The Jewish Wedding, 1933, reinstalled and rededicated in new facility, 2004

Bernard Zakheim
Fresco
Main Stairwell, between floor 3 and rooftop (relocated from original building)

In the early 1930's, Zakheim was known as an interpreter of Jewish life and an advocate for Yiddish culture. He was an organizer of the Yiddish Folkschule on Steiner Street, where he taught children's art classes and organized the first "Yiddish art" exhibit in San Francisco.

The original site for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s (JCCSF) mural was an idiosyncratic architectural space-a twelve-foot arch in an open-air courtyard. This space presented a unique challenge, which Zakheim resolved with a dynamic composition of an ancient wedding celebration. The wedding scene is an imagined one; while it appears to be set in ancient times, the distant cityscape looks medieval. The various figures in the mural suggest diverse origins in their features and dress - some appear African, Middle Eastern, Asian, or European. This reflects the artist's inclusive vision and the progressive spirit of the 1930's. It also mirrors the Centers commitment welcoming people of all backgrounds.

The wedding celebrants are vividly depicted and the forms of the musicians, dancers and archers are characterized by movement. Women and men are gathered together in a semi-circle around a drumming figure; whose instrument is adorned by the artist's signature both in Hebrew and in English.

The imprint of Zakheim's Hasidic upbringing-with its emphasis on music and dance as a form of joyful prayer-and his years of preparation for the rabbinate, are clearly felt in the mural's integration of context, figures and text.

Three rabbis and the wedding couple, an athlete and maiden, are gathered under the chuppah (wedding canopy), which signifies and literally frames the wedding ceremony. Its flowing canopy is anchored by the Star of David, which draws our eyes to the Hebrew text from The Song of Songs.

Zakheim employed the ancient art of fresco, or affresco (Italian: fresh) - painting on freshly laid lime-plaster ground, to create the painting. Pure powdered pigments are finely ground, then dissolved only in water and applied directly to the wet plaster (intonaco). The colors are absorbed into the surface of the plaster and a chemical reaction occurs - the carbon dioxide in the air combines with the calcium hydrate in the wet plaster, forming calcium carbonate. The colors solidify and become one with the plaster as it dries, becoming an integral part of the wall.

The brilliant white of the lime plaster and the purity of the pigments (no binder is added, as in oil, egg tempera and other paint media) create a luminosity and subtle matte surface unique to fresco. True fresco is a most direct method; once the color touches the wet plaster, the mark is there to stay - erasure, corrections and over-painting are nearly impossible. Zakheim had to work rapidly and surely, completing each new section on freshly laid plaster in one day's work. He recognized that the difficulties and limitations of the fresco process are also its strengths - calling for a simplicity of painterly handling, strength and clarity of form, a subtle and harmonious palette of perfectly soluble earth colors.

In her book Coit Tower, San Francisco, Masha Zakheim says her father “likened the application of the brush on wet plaster to the bestowal of a kiss.” The couple standing in the foreground of the mural reflects this awareness - they have been given the most sensitive painterly treatment. The two figures are distinguished by their delicate beauty and dignity. Their identity within the narrative is not known, yet they have a compelling presence and convey an intimate relationship.

About Bernard Zakheim A pioneer of the Bay Area mural movement of the 1930's, Bernard Baruch Zakheim (1896-1985) Zakheim was born in Warsaw, Poland to a family of Hasidic Jews. He was training to become a rabbi, when at age thirteen; he defied family and religious traditions by announcing his intention of becoming an artist. His mother's fierce objections led to a compromise-Zakheim attended a school of applied art and trained to become a furniture designer and upholsterer. His desire to become an artist persisted-he studied privately and then was awarded a scholarship to the National Academy of Fine Art, where he studied drawing, painting and sculpture.

As a young man he closely followed the Russian Revolution, and became active in the drive for Polish independence. He and his wife emigrated to the United States in 1920, settling in San Francisco. Zakheim founded a successful furniture company here and pursued his art practice on the side, but over time he became increasingly frustrated with this situation. In 1930, inspired by the art and politics of Diego Rivera, he sent some of his drawings to the artist. Rivera responded by inviting Zakheim to visit him in Mexico. There, Zakheim discovered the twentieth century's great revival of fresco technique-the Mexican mural movement led by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. Regarding Zakheim's sketches, Rivera commented, “every artist puts into his work something of his own soil, of his own people.” In 1932 Zakheim traveled to France, immersing himself in the artistic community and surveyed the work of the European modernists. He continued on to Italy and Hungary, where he studied fresco technique. Zakheim's first fresco, Jews in Poland, a historical representation of Jewish life in Warsaw, was painted in Hungary. A watercolor study is all that remains of this important early work (the site of the fresco, an 18th century Protestant church, was partially destroyed in 1939).

Zakheim returned to San Francisco in 1933, and learned of the JCCSF’s plan to commission a local artist to create a fresco for their new building. In response to Zakheim's urging, an open competition-rather than the planned direct commission-was held, and Zakheim's proposal was selected.

The legacy of Bernard Zakheim's art has shaped the lives of his children and grandchildren. The restoration, removal and reinstallation of the JCCSF mural was led by his son, Nathan, himself a renowned art conservationist who is widely recognized for developing innovative methods for safe removal of large frescoes.

In its original site in the courtyard of the old JCCSF, the fresco was exposed to the elements, and the mural's surface - its very substance - was suffering erosion. In 1976, with Bernard present to advise, Nathan and his brother Matthew carried out the first of it’s restorations.

When the mural was removed from the old building, Nathan called upon his three sons for assistance. Kuva, Kirti and Dhanan joined their father in the complex process of removal, conservation and reinstallation of their grandfather's mural. After meticulously cleaning the surface and putting a temporary protective varnish on it, a large drawbridge was prepared to support the mural as it was to be removed from the wall. A plywood and steel crating system was devised to transport the fresco safely. When the mural was reinstalled in its new home, it was partially conserved "in situ" by Nathan, assisted by Julia Luke, using pigments to "in-paint" the lost and faded details and restore the color saturation to its original level. Visitors now have the opportunity to see this mural, originally painted in 1933, fully restored and bathed in natural light.

The restoration, reinstallation and celebration of the Zakheim mural was generously funded by the Fleishhacker Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

NEA