Chagall mosaic moves from private garden to National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden


Detail of “Orphee,” a large scale mosaic by Russian born artist Marc Chagall, (1887-1985) is displayed at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Evelyn Nef was a patron of the arts who loved the way that painting, sculpture, music and dance could capture the joys and sorrows of life, and so it was not surprising that when she died widowed and childless in 2009, at the age of 96, she would leave her choicest artworks to the nation.

The National Gallery of Art became the recipient of a mosaic by Marc Chagall, 31 drawings, 46 prints and 25 illustrated books by such artists as Auguste Renoir, Wassily Kandinsky and Fernand Léger, along with early prints and other paper works by Chagall and Pablo Picasso.

Transferring the paper art from Nef’s home in Georgetown to the gallery was a straightforward if meticulous undertaking by the institution’s art handlers and carpenters, experienced in packing and ferrying priceless pieces. Moving the mosaic from a garden on 28th Street NW to the Mall became a 31 / 2-year journey of epic challenge by a legion of conservators, mosaicists, carpenters, handlers, masons, engineers and architects.

Now installed in its new location in the National Sculpture Garden, the mosaic has been given a fresh and public incarnation, fittingly as a quiet monument to a woman who became the master of sparkling reinvention. Sitting sweetly in a sylvan corner of the sculpture garden near Ninth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, “Orphée” speaks to Chagall’s friendship with Nef and her husband, John Nef, and to the avant garde artist’s lifelong exploration of surreal figures and disjointed mythical and sacred themes.

John Nef, an economic historian and art lover, had known Chagall before the Nefs married in 1964. When the artist first proposed a mosaic for their Georgetown garden, Evelyn “Evvie” Nef imagined a small plaque for the garden wall. The next year, they went to his atelier in the south of France, where Chagall unveiled his marquette of “Orphée” and informed them that the resulting mosaic would be a jaw-dropping 10 feet high and 17 feet wide. The creation was a gift, but the Nefs had to build a 30-foot-high brick wall to house the piece. It was unveiled with the artist in attendance on a balmy evening in November 1971.

Guests found a scene of Chagall’s typically desultory but enchanting images: Orpheus (but no Eurydice), the Three Graces, a couple lying under a tree, a huddle of immigrants and skyscrapers and Pegasus and an angel floating around a golden sun.

Chagall’s powers as a colorist are evident: The work glows in its blocks of yellow and blue, becomes more intensely hued close up, and carries a transcendent luminosity. Assembled by a legendary Italian mosaicist Lino Melano, who also executed mosaics for Picasso, Georges Braque and Léger. “Orphée” is composed of countless thousands of hand-cut pieces — tesserae — of colored glass and an array of stone. The stone absorbs the light, the glass reflects it.

De-installation

Chagall died in 1985; John Nef died in 1988; and Chagall’s wife, Vava, died in 1993. For Evvie Nef, the mosaic became a magical reminder of the quartet’s friendship, and of their extended holidays together on the French Riviera. From the start, she saw its protean quality, as if it had taken on a life of its own.

“The weather, the time of day, and the kind of light all produce changes in its appearance,” she wrote in her memoir, “Finding My Way. ’’ “When it rains, the wet tesserae are a different, stronger color. The first time it snowed on the mosaic, I wept a little with pure pleasure.”

The mosaic was not a secret — a passerby could glimpse some of it from the corner of N and 28th streets NW — but it was private. John Nef had wanted to give it to the gallery at some point, and even discussed with its director at the time, J. Carter Brown, bequeathing the house and mosaic to the National Gallery of Art, said Andrew Robison, curator of prints and drawing. The idea later shifted to moving the piece to the sculpture garden, occupying the block on the west side of the gallery’s West Building.

The task fell to a team headed by Shelley Sturman, the gallery’s senior conservator. In the spring of 2010, they had little more than a month to “de-install” the mosaic before the house went up for sale. The experts knew that it had been created as 10 concrete panels to which the tesserae had been mortared. Melano had come to Georgetown to finish the seams and border. By 2010, none of the principals was still alive and there were no construction blueprints to guide the conservators. They found an old leather bucket containing tesserae that Melano had left over, as well as fallen pieces Evvie Nef had picked up over the years.

Sturman and her colleagues faced another problem: The mosaic was beginning to disintegrate: Cracks had formed along the joins and many pieces were loose or missing.

A major worry was that the panels might have been cemented to the brick facing behind them. “That was the scariest part, not knowing how it was attached,” Sturman said. “We didn’t know if we would be cutting it out of the wall.”

The panels, it turned out, were attached with iron clasps, making the dismantling of the mosaic far less daunting, if still difficult. Sturman and her colleagues reversed the steps taken almost four decades earlier to mount it. They made life-size color photographs of the relevant sections, and methodically chiseled free the tesserae covering the panel seams and edges — more than 100 linear feet of mosaic. Each piece was then glued on to a corresponding photo, to preserve its sequence, spacing and orientation. “What was scary was chipping out every individual tessera [in the joins] and making sure you didn’t break it or drop it, and then attach it to the one-to-one photographs.”

The discrete panels were faced with cheesecloth and white glue to stabilize them, and they were taken down and away in custom-built wooden cabinets lined with foam. Each panel weighed more than 200 pounds. As time-pressed and fraught as the de-installation was, the conservators knew that the bulk of their work lay ahead in their lab in the West Building.

The iron clasps were rusting — the metal expands as it corrodes — causing much of the cracking and tessera loss. The panels had been reinforced with an extensive grid of iron rebar, but this, too, was of rusting iron and had to be cut out from the back of each panel using a masonry saw. The team put in new rods of stainless steel, cementing them into the channels left by the originals.

Once these were in place, conservators could tackle the mosaic. Alisa Vignalo, a consulting conservator from Philadelphia, moved to Washington for 18 months to work on the project. Her task was to remove the cheesecloth and adhesive facing whose tenacity protected the dismantled mosaic but made for slow progress.

“I spent a long time methodically removing facing,” she said. “Quite a lot of tesserae became loose, so I was spending a lot of time reattaching them to the surface.” In the bottom right-hand panel, where Chagall and Melano had crowded the tesserae for effect, almost 100 loose pieces needed securing, which Vignalo achieved by injecting epoxy with a syringe. She also used a portable steamer “and a lot of dental tools.”

Years ago, the mosaic would have been restored to its perceived original condition. Today among conservators there is a hallowed distinction between the known work of the artist and subsequent repair. Missing pieces were treated in three ways: Those that fell in place in the Nefs’ garden and could be returned to their spots were repatriated. Some missing pieces were left off, if their absence wasn’t a distraction. For a third set, Sturman and her colleagues fashioned matching tesserae from epoxy resin and pigment. The difference will be obvious to an expert, purposefully, but not to the casual viewer.

The artwork is now housed in a new wall in the northwest corner of the sculpture garden, not far from the “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X,” by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg, but in a low and secluded grove of dawn redwoods. The wall itself has a colossal footing but is not as monolithic as the Georgetown one. It is also of a gray stucco that Chagall had envisioned to frame the work.

Evvie Nef wanted it to be placed in an exterior setting at the gallery, said Mark Leithauser, senior conservator and chief of design. If it had been placed on the east side of the sculpture garden, near Seventh Street, the back of the wall would have formed an unwanted screen. Its chosen out-of-the-way location seeks to emulate the seclusion of its Georgetown setting.

Communicating emotion

The mosaic was created during a late period when the artist turned to monumental and architectural works — stained glass, the ceiling of the Paris Opera House, stage sets. The Nef mosaic is believed to be one of only two in North America, the other the larger and subsequent “Four Seasons” that Chagall created for the First National Bank (now Chase Tower) plaza in Chicago, working with another mosaicist.

A period documentary of that project revealed how the artist and mosaicist worked: Chagall would survey assembled sections and show how he wanted them reworked, using a paintbrush. Detail was everything.

“Without these subtle variations, we’d have no world,” he said. “Look how God made the world,” he said, “with little flies and mice.”

For Matteo Randi, an Italian mosaicist who worked with Sturman and her team on “Orphée,” the Washington mosaic stands out for Melano’s lively fabrication. Through the juxtaposition of glass and stone and the way they were angled, Melano “was able to communicate to the mosaic the same emotion that Chagall was feeling. Lino Melano was not only the tool to materialize the mosaic, but he was also able to create with this hard and heavy material the same sense of color as a painting. Very difficult to do.” Melano died not long after “Orphée” was installed.

How has the mosaic’s character changed since its move? Publicly displayed art inherently loses much of its private story: The newly unveiled Vincent van Gogh in the West Building, “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” used to hang at the Upperville home of Paul and Rachel Mellon; van Gogh’s “Roses” was hung in the parlor of Pamela Harriman’s house a couple of blocks from the Nefs. What is different about “Orphée’s” back story is that its creation and placement were a direct result of a friendship between owner and artist. Anyone lucky enough to contemplate it in its quiet Georgetown setting inherently considered its gen­esis a part of the experience.

Also, its new placement is close to the busy tunnel ramp on Ninth Street, so the sound of traffic must be tuned out: Better to go, perhaps, on a Sunday morning than a weekday afternoon.

Much has been gained, however, not least its masterful repair and reconstruction. No less important is the fact that this hidden jewel is now available to everyone. It was completed in late November, and a formal unveiling is planned for the spring. “It’s gone from being this wonderful, ultimate Georgetown treasure to something that’s now going to be seen by millions of people,” Leithauser said.

Although the conservators were focused on its components, they came to see the majesty of its whole. “It was a very slow crescendo of astonishment,” Vignalo said. “I had not seen glass and stone used like that before.” Chagall’s imagery makes for a “very accessible piece,” she said, “and easy to love.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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