The tag-sale find that turns out to be a treasure has become a television staple, and an example of just such a phenomenon headlines an upcoming art exhibit at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek (CBSRZ) in Chester. The exhibit, which runs from Sept. 10 to Oct. 31, also features the lithographs of Rachel Szalit-Marcus, a Polish-born artist who perished in the Holocaust.
The tag-sale treasure is hard to miss, and not just because of its backstory. It is a 7- by 18-foot mural titled The Founding of the State of Israel, 1948, done by well-known Connecticut artists Sanford Low and Walter Korder. The mural shows a panoramic scene of the city and harbor of Haifa. How the mural ended up in the Cooley Art Gallery in Old Lyme is a story of luck, both good and bad.
First the good: While hiking in the Cascade Mountains in Washington in the summer of 2008, Jeff Cooley got a call from a picker with whom he works. Pickers, he explains, make the rounds of auctions and tag and estate sales looking for objects they think gallery owners will buy.
"Picker isn't a flattering word, I admit, but they are willing to work hard and they have a good eye. They perform a very necessary service," says Cooley.
The picker told Cooley he had found what he described as a large religious picture. The gallery owner mulled the information over and told the picker he would take a look at the mural when he returned.
"I knew this guy and I knew he knew what he was doing," Cooley says.
When the picker brought the large painting to Cooley, it was rolled up in a tube. Once unrolled on the floor of his gallery, Cooley was astonished.
"It was spectacular," he says. "I felt I had an obligation to save it."
Among the most interesting things on the mural were the initials THB, on the lower right edge of the painting. Cooley surmised that great American muralist Thomas Hart Benton had contributed to the painting, though the use of initials rather than his name might suggest he did not contribute as significantly as Korder and Low, both of whose signatures remain on the mural. Benton was a good friend of Low, who was the first director of the New Britain Museum of American Art. A series of Benton's murals hangs in the museum today
And now for the bad luck. The mural was in need of extensive restoration; it had staining and rust. It needed a canvas backing. The mural, Cooley learned, had originally been commissioned for a synagogue in Manchester, Connecticut, in 1948. When that congregation moved, the mural remained on the wall. When the building was about to be demolished, the mural was, in Cooley's words, ripped off the wall, and became part of a removal sale. After assessing the painting's condition, Cooley engaged a restorer, who had to cut the mural into three sections to work effectively on it.
But that's not all that was cut. In the restoration process, the vital three initials THB were cut away. Now, Cooley says, there is no proof positive, without extensive research, that Benton had a hand in the creation of the mural.
"It's a good story-that's all," Cooley says of the Benton connection.
Still, the vitality of the mural, Cooley noted, is not affected by the absence of the initials.
"I found it an extraordinary painting. I loved the colors and the symbolism, the impact of the whole picture," he says.
"It's magnificent," adds Linda Pinn, a CBSRZ member who coordinates the synagogue's art gallery. "This is not something just for the Jewish community, but for anybody who loves good art."
Finding a place to exhibit the huge mural proved a challenge in itself. It is too big for Cooley's gallery. Unrolling it on the wall in the summer, he says, would mean blocking the gallery's air-conditioning unit. That's when Pinn came into the picture. At an opening at the Cooley Gallery, Pinn mentioned to Cooley that CBSRZ had both an art gallery and a large exhibition wall.
"He said, 'Do I have a picture for you,'" she recalls.
Cooley has lent the mural to the synagogue for the exhibit.
Because the mural is so heavy, synagogue member George Amarant has constructed a platform that will bear some of its weight. Seeing the picture hung on a wall will be an exciting moment for Jeff Cooley.
"It's never been exhibited in a gallery before," he says.
In addition to the mural, the upcoming exhibit also features lithographs by Rachel Szalit-Marcus, a Polish-born artist who died in a concentration camp in 1942. Szalit-Marcus, who studied art in Germany, exhibited in Berlin, but fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power. After the fall of France, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died.
On display will be 30 lithographs or Szalit-Marcus, most of her surviving work, illustrating two Jewish folktales, Fishke the Lame by Mendele Moyker Sforim and Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son, the unfinished last novel of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. (Sholem Aleichem, is best known for his stories of Tevye the Milkman, which formed the basis for musical Fiddler on the Roof.)
According to Susan Chevlowe, chief curator of the Derfner Judaica Museum in the Bronx, what distinguishes Szalit-Marcus's work is the use of a modernist style to illustrate stories of eastern European Jewish life. Chevlowe says that Szalit-Marcus was part of the realist movement that emerged in Europe at the end of World War I. Still, Szalit-Marcus remained relatively unknown since her studio was ransacked and much of her work destroyed, until an exhibit called Montparnasse Déporté at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum. Montparnasse was the area in Paris in which many artists lived and the exhibit detailed the effects of World War II on the Paris art world.
The Szalit-Marcus works in the upcoming CBSRZ exhibit are a reminder, according to Pinn, of the scope of the Holocaust's devastation.
"It was about more than flesh and bones. It was also about the loss of potential, of creativity. It is about all the things that these people could have produced," she says.
The Szalit-Marcus works are on loan from the Derfner Judaica Museum, to which they were given by noted art collector Sigmund Balka, who has previously loaned works from his collection to CBSRZ. The entire CBSRZ exhibit is co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of New Haven.
This exhibition is free an open to the public from Sept. 10 to Oct. 31, Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek is at 55 East Kings Highway, Chester. For more information, call 860-526-8920 or visit www.cbsrz.org.