Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna. Aged just four her mother, Karolina Fanta, died and from then on she was brought up alone by her father, Simon Dicker. Friedl Dicker spent most of her time in her father’s stationery shop; there, she found all she needed to give free reign to her imagination, to make things from clay and paper, to draw and colour.
When WWI broke out, Friedl Dicker successfully convinced her father to enrol her at the Austrian Federal Education and Research Institute for Graphics (Höhere Graphische Bundes-, Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt) in Vienna, where she studied under the master photographer Johannes Beckmann. After completing her studies there, Dicker went on to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule Wien). She earned money on the side at the theatre, where she organised props, made costumes, performed on stage and wrote plays. In 1915 Dicker began to study in the textile department of the school and at the same time attended classes taught by Franz Cinek.
In 1916 Johannes Itten, who was to subsequently become a Bauhaus master, opened his own school of art in Vienna. Friedl Dicker studied here until 1919 along with Anny Wottitz, a friend that she had met in Vienna in 1917, with whom she worked on commissions for bookbindings. In 1918 in Itten’s school, Dicker made friends with Franz Singer, who was studying architecture at the time. When Johannes Itten closed his school in 1919 and moved to the Bauhaus Weimar as a master, Dicker, Wottitz, Singer and several of his other 'disciples' went with him.
At the Bauhaus, Dicker found like-minded people who shared her curiosity and her interest in the functions of objects. To support themselves, she and her friends Anny Wottitz and Margit Terry-Adler produced bookbindings in Otto Dorfner’s private workshop. Dicker made marionettes for a state fair in Weimar, which drew and bewitched crowds of children, but could not be sold. The state fair also resulted in a rapidly rising demand for textiles from the Bauhaus; Walter Gropius ordered the delivery of machines and materials and professional production could now begin under the supervision of Georg Muche, with the involvement of Friedl Dicker. At the same time, she studied the lithographic process in Lyonel Feininger’s workshop. When Dicker’s favourite painter Paul Klee arrived at the Bauhaus in 1921, she attended his lectures on the nature of art and the childlike imagination almost every day, or observed him at work. Her familiarity with Klee and his work opened the young student’s mind to the motifs and educational concepts of the world of children. Fascinated by Schlemmer’s figurines, Dicker drew the ones she most liked and her desire to progress to the theatre grew.
In 1921 Dicker and Franz Singer (her long-term partner) became part of Lothar Schreyer’s Bauhaus theatre troupe. The same year, she was invited by director Berthold Viertel to collaborate first on the play ‘Erwachen’ and later on ‘Die Haidebraut’. Dicker completed sketches for the plays in Oskar Schlemmer’s workshop. Also in 1921, Franz Singer married the singer Emmy Heim, with whom he had a son. However, he remained in a relationship with Dicker. Although she became pregnant several times by Singer, he had no desire to have a child with her and she had several abortions at his behest. Dicker and Singer separated following the death of Singer’s son, but they maintained a close professional relationship for many years thereafter.
In 1923 the two of them founded the Werkstätten Bildender Kunst (Workshops for visual art), which produced toys, jewellery, textiles and bookbindings, graphic designs and theatre sets. Commissioned by Berthold Viertel’s theatre, Dicker and Singer travelled to and fro between Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden and Cologne. In 1925 Dicker returned to her hometown of Vienna, where she opened a bookbinding and textile studio with her friend Martha Döberl. When Singer followed her there, they set up the Singer-Dicker architecture office together. They received several awards for their work, for example at the 1927 exhibition ‘Kunstschau’ in Berlin and the 1929 exhibition ‘Modernes Design’ in Vienna. Their innovative, practical way of thinking led them to the invention of easily stacked chairs, folding sofas and adjustable lamps that could be used standing, hanging or horizontally. The designs always began as sketches, which were developed as tiny, doll’s house-sized models and then subsequently built in full size in furniture workshops. Soon, the furnishings – or at least one furnishing item – produced by the architecture office belonged to the repertoire of the bourgeois Viennese household. In 1930 they were commissioned to furnish the Montessori kindergarten in Vienna’s Goethehof. Each room had several functions, which Dicker and Singer were asked to combine. They therefore constructed a large, circular drop leaf table with stackable chairs, which, placed against the wall, made room for sleeping mats. The kindergarten, like other buildings by the Singer-Dicker office, no longer exists.
From 1931 Friedl Dicker ran courses for kindergarten teachers. It was a new chapter in her life, in which she turned to art teaching and drew on what she had learned from Johannes Itten. The main focus in doing so was not so much to teach children, but to sensitise adults to recognise the children’s personalities and artistic abilities. Dicker’s aim was to work together with the children so that they could understand their individual experiences and emotions and commit these to paper. Her exercises did not pursue a specific objective; her aim was to merely encourage the children to concentrate on a creative process.
During this period, Dicker was an active member of the Communist Party. Like her friend John Heartfield, she produced photo collages for agitprop posters, and did not hold back in doing so. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Communist Party went underground. Dicker stored personal documents on behalf of friends and this led to a search of her studio. Forged identity papers were found, for which she was imprisoned. Based on the testimony of Franz Singer Dicker was subsequently released and fled immediately to Prague. Her mother’s sister, Adela Brandeis (née Fanta), lived in Prague with her three sons. Dicker fell in love with the youngest, Pavel, and they were married in 1936. From then on Friedl Dicker called herself Friedl Brandeis and no longer signed her pictures with FD, but with FB. Professionally, she worked on renovating homes with Greta Bauer and developed textile designs with Frieda Stork. In 1936 as part of a Communist underground group made up of German and Austrian émigrés that met regularly in the bookstore Schwarze Rose, Dicker met Hilde Kothny, who was to become a close friend.
When Hitler’s Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Dicker’s friends tried to persuade her to emigrate. Franz Singer had fled to London and invited her to join him. She also received a visa for Palestine from Anny Wottitz’s husband, Hans Moller. But Dicker did not wish to leave her husband, who at this point was no longer able to get a visa. In summer 1938 they moved to the small provincial town of Hronov, where Pavel found work as a chief accountant in a local textile factory. In August 1940 the art dealer Paul Weingraf, who had known Brandeis as Friedl Dicker in Vienna, exhibited her work in the gallery Arcadia in London. In the summer months of 1940 and 1941 Dicker and Brandeis rented a room on a farm near Hronov. Brandeis left her entire archive on this farm. In the time of the mass deportation of Jews (from 1941), the farmer destroyed all but two of the paintings. Among those deported were also Dicker’s mother-in-law and one of her brothers-in-law and his wife, who died in concentration camps. Friedl Brandeis stopped painting.
On 16 December 1942 she and Pavel were also transported. On 17 December 1942 the couple arrived in Theresienstadt. As a trained carpenter he was sent directly to the workshops; she was sent to the technical department to join other artists, with whom Dicker was supposed to capture the city’s achievements in images. Hitler’s aim was to portray Theresienstadt in the media as a gift to the Jews, a place where they could while away time, drinking coffee. This was, however, just part of the perfidious NS propaganda.
The many intellectuals and artists among the prisoners found ways and means to set up children’s homes in which some of the children were helped and taught. Friedl Brandeis became a carer in one of the girls’ homes. She taught them in painting classes and saved most of the drawings that were made here in order to work through them after the war had ended. Her plan was to publish her own study on art therapy for children, based on her experiences with the children in Theresienstadt. On July 1943 in Theresienstadt she delivered her lecture ‘Children’s drawings’ at a workshop for teachers. The complete manuscript was first found in 1971. In summer 1943 the artist organised an exhibition of the children’s drawings in the cellar of the home. In the same year she worked as a costume and set designer for a production of the play ‘Käferlein’ by the actor Nava Schean with the girls from her children’s home. Theatre became part of lessons; the children painted the stage set and dressed up in costumes.
Thanks to Friedl Brandeis and other artists in Theresienstadt, some of the children were able to experience some degree of normality and creativity. Alongside her work as a carer and Pavel’s work as a carpenter they began to decorate the children’s rooms. With simple means – for example dyed bedclothes, individual ornaments and mottos above the beds – they made the overfilled, bare rooms a little more homely for the children. Even in this bleak place, Friedl Brandeis never lost her passion for the functional design of spaces, for painting and theatre.
In autumn 1944 5,000 men, among them Pavel Brandeis, were sent away by rail transport ‘to build a new camp’. This time too, Friedl Brandeis insisted on staying with her husband and volunteered to be put on the list for the next rail transport. On 8 October her train reached Auschwitz. Shortly before her departure Brandeis packed a suitcase with the children’s drawings; Willy Groag hid this in an attic space and delivered it to the Jewish community in Prague in August 1945.
Pavel Brandeis survived the concentration camp. Friedl Brandeis died on 9 October 1944, one day after her arrival in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. [AG 2015]
· Liz Elsby: Coping through Art - Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Theresienstadt, The International School for Holocaust Studies. (6.6.2016).
· Georg Heuberger (1991): Vom Bauhaus nach Terezin. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis und die Kinderzeichnungen aus dem Ghetto-Lager Theresienstadt, Frankfurt/Main.
· Elena Makarova: Friedls Leben. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Briefe und Leben, Projekt der Gemeinnützigen Organisation Janusz Korczak House in Jerusalem. (6.6.2016).
· Elena Makarova (2000): Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Ein Leben für Kunst und Lehre, Wien.
· Susan Goldman Rubin (2000): Fireflies in the Dark. The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin, New York.
· Theresienstadt Lexikon: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. (6.6.2016).
More articles on the topic
Erich Consemüller1902 - 1957
In 1927 Consemüller took about 300 interior photographs of the Bauhaus building in Dessau for Gropius. Together with the outdoor shots by Lucia Moholy, these have played a big part in shaping our image of the Bauhaus.
Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein1899 - 1990
Heymann-Loebenstein was considered talented but unsuited to the pottery workshop. She later made a success of her own ceramic business, the Haël Workshops.