Lost Legacy

Two mysterious paintings of Jerusalem lead a gallery owner on a journey of discovery

David Rapp
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David Rapp

The signature at the bottom of the two aquarelles is quite legible: A. Rychter-May, it says. These paintings - early 20th-century landscapes of Jerusalem - are now on show at the Stern Gallery in Tel Aviv, part of an exhibition called "Here and There in the Land of Israel."

When Debby Luzia, daughter of Meir Stern, who founded the gallery over 30 years ago, became manager two years ago, she decided to renovate the premises and reopen with an exhibition of works from the gallery collection, to which contemporary artists had been added. While organizing the show, two small paintings by an artist named Rychter caught her eye.

Luzia remembered the delicate watercolors of the Polish artist Tadeusz Rychter, which her father had once purchased. Wondering why the artist had added the letter "A" and the word "May" to his signature, she consulted the experts. At one of the large auction houses, she was offered a strange explanation. "They said these were probably paintings Rychter did in the month of May," says Luzia with a grin.

She decided to find out more about this semi-anonymous painter. As the search continued, bits and pieces of information began to turn up about this talented early 20th-century artist who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade, painted wonderful pictures and then disappeared, almost without a trace.

Most of Rychter's artistic legacy is not preserved in Israeli museums, galleries, or even art collections. Six of his paintings were recently consigned for auction at the Matza auction house. However, most of his work is probably in the homes of the children of Israeli old-timers, who grew up with these paintings on the wall and may be unaware of the story of the artist who painted them - and his tragic end.

Luzia is not the first to try to solve the mystery. In his book "One Hundred Years of Art in Israel," Israeli curator and art historian Gideon Ophrat devotes a chapter to Rychter. He says he came across a painting of his many years ago, hanging in the living room of the widow of Prof. Avigdor Cherikover in Jerusalem. "After seeing an aquarelle by Tadeusz Rychter, it is not something you easily forget," writes Ophrat.

Ophrat began to research the life of the artist, who was born in Poland in the early 1870s. His study of Rychter takes him into the homes of old-time Jerusalemites, and opens a window onto early 20th-century Jerusalem. He has pieced together a complicated story from fragments of testimony that are sometimes conflicting and sometimes complementary.

Rychter is a great artist, but a forgotten one. In Jerusalem of the 1920s and '30s, he was a well-known watercolorist. But he is missing from the art books and from most of the cultural publications of the time. His name does crop up occasionally, testifying to the fact that he showed his work at the Bezalel Museum, the salon of Cardinal Ferrari in Jerusalem and the home of the Chelouche family in Tel Aviv.

"Tadeusz Rychter was a Catholic who came to Palestine toward the end of the period when Orientalism was all the rage," says Gill Pessah, a curator and art historian. "He continued the traditions of the Orientalist painters, but unlike his predecessors, he stayed here for 13 years, before going back to Poland, probably around 1939. He was born in Lvov and studied at the art academy in Krakow. After traveling around Europe, he came here in the mid-1920s. By that time, he wasn't such a young man anymore; he was in his fifties."

Pessah came across Rychter's work three years ago, while on a trip to Poland. "I asked colleagues of mine in Krakow where I could buy some drawings, and I got to this antique shop," Pessah relates. "After a long chat, the proprietor pulled out a Rychter sketch." Pessah had never heard of him before. In an encyclopedia of art he consulted, there were only a few lines on him. Pessah bought the sketch and he, too, was bitten by the curiosity bug.

"I went back to Israel and found out how little the Poles knew about him. It turns out that he lived in Jerusalem, in the Mamilla neighborhood." In time, Pessah discovered some other interesting biographical details. "As a young man he was married to an artist and socialite by the name of Bronislawa Janowska, who was born in 1872," he says. "She was a real Bohemian, very involved in Krakow society."

The wrong religious pedigree

Rychter came to Palestine with his wife in the mid-1920s, but she wasn't Bronislawa. It was Anna, a German woman he is believed to have met during his long stay in Munich. Since it doesn't seem likely that the pope gave him permission to divorce, he couldn't have married Anna, but when they arrived in Palestine, they settled down together as man and wife.

Rychter and Anna lived in Jerusalem. Rychter was commissioned to do artistic repairs at a church in Bethlehem, and spent the rest of his time doing ethereal watercolors. His real ambition, apparently, was to work in oils. But then the terrible '30s rolled around. In Europe, in those days, a person's origins and religion determined his fate. But in Palestine? Tadeusz Rychter was turned down by the Palestine Artists' Association in 1935, and Ophrat believes it was because of his religion. Nachum Guttman was the ringleader of the group that opposed his membership. Artistic talent was one thing and religious pedigree another.

Ophrat heard about those days from talks with a woman who studied painting with Rychter, and from Zohara Schatz, the daughter of the founder of Bezalel, who was a neighbor of Anna and Tadeusz Rychter when they lived on Hagidem Street. The "gidem" - Hebrew for "the man with one arm" - was Joseph Trumpeldor, whose name was apparently considered too foreign and hard to pronounce for the residents of Jerusalem in those days. This provincial anecdote says something, perhaps, about the reclusive spirit of the times.

When the war broke out, Rychter packed his bags and went back to his native Poland. Maybe he needed to straighten out some financial affairs, or visit his family. Maybe he was commissioned to do a fresco for a new church in Poland. One way or another, he never returned. Some say he was hunted down by the Nazis and murdered in 1943. Anna Rychter remained alone in Jerusalem. She died in 1955, at the age of 90.

The case of the strange signature on the Rychter paintings was solved by Ophrat: It was the signature of Anna Rychter, whose maiden name was May.

"The Rychter paintings came into our collection in England," says Luzia. "They probably belonged to British families living in Palestine at the beginning of the century, who took them back to England when they went home." Her father, Meir Stern, immigrated to England as a refugee after World War II, and lived there for many years. In London, he opened an art restoration center and a large gallery that specialized in European, Jewish and Israeli art.

The Stern family - Meir, Miriam and their children, Debby and David - moved to Israel at the end of 1967. Meir Stern continued to work as an art restorer and opened a gallery on Gordon Street in Tel Aviv. Over the years, the gallery has assembled a collection of hundreds of paintings by artists who worked in Palestine and Israel from the early 20th century to the 1950s, among them Ludwig Blum, Reuven Rubin, Nachum Guttman, Mane Katz, Joseph Zaritsky, Mordechai Ardon and Moshe Castel.

Today, the gallery in London is managed by Stern's son, and the gallery in Tel Aviv, by his daughter. Stern himself still sets out each day for his art restoration workshop near Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, where he works shoulder to shoulder with his son-in-law, Eyal Luzia.

The gallery has sold all its Tadeusz Rychter paintings over the years. Now all that remain are the two paintings by Anna Rychter-May - carefully rendered views of the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem.

In the exhibition, they hang next to two delicate aquarelles by Taduesz Rychter, on loan from Ophrat and another collector - four small paintings by a Jerusalem-loving couple, now rescued from oblivion.



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