Lucienne From the Bloch: Conserving a Modern Mural for a Jewish Temple

In honor of Pesach (Passover) earlier this month, we’re highlighting a major conservation treatment for Temple Emanuel, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Conservation Center’s team worked tirelessly on-site and in our laboratories to help restore a massive 1,000 square-foot mural that covered the entire expanse of the rear wall of the synagogue. Painted on multiple lightweight wood panels by the Swiss-born American artist Lucienne Bloch (1909–1999), this modern mural stands as a testament to a dynamic time in religious architecture that aimed to keep up with societal trends in art and construction.

Enrich Mendelsohn; Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, circa 1955

Enrich Mendelsohn; Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, circa 1955

In the late 1930s, Temple Emanuel’s attendance was reaching record-breaking numbers, which forced the congregation to make some serious considerations about its future. They decided to partner with famed Jewish architect Enrich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) to build a new home for its growing number of members. Having worked on a number of similar buildings in Germany, Mendelsohn was known for his modern and expressionistic style, and left behind quite an impressive body of work around the world. Erected in 1952, Temple Emanuel sadly became Mendelsohn’s last building. It beautifully showcases his expertise in capturing a modern aesthetic. 

The temple’s tall clerestory windows fill the sanctuary with a plethora of natural light. Movable walls were also installed so that it can serve as a multipurpose room for various events in its ever-expanding congregation. Combining his interest in the Art Deco movement with his knowledge of the basic needs of the synagogue, Mendelsohn was able to bring a dynamic functionality to the three main areas of prayer—the House of Worship, the House of Study, and the House of Fellowship. Light and airy, while made completely of brick and glass, this expansive room stands as the antithesis of trends that dominated religious architecture in earlier centuries. One must look no further than the temple’s iconic butterfly-wing roof, soaring clerestory windows, and birch wood paneling to see the influences of Mendelsohn’s style.

(Left to Right): Lucienne Bloch, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo; date unknown

(Left to Right): Lucienne Bloch, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo; date unknown

Abandoning traditional religious decorative techniques like stained glass and fresco, the congregation hired Lucienne Bloch—best known for her murals and associations with Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)—to paint the entire expanse of the rear wall of the temple, which was quite avant-garde at the time. Mostly neutral in tone with some golden yellows and muted oranges, this abstract mural stands as a beautiful testament to modern art.

Daughter of the renowned international composer Ernest Bloch, Lucienne and her siblings were not only exposed to a wide variety of music, art, and culture from an early age, but were actively encouraged to foster their talents and interests, while participating in intellectual discussions around the house. Bloch was able to foster a deep love and appreciation for the beauty she found in art from a very early age. Like Mendelsohn, Ernest Bloch decided to move his family to America in 1917. Far from limiting her prospects, moving to America allowed for Lucienne to enter the Cleveland Institute of Art at the tender age of 15, after passing all of the entrance exams required of incoming freshman. 

From the start, her talent, concentration, and dedication to the arts was celebrated by her faculty and peers. Honing her skills over the years in a wide array of mediums, Bloch went on to have a very successful career as a muralist, eventually gaining fame from her apprenticeship and work with fresco artist, Diego Rivera. Her friendships with Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, were instrumental to the development of Bloch’s aesthetic styles and her obsession with capturing the beauty in her natural surroundings. Bloch, while working on further developing her skills in New York, joined the Federal Arts Project as a Fresco muralist with the Works Progress Administration, and worked from 1934 to 1939 with her artist-husband, Stephen Pope Dimitroff. Their successive work across the United States, and Bloch’s eventual professorship, helped to preserve the art of true Fresco in the United States. (Three exquisite corpse drawings that Frida Kahlo made with Lucienne Bloch are currently on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in the major exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, through July 12, 2015. Read the New York Times review.)

In 1953, Bloch began work on the mural at Temple Emanuel. Composed of golds, creams, and browns, the artist aimed to lend a warm and welcoming feeling to the space. Bloch said of the piece that, “Its rough appearance on close inspection is deliberately done to create a sense of vibration and texture in contrast with the smooth workmanship of the wood paneling.” Within the mural are two sets of doors, one that forms the ark that houses the Temple’s Torah scrolls. The arks are decorated with the Tables of the Law, on which the Ten Commandments were written.  This area forms a very holy part of the sanctuary, deserving of this expansive and beautiful mural. Unfortunately, its function placed significant strains on the design.

Worshippers at Temple Emanuel, circa 1950s

Worshippers at Temple Emanuel, circa 1950s

Though seemingly abstract, Bloch still worked with many religious tropes to convey a sense of meaning to the mural. The two golden columns of wheat and grape vines on either side of the podium are representative of traditional Biblical symbols for work and joy, as well as the cycle of life, the Seed, the Blossom (honeycomb), and the Fruit, which carries the seed of the future.  A horizontal band runs across the entire mural at the architectural section where the windows of the sound chambers for the unseen choir are located. The Crown, one of the oldest Jewish symbols, is used there in three patterns. In the words of the ancient sage, Rabbi Simeon, “There are three Crowns—the crown of the Torah, the Crown of the Priesthood, and the Crown of Royalty, but the Crown of a good name exceeds them all.”  

Cathrin Finney, Program Manager of Temple Emanuel, shed some light on the meaning behind this magnificent piece: “The remaining designs are the only untraditional details of the mural. They are the artist’s interpretation of the first page of the Scriptures: Light and Darkness, the firmament in the midst of the waters, and the world without end. These designs are vertical with swirling shapes within them that attract and repel each other to represent energy.” Bloch’s Sanctuary Wall means so much to the synagogue because it helped shift the congregation towards a new way of practicing faith. Cathrin further comments: “Whereas other contemporary murals of the Jewish faith have been somber and stark, this one, like the architecture of which it is an integral part, lifts its face in the sunlight. It interprets that lesser-known side of the Hebrew spirit, which is tender and joyful. It is a hymn to the loving God and Peace.”

In 2012, significant leaking from the roof caused severe water damage of the plywood panels, causing extreme warping, staining, and delamination of the veneers. The mural itself, which was painted using water-soluble paints (something similar to gouache), started to drip down across the panels as soon as water entered the space. Devastated, Temple Emanuel contacted The Conservation Center to perform an on-site assessment to best determine how to conserve Bloch’s work. 

Years of constant use and handling of the doors and tracks around the mural had also caused issues beyond the water damage—fingerprints had darkened and smudged areas of the paint, to the extent that there were significant losses that needed to be addressed. There was also a thin layer of grime that needed to be removed from the panels. However, because of the nature of the paint used, most methods of cleaning would strip away the design. Eventually, six panels came back to The Center’s lab in Chicago to undergo treatment.

The Conservation Center’s team had to think "outside the box" on this project in order to restore this damaged mural. First, before addressing the paint losses, the panels had to be entirely re-flattened. Unfortunately, the glue adhering the panels to the wall had deteriorated almost completely over the last 60 years, so that the additional strain of the water damage caused them to buckle and delaminate significantly, resulting in cracks and splits in the wood. While the panels came down easily, they were quite stubborn throughout our efforts to flatten them.

Stephen Ryan and Michael Young, The Center’s Senior Conservators, employed a method to remoisten the panels—an effect that re-humidifies fibers of the wood, thus making the panels more pliable and much more easier to manipulate, so that they can be clamped flat and dried. The method was relatively straightforward for the treatment of the wood. But since the paint was water-soluble, Stephen and Michael had to be precise when adding moisture to the wood panels, lest it bleed through and ruin the painted design. Luckily, their skill and expertise allowed them to successfully treat the panels without damaging the paint layer, and they came out looking magnificent.

The six panels from Temple Emanuel, post-treatment

The six panels from Temple Emanuel, post-treatment

Because of the general wear and tear, as well as the instances of water damage, Amber Smith, The Center’s Senior Paintings Conservator, had to address the losses in the paint layer. She in-painted four of the panels in order to preserve the integrity of the design. Working with their knowledge of solutions and treatment plans, our conservators were able to settle on a method of cleaning that wouldn’t harm the water-soluble paint used by Lucienne Bloch—ensuring that the mural would be around for many more years for the congregation to continue to enjoy. Finally, after all of the hard work of restoring the panels, The Center’s team came up with a way to reattach the panels, as the original method had already failed the congregation once. Avoiding adhesives, the panels were attached to the wall using small stainless steel screws. The screws were then filled to match the color of the mural, so that they are not visible to the eye. Most importantly, because the panels aren’t adhered directly to the wall, this method is 100% reversible if work needs to be done on the mural again in the future. This is an essential requirement to all conservation work—so that similar problems can be avoided in the future. 

Now that the panels have been re-installed, the mural looks just as beautiful as it did when it was commissioned by Enrich Mendelsohn over 50 years ago, creating a space worthy of Temple Emanuel’s congregation. Cathrin comments: “We are excessively happy with the work that The Conservation Center has done to restore our bimah mural. It is a work that is synonymous with our sanctuary and dear to our congregation.”

Click here for more pictures of the deinstallation and examination process >

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.