Janco and the Circle

 Last week I walked into the flea market that takes place on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv every Friday and instantly I saw them -- two lithographs of figurative paintings made from a tangle of lines and shards.


Even at first glance they were obviously a cut above the usual array of amateur (but not always bad) paintings and lithographs for sale in the market. I looked closely, and saw the pencil signature at the bottom of each: Marcel Janco. I knew the name, but, to be honest, I had to strain (and Google) to properly remember it.


Marcel Janco was one of the founding members of the most audacious art movements of the 20th century, Dadaism. Beginning around World War I, Janco and the Dadaists produced art that scandalized Europe. They put on plays that made no sense. They made sculptures and paintings of each other -- not of dukes or kings or merchants -- that showed weird, dented, multi-colored faces and heads that laughed at the rules of perspective. They declared brashly that they wanted to "clear the tables" of art, to start again from nothing.


And yet the Janco lithographs I stumbled across were not nothing: one was of Noah and his Ark, the other of a lesser-known character named Honi Ha''Maagil, or Honi the Circle Drawer.


The story of Honi is told not as myth but as historical fact, and even Josephus  speaks of the 1st century BCE sage who lived in the Galilee. During a drought in Judea, the righteous Honi decided it was his duty to do something. So he drew a circle in the sand where he stood and told God that he would stand inside that circle until rain fell.


It seemed God listened, but when the rain fell it fell lightly. Honi, maybe with an innocent but indulgent smile on his lips, told God, "Abba I did not ask for this, but for rains sufficient to fill cisterns, ditches and caves." God listened; the rain fell hard.


But Honi was not satisfied. "Abba I did not ask for this, but for rains of benevolence, blessing and graciousness," he said, referring again to God as "father." And Father listened to the man standing in the circle, and the rain fell to the degree Honi knew was needed for his people to water their crops and flocks.


Marcel Janco painted Honi the Circle Drawer and Noah in the late 1950s, not in a Parisian garret or an absinthe bar in Prague, but in the hills of Israel, almost exactly where Honi himself had stood. Janco had left Europe, its art and then its shores, and had come to pre-state Israel as European anti-Semitism was building to its pre-WWII crescendo.


There, in the Galilee, Janco stumbled across a little cleft of land squeezed into the hills of the Carmel near Haifa, and decided he would stay there and bring other artists of Israel to work in a place called Ein Hod -- a spring of splendor -- which is still today Israel''s most famous artists village.


Janco went on to found multiple waves of new Israeli art, including the pivotal Ofakim Hadashim (New Horizons) movement. He came to a new place and saw that it needed a new art, just as it needed rain. He drew a circle in the sand and stood in it, perhaps calling out to "Abba" to bring what was needed. Abba, it seems, listened.