Mandate murals, not Templer treasures
Tracking down the origins of artwork in old buildings often takes years and no small amount of luck. Shai Farkash, who specializes in the documentation and preservation of frescoes and other paintings, can certainly attest to that.
When Farkash found wall paintings some years ago in the residence of the Wieland family during renovation of the Tahana - the old Tel Aviv railroad station complex - he was certain they dated from the mid-19th century to early-20th century Templer period. But he recently realized they were painted by a Jewish artist, Gerd Rothschild, during the Mandate period, when the building was used by the British army.
Rothschild, it turned out, was a German Jew who was in the first graduating class in applied graphic art at the Bezalal School of Art and Design in Jerusalem. He began his career in the British army as a cook, but when his design talent was discovered, he was given the post of mural-painter. From 1942 to 1946 he traveled from one British base to another in the region - Palestine, Libya, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.
Farkash recently managed to contact Rothschild's widow, Ruth, who has kept a treasure-trove of her late husband's sketches under her bed.
"Two wall paintings and a ceiling painting were first discovered at Villa Weiland," Farkash said last week, prior to a workshop sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites on construction and plastering techniques at the Tahana, where Rothschild's works have been preserved. The ceiling, he explains, was fairly typical, but the wall paintings were surprising because of their sporting motifs - a horse and rider, and a weight-lifter.
The Wieland family, says Farkash, lived in the railroad station complex and built the first cement factory in Palestine there (using imported materials from Germany, and shipping throughout the Middle East ).
Deported in 1918 as enemy aliens, the Wielands returned in 1922, but were finally deported to Australia in 1941 during World War II, when the British expropriated the complex and turned it into a large supply base.
Thereafter the premises were used by the Israel army.
In 2003, local experts determined the Templers had executed the paintings. Then, the conservation architect employed by the developer noticed paint on the wall of one structure in and called Farkash.
He and his team carefully peeled away the plaster to reveal three layers of paintings, which had been damaged during renovations. The top layer was a work with Israeli military motifs (Samson, David and Goliath, and a patrol jeep ), attributed to the Givati Brigade's Samson's Foxes unit. The second layer contained paintings in the same style as those found in Villa Wieland beforehand; the bottom consisted of small paintings of dancers.
The paintings in the second layer cover all four walls, and feature humorous and colorful motifs that were apparently not part of the British soldiers' lives: women, drinks and dancing. "The IDF painted over the nicest part," Farkash says.
A metal sign found on one wall, prohibiting removal of food from the room, and the date, led him to realize that the second layer dated to Mandatory times and not the Templer era, and that the elongated structure, which was divided into two parts, was a canteen and dining room.
Farkash was unable to discover the identity of the artist, and even consulted the British cultural attache who referred him to experts. But the "great miracle" he says, came about a month ago, just before he went to Berlin to see an exhibition.
Farkash approached Ze'ev Lipman, who had been Gerd Rothschild's partner in a graphics studio, hoping to get information about the Berlin Rothschilds, who were involved in mural at the beginning of the 20th century.
Lipman told Farkash that Rothschild had been drafted by the British army to do graphics projects, signs in particular - and referred the conservationist to Rothschild's widow, Ruth.
"She told me she had a picture of him in British Army uniform and invited me over. I brought my files and when she saw [photos of the] paintings of the dancers in the canteen, she jumped and said 'That's my husband's,'" says Farkash. Rothschild asked him for help in lifting up her mattress, beneath which was an archive of sketches and paintings her husband had done. "After looking at the paintings, I realized there was only one artist that painted in that style," he adds.
The painter's widow noted that in latter years, her husband used art therapy to work with children with disabilities and painted murals in pediatric psychiatric wards. He died in 1991 at the age 72.
The Society for the Preservation of Heritage Sites said last week that the murals at Villa Wieland have now been restored at the expense of the developer as part of restoration of the entire complex (managed by Ezra Ubitzaron renovation company ). A few of the murals - found after plans had already been designed - were "rescued" in recent weeks thanks to a contribution obtained by the society from a descendent of the Wieland family, says the organization's regional director, Tamar Tochler.
She adds that the paintings were preserved with the help of a conservation team from the Tel Aviv municipality, and with the cooperation of the two jewelry designers who opened a shop in the structure where the paintings were found.