Wednesday, May 5, 2010

To See a Marvel

A few years ago, as part of a particularly happy assignment for the Washington Post, I interviewed Evelyn Nef  about the Chagall in her garden, the only Marc Chagall mosaic in a private home in the world.  

She was 95-years-old that summer and when I called for an appointment her secretary told me I could only come in the afternoon as "Mrs. Nef exercises in the mornings."

Her workouts apparently paid off since after greeting me at the front door she did a little soft shoe down the hallway saying, "Come into my back yard and see a marvel!"

And we went out and plopped ourselves down in the shade and I listened to her tell the story of how this mosaic arrived from France by ship in 10 panels. 

It was, she told me, a hostess gift.

Chagall was a good friend of her third husband, historian John Ulrich Nef, whom she married in 1964.
"Every summer, we went to France and saw the Chagalls," she recalled. The people, not the paintings. "We always went to the Hotel du Cap -- they'd come to get away from the tourists in summer. In the morning, Marc would paint and my husband would write and Valentina and I would gossip. We became like a family.

"When he'd come to New York, where Matisse was his dealer, he'd come to visit us in Washington. He loved the village of Georgetown and shopping at Woolworth for new pencils and colored crayons."

When the artist proposed the mosaic for the garden, she was imagining a plaque of some sort, "a little 8-by-10-inch thing to hang," she described with her hands."I did not know I'd have to build a wall."

Hereabouts is where the story for the Post ended, but my meeting with Mrs. Nef continued. There was a bit more to this story.

We talked, or she talked, for an hour and a half noting that John Nef began collecting Chagalls and Picassos and works by their contemporaries before they were famous. 

"My husband bought 13 of Picassos circus etchings for $100," she told me.

"Are they at the National Gallery?" I asked,  assuming away in my notebook--since she'd already mentioned that the mosaic would go to the gallery on her death.

"No dear," she said. "They're in the house." 

And up she got and I followed her back into the house and we stood at the base of the staircase where the Picassos were hopping up the wall and my head began to spin a cotton candy mass that threatened to stop me breathing.

She pointed out another Picasso hanging next to the front door, actually hidden behind it when the door was opened. Following down the hallway and into the living room and dining room she pointed out more Chagalls--including seven lithographs he did for her over the years as birthday gifts-- and more Picassos all mingled with works by Whistler,  Dufy,  Matisse, Vanessa Bell (Virginia Wolf's sister), a sketch by Corbusier (another house gift! ), a Maillol sculpture on a pedestal in the living room beside the piano,  and on and on and all  hung as casually, perhaps even more so, than you'd hang posters from MOMA  on the walls of your first apartment. 

And you could stand so close, nose to nose. Close enough to blow the dust off a gilded frame.  Close enough to trace a jut of Picassan nose with a fingertip... 

Did I mention that Evelyn Nef's name and address were in the phone book? That she never asked for identification, never double checked my credentials. 
OH the opportunities for perfect crimes I have passed up! I could have just...bashed the sweet  little lady with the twinkly eyes and coral lipstick over the head, grabbed a Picasso (or two) and made a run for it. 

Yesterday, Christie's auction house in New York sold Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," for $106.5 million dollars. 

Evelyn Nef died a few months ago, her treasures are now in the safe keeping of the National Gallery of Art.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you wrote this! I remember you struggling to focus on the article at hand, because you had so much amazing stuff just from your one visit with her.

    This exact thing, by the way, is what I thought your other blog - the writing one - should be filled with. All the juicy extras that you couldn't weave into your assignments.


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