In 2012 the Tel Aviv Museum of Art received a grant from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch for the conservation of works in the museum’s collection “deemed to be of special cultural and historical value.” The bank founded an Art Conservation Project in 2010 with the intention of funding art preservation around the world.
After due consideration the museum selected five works by Marc Chagall from its permanent collection for restoration, three of which had been gifted by the artist himself.
The results of the conservation project, two years in the making, can now be seen in an exhibit in the museum’s main building and is accompanied by a short film showing some of the many processes involved in the restoration of the paintings.
Until the early 20th century, artists were usually the ones called upon to repair damaged artworks. Studies carried out in the 19th century gradually led to a field of expertise in art conservation that strove to combat the often detrimental effects of atmospheric conditions in the environment and worked to preserve artworks for future generations.
Those working in the field of conservation and restoration now require qualified training involving the science of chemistry.
Maya Dresner, the museum’s senior painting conservator, was entrusted with the task of restoring the Chagall paintings. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Dresner, who noted that she had an up-to-date lab with all the necessary equipment at her disposal, spoke about her approach to art restoration and the techniques she employed in restoring the paintings.
“To begin with you examine the paintings with various methods to see what is there. It’s important to know what kind of painting materials, varnishes and pigments were used. Paint samples were sent abroad for analysis and ultraviolet light and infrared reflectography are used to see old retouchings not visible to the naked eye,” explained Dresner.
“Further exploration also revealed the original charcoal and pencil drawings underneath the paint layer,” she added.
“Three of the paintings were restored in the past. We didn’t know by whom or when, but it had caused more damage than harm. The canvas was worn in places, there was some loss of paint and layers of varnish had darkened the original colors. These were some of the initial problems I encountered,” continued Dresner.
Most restoration today is carried out with the intention that any “interventions” or actions rendered by the conservator should be reversible. There has been debate in the field with regard to cleaning a work of art, the argument being that removing original material or detritus deprives an artwork of a part of its history.
Dresner states that “her approach is to interfere in a painting as little as possible. The purpose is to expose as much of the original as you can, with minimal intervention. It’s something akin to a psychological process, removing and peeling off layers to gradually reveal the essence of the work,” she said.
Some of the painstaking tasks performed by the conservator can be seen in the film accompanying the exhibit. While at work on the painting titled Solitude, Dresner is seen mixing paint pigments on a pallet to achieve the necessary shade of red to apply to the cover of a Torah scroll held by a religious Jew.
According to Dresner this “touching up” of the paintings is the most time consuming of all the required procedures.
The five paintings in the exhibit were all executed in the early part of the 20th century, a time in which Chagall was intensely aware of the pogroms and anti-Semitism in Europe and the Russian city of his birth, Vitebsk. With the exception of the painting of the Wailing Wall, painted after Chagall visited Palestine in 1931, the paintings show scenes of Jewish life typical of the artist’s work and the folk life of the shtetl.
Hassidic Jews, wooden houses, violins, farm animals and winged figures, all commonplace in Chagall’s work, are set against deep blue skies and snow-filled landscapes.
Jew With Torah and Lovers are beautiful works, but the strongest painting here is probably the aforementioned Solitude, in which a hassidic Jew, possibly a rabbi, is depicted sitting on the ground outside the town and cradling a Torah scroll in his arms.
An ominous dark blue sky with black clouds surrounds the melancholy and forlorn figure. Hovering above is a winged figure while close by lies an ox, an animal often sacrificed in the Old Testament. Painted in 1933 the figure seems alienated from his surroundings, possibly representing the troubled life of Jews in the Russian “Pale Of Settlement” or a foreboding of what the future would hold.
Chagall, referred to as the “quintessential Jewish artist” by the art critic Robert Hughes, painted scenes culled from the memories of his childhood and youth in Vitebsk all his life.
In a tribute penned in 1957, while living in America, he published an open letter entitled, “To My City Vitebsk,” in which he wrote: “I didn’t have one single painting that didn’t breathe with your spirit and reflection.”
Dresner spent the best part of two years working on the Chagall paintings. She admits that over time you do form a relationship of sorts with the works.
“In a sense you get in touch with the spirit of the artist. My mood is meditative when I work, and I cannot express myself. Others have said to me it’s as if I merge with the painting,” she said.
Located close by and complementing the Chagall paintings is another exhibit also connected to Jewish themes. Alois Breyer’s photographs of East European synagogues of the first half of the 20th century and works by El Lissitzky are recommended.
The Chagall exhibit runs through till October 18. For more info visit www.tamuseum.org.il.