worn-out art behind, and to “emerge out of a spent form”, to crack out of a “very hard eggshell” (Makarova, 1999, p. 16; all subsequent Dicker citations: ibid.). Itten, who held Dicker in high regard and referred to her as an “artistically exceptionally gifted person” (1931, cited in Makarova), was a contentious figure due in part to his proselytizing for the racist and elitist Mazdaznan movement. Many of his students, however, loved him for his reformist pedagogical approach, which sought to emphasize the individuality of each protégé. When Itten received a call to the six-month-old Bauhaus in the fall of 1919, several of these students followed him from Vienna to the Thuringian province, and among them was Friedl Dicker.
CACTUS AND CELLO: MULTIPLE TALENTS AT THE BAUHAUS
Friedl Dicker was seen as “inspiring, brimming over with ideas” not only by her friend Lily Hildebrandt. Among the students of the early Bauhaus, Dicker quickly assumed a prominent position. Although her works were initially limited to what the Bauhaus masters prescribed for women’s careers and thus trapped within the possibilities of the textile workshop, print shop, and bookbindery, Dicker’s energy knew no bounds. She was the only one in her class to receive a scholarship; she designed the typeface of the legendary Bauhaus almanac absurdly titled Utopia. Documents of Reality; she created the title pages for the program booklets of the famous Bauhaus evenings. These events were intended to placate angry opponents of the art school by inviting the public to, for example, readings with Else Lasker-Schüler. In an evaluation of Dicker's works Director Gropius judged them as “among the very best of the institute.” It was thanks to the “multifaceted nature of her gifts and her unbelievable energy” that she had already taken on teaching duties while still a student. Dicker demonstrated multiple talents: she created stage sets and costumes for Berthold Viertel on the side, invented puppets and games, built furniture, and designed jewelry. She also drew up her first designs for residential housing: four floor plans for apartments in a low-rise building (1922/23) which were conceived together with Franz Singer and are today considered the earliest Bauhaus architectural designs with the documented participation of a woman (Bauer, 2003, p. 67). Despite this artistic diversity, Dicker's greatest passion was painting – at first the expressive-allegorical, then the experimental-abstract. Figuratively speaking, Kaktus und Cello (Cactus and Cello), the title of one of her much-praised lithographs, was programmatic. On the one hand, Dicker bowed to the cello, classical music, and Beethoven, and she courted Rembrandt and the Old Masters. At the same time, she rebelled against artistic stagnation, excessive conformism, one-sidedness, and constrictions. This rebellious spirit was evident not only in her art; she allegedly wore the same gray dress all the time, even as a child. She refused to dress up as a girl.
OCEAN LINER IN ‘RED’ VIENNA: INDEPENDENT STUDIOS
Starting in 1926 Friedl Dicker ran the successful Singer-Dicker studio for architecture and interior design in Vienna with Franz Singer, who was also a Bauhaus student. The designs produced at Wasserburggasse 2 were always created jointly and, quite unique in Vienna, they were thoroughly committed to the modernist Neues Bauen (New Building) and Neues Wohnen (New Interiors). From the floor plan to the roof, from the carpet to the bedside lamp their designs were praised in international architectural magazines such as Architectural Review and Domus. These projects, long since completely destroyed, were unmistakably avant-garde and thus met the needs of wealthy clients who liked to showcase themselves as cosmopolitan art-lovers. From Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, the studio took on a wide variety of building tasks, including the tennis clubhouse for Dr. Heller (1928), with its numerous architectural references to ocean liners, and the exclusive guest house for Countess Hilda Hériot (1932-34) which is often compared to Eileen Gray's architectural masterpieces. In contrast, Singer-Dicker's award-winning and most frequently cited project was aimed at the less well-off: The interior design of the Viennese kindergarten Goethehof (1930). Adhering to the tenets of Maria Montessori's pedagogy, this project was marketed as the model kindergarten of proletarian or ‘red’ Vienna. Dicker and Singer were connected in many ways: As early as 1923, they had founded the atelier Werkstätten Bildender Kunst GmbH in Berlin where they sold a variety of arts and crafts including games, jewelry, and textiles. At the same time, they created stage sets for the theaters in Berlin and Dresden. Last but not least, they continued a love relationship that had started during their time together at Itten's private school in Vienna in 1918 and that was sometimes painful for Dicker. She became pregnant on several occasions with Singer each time demanding an abortion as his marriage to the concert singer Emmy Heim in 1921 meant for him that “extramarital” children were out of the question.
“I'M JUST A WORKER”: COUNTERPRODUCTIVE MODESTY
Dicker displayed an effortless complaisance, in keeping with gender roles: “She was modest, unlike Franz (Singer, A.B.), and never documented or signed her art,” architect Georg Schrom recalled. Although it was originally Dicker's studio that Singer joined, many joint projects were long falsely attributed to Singer alone. As late as 1942, Dicker emphasized, “I am only a worker.” She often sold her personal creations for less than they were worth despite being heralded in magazines and books as an accomplished artist in her own right. The art historian Hans Hildebrandt, for example, who was not very squeamish about disparaging women artists, created a virtual monument to Dicker when he lauded her as one of the “most versatile and original female talents of the present” (Hildebrandt, 1928, p. 144). Impressed by her stately, 2.40-meter-high Anna Selbdritt, an unusual sculpture made of spheres and tubes in a metal and glass mix, he even bestowed upon Dicker his highest praise by including her among the female artists “who are not inferior to any man.”
“...IF YOU DON'T LIKE THIS WORLD, YOU'LL JUST HAVE TO CHANGE IT”: ART TEACHER AND RESISTANCE FIGHTER
Dicker and Singer separated in 1930/31. She opened her own studio, worked as an art teacher, and taught kindergarten teachers on behalf of the city of Vienna. She continued to carry out further projects with Singer - albeit from a distance - until the late 1930s. Confronted with the increasingly fascist political atmosphere in Vienna, she joined the Communist Party. She is said to have justified this by citing Matthias Claudius: “s' ist leider Krieg - und ich begehre / Nicht schuld daran zu sein.” (“Unfortunately, there’s war, and my desire is to not be blamed for it.”) She was convinced that “no man has rights before another, no nation before another.” Creating collages and posters that denounced capitalism and fascism, she quoted Brecht in one of her works in 1930: “If you ... don't like this world, then you'll just have to change it.” On the surface, this apparently inexhaustible fighting spirit, heralded by many contemporaries, seemed exemplary. When imprisoned for months in 1934 in the course of the so-called February uprising because of her political activities and forced to mend prisoners' clothing, for example, she smiled away the harassment as a “free course in embroidery.” The allegorical paintings entitled Das Verhör (The Interrogation), however, pointed to the underlying darker reality that she captured in this series by painting herself with a battered skull and bleeding hands.
... THE ONE WHO “WENT ON AND FOUND HER OWN VOICE”: PRAGUE
Dicker fled to Prague as soon as she was released in 1934. “To put it mildly—I’m really not feeling so well ... Prague does not take kindly to me,” she confessed. Dicker underwent psychoanalysis with Annie Reich, and rekindled her old love of representational painting, capturing countless portraits, landscapes and still-lifes on paper and canvas. She emphasized several times that given the choice she would “neither teach nor do anything else” other than paint in the future. The preference she developed for depicting the world “as it is,” i.e., neither abstractly nor packaged in allegories, was not a repudiation of modernism. She merely felt that she personally needed to take a different path. Florian Adler, the son of her friend Margit Tery-Adler, believed that among the many talented Bauhaus artists Dicker was “the only one who went on and found her own voice” (quoted in Makarova, p. 16). Dicker made her living in Prague primarily by teaching art. On the side, she remained active in the communist resistance, often meeting up with comrades in the Schwarze Rose, Liesl Deutsch's bookstore. In 1936 Dicker married her cousin Pavel Brandeis, obtaining the Czech citizenship that allowed her to run her own interior design firm.
“I WOULD GO IF…”: HRONOV AND THERESIENSTADT
In 1938, Dicker and Brandeis, both of whom had Jewish roots, fled from the Nazis to the northern Bohemian province of Hronov, where they found work in the textile factory B. Spiegler & Sons. Dicker's friends repeatedly urged her to leave for Palestine, allegedly even getting her a visa. Dicker refused: Palestine was foreign to her, Judaism no less so. “I would go if it didn't seem so terrible to me”. Given the increasingly aggressive anti-Jewish laws, Dicker felt more and more marginalized. In August 1940, twelve of her works were presented at London's Royal Arcade Gallery. This was the last exhibition in her lifetime: in December 1942, Dicker and Brandeis were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, and in October 1944, to Auschwitz. Only Brandeis survived.
...FREED “FROM A THOUSAND DEATHS BY PAINTING”: ART AS THERAPY
In 1945, one year after Friedl Dicker's murder and six decades before the Prague writer Magdaléna Platzová was inspired by Dicker's life to write the novel Aaron's Leap, two suitcases were found in the Theresienstadt ghetto camp. They were filled with the children's drawings created in 1942-44 while Dicker was working as an art teacher in Theresienstadt. Willy Groag, former head of the youth department there, had hidden them in an attic. Sensitized by her own psychoanalysis, Dicker had motivated her students first in Prague, and then in Theresienstadt, to capture that which was seemingly inexpressible in an art form. Thus, nearly every traumatic aspect of daily life in the camp is included in the 4,000 children’s drawings that were recovered—from the grueling distribution of food to the transport of corpses. Dicker herself had experienced the soothing freedom painting provided dozens of times: “This life of mine was saved from a thousand deaths by painting,” she explained in 1938. In contrast to her students, however, her paintings did not address life in the ghetto of Theresienstadt/Terezin. Sometimes it is only an escape from reality that can alleviate the pain.
(Text from 2014)
Translated with DeepL.com; edited by Ramona Fararo, 2023.
For additional information (pictures, sources, videos, bibliography) please consult the German version.
Author: Annette Bußmann
Friedl told fairy tales and stories that inspired the children to draw. To further increase their attention, she sometimes asked the children to remember - and then draw - only those objects that appeared twice in a story. And she introduced “dictations” designed to foster in the children a sense of the texture of a material. From a list she read aloud, children were asked to select and draw only objects of a certain predetermined size or surface texture. Another time, the list contained objects with a common application (for example: hammer, nail, file), which the children were to include in their drawings, i.e., they were to invent a story around these objects. Such lessons modified the emotional state of the children and helped them in the purposeful orientation of their thoughts. In the process, they learned to analyze simple shapes and put them together in a harmonious composition. Monograms appear in many drawings. The constant repetition of their names in different graphic combinations and structures gave the children back their sense of identity and strengthened their shaken self-esteem. Not a single drawing bears the camp number of a child, although their everyday life was marked by all kinds of numbers and stamps.
Kinderzeichnen (Children’s Drawing) is a short essay, but peppered with ideas and observations. For the sake of comprehensibility, we have divided the text into ten sections that present Friedl's reflections on the child and their creativity, and pave a way for us adults to come to a better understanding of children through their drawings. And they give clues as to how Friedl dealt with certain problems of the children. [...] If one did not know the origin of this essay, one could easily mistake it for the learned work of a respected professor in peacetime. Hunger, cold, death, transports 'to the East' are not mentioned at any point. Besides its actual subject, this essay must have another, indirect therapeutic effect on those who read it. If someone, under the worst conditions of deprivation of freedom, on the brink of death, can think about the right education, about creativity as an expression of an omnipotent freedom, then souls can rise from the ashes, evil will perish and humanity will survive. For it is through hope that man lives.
(Quotes from: Elena Makarova, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis - Ein Leben für Kunst und Lehre)
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