In our last post of the year, Abrielle is here to tell us about discovering artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Thank you for reading all of our posts this year, and we hope you’ll join us again here next year.
Sometimes it is the seemingly trivial discoveries that lead to more significant and meaningful encounters. During my visit to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, I had set out to view famous paintings such as The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. There among the hundreds of art pieces, the sight of a familiar diagram piqued my interest. A depiction of the Pythagorean theorem was painted in white, contrasting the darker earthy tones of the painting in which a brightly coloured man riding a horse was reaching down to a more shadowed man.
This particular piece would have been one I would have normally admired briefly and moved on to some other visually compelling art in the room. However, since I had studied this in math, I felt some connection to the artist and some curiosity. Hastily, I took a picture. Although it was not the most famous and world-renowned painting I had seen throughout Europe, it was that painting that left me intrigued. If it were not for the chance encounter with the black and white lined triangle, I would not have further researched and discovered the history of artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and her students.
Frederika “Friedl” Dicker was born on July 30, 1898 in Vienna, Austria. When Friedl Dicker was four, her mother, Karolina died and from then she was raised by her father, Simon Dicker. Friedl Dicker spent a lot of time in her father’s stationery shop as a young girl.
Her art education began at the Austrian Federal Education and Research Institute for Graphics in Vienna where she studied under Johannes Beckmann, a master photographer. In 1919 Friedl Dicker studied at the art school of Johannes Itten (Bauhaus master). Johannes Itten closed his school and moved to the Bauhaus Weimar as a master. Several of his students, including Friedl Dicker, followed him to Bauhaus Weimar.
Friedl Dicker found like-minded people at the Bauhaus. She and her friends earned money on the side by making book bindings in Otto Dorfner’s workshop. In 1921, Friedl Dicker’s favourite painter, Paul Klee, arrived at the Bauhaus. She attended his lectures on the nature of art and the childlike imagination. Her study with Klee made a deep impression on her as it opened up her mind to educational concepts and motifs of the mind of children.
In the 1920s, Friedl Dicker and her friend Franz Singer founded a workshop that produced textiles, jewellery, graphic designs and theatre sets. They won awards for their innovative inventions of easily stacked chairs, folding sofas, and adjustable lamps. In 1930 they were commissioned to furnish the Montessori kindergarten in Vienna.
In 1931 Friedl Dicker ran courses for kindergarten teachers. She drew on the teachings of Johannes Itten. She taught the teachers how to recognise children’s personalities and artistic abilities. Her focus was to encourage children to concentrate on the creative process and to express their individual experiences and emotions onto paper.
In 1934 during the right wing coups in Vienna, Friedl Dicker was arrested for Communist activities. She was imprisoned for a short time and once released, she fled to Prague, which at the time was considered more democratic. During this time, Austria was becoming more pro-Anschluss which finally led to the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938.
Friedl Dicker met her future husband, Pavel Brandeis in Prague and was married in 1936. In 1938 she became a Czech citizen. Her life in Prague was soon turned into turmoil when Hitler’s army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. Dicker’s friends tried to persuade her to emigrate, but she did not want to leave her husband who by this point was no longer able to obtain a visa. In summer of 1938 they moved to the small town of Hronov. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis left her entire archive of works on a farm in Hronov during the mass deportation of Jews. Unfortunately the farmer destroyed all but two of her paintings.
On December 16, 1942 Friedl and Pavel Dicker-Brandeis were transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. They were instructed to bring only 50 kilos. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis used her weight allowance to pack a few items of clothing and used the majority of her quota to pack art supplies.
Theresienstadt camp was used for propaganda in which communists, Jews, and other prisoners were portrayed as living normal lives. The “model” camp covered up the appalling reality at Theresienstadt. Upon arrival children were ripped away from their parents and forced to live in crowded dormitories. Terezin was formerly built as a fort to protect Prague and was designed to house about 5,000 soldiers during peacetime. When the Nazis took over the fort and converted it to the Theresienstadt ghetto, they held upwards of 150,000 people including tens of thousands of children. Brothers and sisters were even separated from one another.
The brutal environment took a physical and emotional toll especially on the children. Many intellectuals and artists among the prisoners found ways to help the children at the concentration camp. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis began teaching art classes at one of the girl’s dormitories. She taught children about colour theory, drawing, and painting, encouraging them to express their creativity. She wanted them to draw and paint what was in their imagination rather than the reality they were living. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis inspired and helped the children experience some normalcy. Using her Bauhaus training, she created simple ornaments and dyed bedclothes to create tiny spaces for the children within the dirty, bleak, and crowded surroundings. The art lessons and tiny spaces provided the children with brief moments of escape.
In the autumn of 1944, five thousand men, including Friedl’s husband, Pavel Brandeis, were sent away by rail transport to a new camp. On October 8, 1944 Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was transported to Auschwitz. Before she left, Friedl packed two suitcases with 4386 artworks of the children and gave them to Raja Englanderova, the chief tutor of the Girls’ Home L410. Friedl was killed the day after she arrived at Auschwitz. Of the 660 children authors of the artworks, 550 children were killed in Auschwitz.
After the war, Willy Groag, the director of the Girls’ home brought the suitcases to the Jewish Community in Prague. Today, the art of the children are in the Jewish Museum in Prague’s collection. The art has been exhibited all over the world since 1945 and many books have been published featuring the children’s art.
Art of the Children at Theresienstadt