It has been 50 years since anyone last saw them. They endured rain and cold, survived the Carmel forest fire and even withstood horrific man-inflicted damage. Now, almost three decades after their creator died, frescoes by Marcel Janco in his studio in the Ein Hod artists' village are being painstakingly exposed and restored to life.
"This is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime discovery on an international scale, and nothing I have worked on can compare," declares Eli Shaltiel, a painter and art restorer involved in the conservation project.
"It is surprising and gladdening - a find with historical value," added Michaela Mende-Janco, the granddaughter of the famous painter, an Israel Prize laureate who passed away in 1984.
"It is not every day that original works by one of the most important artists here are discovered, someone whose works are preserved in museums around the world and are worth a fortune," says Raya Zommer-Tal, director and curator of the Janco-Dada Museum in Ein Hod, near Haifa.
The story dates back to Purim 1956 in Ein Hod, a village whose establishment Janco had spearheaded three years earlier. Among the pioneers of the revolutionary 20th-century art movement called Dada, Janco exhibited at important museums around the world and his work continues to fetch high prices; dozens of houses he designed as an architect grace his birthplace, Romania.
In honor of Purim, Janco decided to adopt an old Italian festival tradition of decorating houses with frescoes, usually inside, to lend the Ein Hod ball a festive atmosphere. Other artists-in-residence joined the effort, and Tel Aviv's bohemians migrated north for the event, which was widely talked about.
As Purim approached, the villagers even wrote to then-President Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the cabinet, describing the preparations underway for "an original Israeli costume ball." A follow-up letter sent in late February 1956 announced: "The dozens of inhabitants of the village, among them the finest painters, are working to create a carnival atmosphere at the ball. The walls of 13 houses will be covered in enormous murals by well-known artists, each house with a unique style."
Law professor Ruth Ben Yisrael, who used to spend weekends at Ein Hod, recalled preparations for the Purim festivities in an interview with Zommer-Tal two years ago: "Everyone pitched in. About a month before the ball the preparations in the village began: at the public buildings in the center - the gallery, the local restaurant, the cultural center - as well as at several adjacent private homes, including Janco's. These houses were the setting for some of the ball's events, and the walls were decorated with large paintings."
In late January 1956, some 40 Ein Hod members, either part-time or full-time residents, met to work on the project. "The members must show up at the village every Shabbat to work on preparations related to the ball," state the minutes from that meeting. The participants went on to address "the building-decoration plan," and it was decided that Janco would decorate his home-cum-studio, known as "Dada House."
A short while after the famous Purim ball, the walls in Janco's home were whitewashed (he also painted other frescoes that were similarly covered up ). Not everyone in the village was pleased: "The member Yosifon wants to save the paintings from the barbaric act of being removed from the walls," the minutes of another village meeting note - along with the artist's surprising response: "With regard to the barbarity of removing the frescoes from the walls ... [Janco] thanks all the members who are concerned for his reputation and the future of his work. However, he declares that he has greater ambitions in the world."
"It's all a matter of perception and a question of how the artist treats his work - whether he views it as something transient or permanent," says his granddaughter today. "In this case, Janco saw these paintings as part of a particular event, and therefore had no problem erasing them once it was over. He always had faith in his ability to create anew."
Some of the murals in his studio-home survived for a few years before being painted over. Later on the house was rented out. As happens quite often in such cases - due to lack of awareness or funds - the house suffered great damage due to remodeling. Workmen dug holes in the wall to insert electrical wires and replaced chunks with concrete. Weather also took its toll on the artwork.
Three years ago the Janco museum, with the consent and assistance of the artist's family, launched the project to preserve his studio, which was reconstructed to look as it did in the late 1950s. Janco's original work table, easel and tools are all now on display there.
"The reconstruction is fairly authentic," says museum director Zommer-Tal.
The lion's share of the work involved restoring the expunged murals. Armed with a few old photos of the house, the museum staff embarked on a long, winding and costly journey that has yet to end. The first step they took was commissioning Shaltiel and Shai Farkash - both experts at restoring frescoes, who are responsible for some of the most interesting and beautiful work of this kind in Israel in recent years. Indeed, thanks in part to them, there has been growing awareness of the importance of conserving buildings. Among the twosome's projects is the restoration of the wall art in a historic building on the corner of Tel Aviv's Rothschild and Allenby streets ("When walls tell all," Haaretz Magazine, December 9, 2011 ).
Armed with a surgical scalpel and professional experience acquired during his studies in Italy, Shaltiel began removing the top layer of whitewash, centimeter by centimeter. Gradually Janco's original work, mostly from the 1950s, came to light. The "cherry on the cake" was the discovery of a large fresco depicting three nude women. Shaltiel had been in the middle of removing the whitewash from the wall, in the hope of uncovering the paintings underneath. "I got as far as a bit of a breast and a knee, and then I went home," he recollects with a smile.
"I'm the one who discovered the head," Zommer-Tal adds. "I remember how I called you up and told you, 'Eli, there's a head here.'"
The initial vestiges of the fresco were promising, but the restorers had no idea what the original looked like; Shaltiel searched desperately for historical photographic evidence. In a stroke of luck, such evidence suddenly surfaced about two years ago when a short film in French, dating from 1959, was posted on YouTube. The 12-minute film was produced by Keren Hayesod - United Israel Appeal, the fund-raising arm of the Zionist movement, and shows artists at work in Ein Hod. (The film is part of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, which selected it as one of 500 clips to be uploaded - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucPZlno7SLo.)
Shaltiel watched the clip in a state of nervous excitement, hoping the camera would pan to Janco's studio.
"In the middle of the seventh minute of the film it happened. One shot of a few seconds revealed the whole painting," he recalls excitedly. "With the help of this film I knew where everything was." Aided by computer simulation and a supply of special plaster, Shaltiel embarked on the long and expensive road to restoring the painting, which he calls "an archaeological process."
Additional frescoes were subsequently uncovered on adjacent walls, including two dogs sniffing each other, three heads, and some penciled-in captions with the names of fellow Dadaists Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp and Francis Picabia. Above them appear remnants of the word "revolution," in Latin letters.
Zommer-Tal: "There is a bluntness and boldness to these paintings. They attest to a more liberated Janco, who was blessed with great humor."
Artist Itche Mambush, Janco's friend, used to say jokingly that such drawings were Janco's way of releasing pent-up frustration over arguments during village meetings.
Recollections of Grandfather
"If not for technology, we would not have gotten to this point," says Janco's granddaughter. "We're returning [to the past], which allows us to focus on an entire era that was covered with whitewash."
Michaela was 16 when Janco died. Now she is an art therapist at a special education school. "He was a real go-getter," she recalls. "Someone who was very committed to his work and saw in it a great life mission. I can still remember the pungent smell of paint in his Tel Aviv studio when he was painting. I never ceased marveling at the volume of my grandfather's output, and also at his ability to span diverse areas and subjects."
Marcel Janco moved to Israel in 1941. He spoke of his decision to leave Europe, where he had been a successful and renowned painter and architect, in a rare interview in the Haaretz weekend magazine in 1972, on the occasion of his 77th birthday. He remembered that during his last exhibition in Romania, in 1939, a man came up to him and said: "What a disaster that you're Jewish."
Janco slapped the man in response. "I knew I was done with Romania," he told the interviewer. "I came to the Land of Israel with the help of a collector at the British embassy in Bucharest, who knew me as an architect and appreciated my work. He obtained a certificate for me, and I sailed on a ship to Constantinople. From there by train and bus to Palestine."
Janco described his difficult, early days in his inimitable humorous manner: "I left a lot of property behind, but I am not sorry, although they didn't welcome me with flowers here ... Well, what did art look like here? I realized the answer at the border checkpoint: The English policemen asked me whether Van Gogh was Jewish. Why? Because a reproduction of his work hangs on every wall in every room on every kibbutz."
In a 1971 interview with the daily Maariv, the artist admitted he never felt like he truly belonged here: "I remained a bit of an outsider in the State of Israel, in my country ... maybe because I came here too late. And maybe because I could not penetrate deeper into the understanding of Judaism. I remained a bit on the side ... perhaps because I am 'Romanian' and not 'Russian' and fall between the cracks."
About a decade after he arrived, Janco came up with the idea of creating an artists' village in Ein Hod. As part of his work in the planning department of the Interior Ministry, Janco was in charge of locating land for establishing national parks. In the process he came across plans to demolish the abandoned Arab village of Ein Hud, whose residents fled during the War of Independence.
"I am romantic like all artists, I loved the proximity to nature ... It was a village in ruins, crawling with mice, without electricity, water and roads. With our own hands we built this magnificent place," he later recalled.
The artist's own house was also formerly owned by Arabs, and evidence of this was discovered during the restoration process, which revealed Arab murals alongside those by Janco.
"It is part of the historic story. We are leaving them and according them their due respect," explains Mende-Janco.
Other murals by Janco in other houses in Ein Hod remain buried under layers of whitewash and paint. "This is the only house in which we have begun the process of uncovering the paintings. Every year somebody painted the walls in houses here. There is a lot more work to do," notes Zommer-Tal.
So far about NIS 100,000 has gone into the restoration project, donated by private and government sources. Now the village and Janco's family are hoping to receive additional funding from the government project spearheaded by the Prime Minister's Office to preserve national heritage sites.
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