Malachi – Impression

Past Exhibition

02.12.2022 - 15.01.2023

Excerpt from Malachi (2015) / Yona Fischer:

What came first? Discovering music as a field to adapt to one’s own uses? Or music as a lifeline thrown to someone who sees abstraction and hears abstraction, yet seeks – and will continue to seek – a name, a title, perhaps an image that is, in some sense, tangible?

Shmuel is grateful, to this day, to Bertha Urdang for letting him into the secrets of art – under the circumstances and in the aspects described above. But he owes her, besides, a manifold debt for introducing him to the world of music, which was to influence his mind and open a significant and eventful chapter in his career.

The encounter with music, too, was accidental. “I was drawing with charcoal, and then, one day in early 1961, Bertha invited me to visit at her home, after work. On the turntable she put a Mozart record, as far as I can remember. I had a piece of charcoal in my pocket. I remember I suddenly started dancing. There was a drawing pad on the table. I started drawing, one page after another, according to the rhythm. Bertha and her daughters entered, and they grew enthusiastic, especially Daphna, her younger daughter. Bertha even started turning the pages after each drawing. She gave me records to listen to at home, all kinds of records, Gregorian music, too…”

We will have to make do with Shmuel’s concise description, and rely on his memory. At that time Bertha began convening a kind of music listening circle at her home, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit HaKerem, which continued to meet throughout the 1960s. Once in a week or two, she would invite young people from the local art scene to listen to two or three recorded performances of specific works. These were events of real and attentive listening, but also a kind of social entertainment, in which the participants were asked to identify the performer – quite similar to the “blind listening” gatherings that Raffi Lavie would hold for many years in his Tel Aviv apartment. Bertha knew how to infuse the audience with her

own enthusiasm, and with the same kind of energy that animated her when facing a painting in the gallery or on the wall of her own apartment: she would sparkle with an often theatrical spontaneity that made any kind of explanation unnecessary; an energy drawn from and fed by, first and foremost, her own intuition.

Perhaps – it is hard to say for certain – Bertha managed to impart to Shmuel not just her enthusiasm, but also the special talent of harnessing her intuition. Shmuel, as we have heard, was exposed to music in his childhood home, but the encounter with music mediated by Bertha seems to have transformed him from an occasional listener, whose listening is passive and perception partial, into someone who, from now on, could experience music and use it according to his own needs. This kind of listening, guided by concentration and attention, will lead him from the random drawing, springing entirely from the very act of its creation, to a “disciplined,” organized, and systematic method of work, gradually to acquire in his psyche the status of a distinct essence, a language, a form of expression.

And thus, most of the early 1960s are dedicated to drawings made while listening – one record after another, one page after another, pages whose size is usually 10x15cm., mostly on notebook paper. In this way – at first almost unconsciously – Shmuel’s “musical” series are created. Each series is based on a certain musical piece, or on a group of musical pieces by the same composer. Shmuel does not always bother to mention the title of the piece that inspired the work: a series of two or three pages, or of more than ten pages, series preserved in full or in part, for Shmuel does not systematically complete one series before beginning work on another; no series has a starting point, an end, or a specified order. One example of

this method of work is demonstrated by a single drawing out of a series made while listening to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, probably in 1962, and purchased for the Harvard University Fogg Museum collection in 1965.

Yet it is not only the order in which each page in each series was created that defies reconstruction – and there is no doubt that such a reconstruction could have provided us with insights about the work process, about starting points, stages, and so on. We cannot even reconstruct the order in which the series themselves were created, since they are not dated, and most are not signed. Although, as we shall see below, certain series are related to specific events, in which case they can be accurately dated.

I will try to describe the creative activity itself. On the morning of December 5, 2004, I asked Shmuel to draw in my presence, while listening to music. He had a new, state-of-the-art sound system. The music he chose, or rather, the music we happened to be listening to, was a work by Berlioz. I believe it was the love scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Shmuel takes the German-made Faber-Castell charcoal, the kind called “Siberian,” number two on a scale of one to five. It is a soft charcoal, and Shmuel explains that he chose it because it suits the softness of the music. He proceeds to lead the piece of charcoal in gentle movements over the page, “translating” the sounds of the stringed instruments merging with the wind section. When a staccato fortissimo begins, he starts tapping on the paper with very pronounced strokes. He draws with the wide side of the charcoal in his hand, creating a variedly-hued transparency, with “vibrating” touches in reaction to the music’s rhythms. And when the rhythm steps up, he replaces the No. 2 charcoal with a No. 4, building, over the soft hues, strong hues of black. Upon completing the drawing, at a certain point of saturation which is entirely within the realm of his emotions, and apparently has nothing to do with what is happening in the music – a change of rhythm or a new movement – he turns the page, without missing a second, before the ecstasy loses its momentum. He draws while standing. The sheet of paper lies on the massive table in the large room that serves as both kitchen and dining room. And while drawing, he dances continuously, his legs mincing on the floor to his own rhythm, swaying his body heavily from one side to another. I am amazed: the man is eighty-five years old. I say to myself that his movements are like those of a person in prayer.

Three drawings were produced in front of my eyes, in rapid succession – the first one soft, its shapes wavy, the other two stormy, differing from each other in their rhythms and in the intensity with which they are expressed. I hear him saying, with a smile: “I obey orders; I do not follow my head.”

I believe that Shmuel, as an artist who was “uneducated,” who could not always recognize what it was he was seeing – a painting at an exhibition, a reproduction in an album – discovered, to his joy, in the work of an artist who for him was unknown, something on which he could rely and which he could regard as his own. In the same way, he would identify with a musical piece that he did not necessarily recognize, but could absorb into his inner world. Yes, he can distinguish between modern and classical music, but it doesn’t occur to him – nor does he feel any need – to distinguish between Mozart and Beethoven, at least not while listening. For example, he is familiar with Kodály’s Háry János. And yet it seems that certain

pieces of music, by certain composers, appear at unique moments in his life, or serve to create unique moments, as fate would have it.

The “musical” series were made only after Shmuel had already tried his hand at abstract drawing. He also made, on occasion, individual works which he later on gave titles such as Prayer, Exaltation, or Ensemble. These are abstract works with no particular object; I am tempted to regard them as a result of concentration on the quick and unintended movements of the pencil or charcoal on the paper, a work process that, however momentary, is driven by an internal intuition. I am tempted to regard Malachi’s talent for concentration as rooted in his upbringing and the early circumstances of his life. It is the concentration of a religious man who taught himself to withstand trials (Shmuel tells of the “dispute” he had with God in 1944, when he was unable to put on phylacteries on his way to Auschwitz. And he adds: “then, I composed a prayer that can relate to any request that I may have.”) In other words: Shmuel knows how to contend with situations of internal struggle. Similar is the situation, each time anew, of his encounter with music.

Throughout 1961, Shmuel worked intensively, listening and drawing dozens of series inspired by music. A selection of these works was displayed for the first time in August 1962 at Rina Gallery, as part of his second solo exhibition. These drawings took their inspiration from a wide range of musical pieces, by composers beginning with the Baroque and up until the modern period – Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Brahms, Stravinsky, and the two Hungarian composers especially close to Shmuel’s heart – Bartók and Kodály.

The exhibition at Rina Gallery was not the first time such drawings ventured outside the artist’s home. We know that Shmuel gave a notebook containing drawings (perhaps a series) to French art critic Guy Weelen, who visited Jerusalem in early 1962, probably accompanied by his spouse at the time, Jerusalem painter Geula Dagan, who had long been living in Paris and visited Israel often. Incidentally, Guy Weelen was in those years the personal secretary of the well-known Portuguese painter Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, and was also close to her husband, Hungarian-Jewish painter Árpád Szenes. Both were among the prominent abstractartists in the Paris school of the 1950s. Weelen recalled his encounter with Shmuel in a telegram he sent congratulating him on the opening of the Rina Gallery exhibition, in which he praised the “charcoal works dedicated to Bach and Mozart, that seem to sing… lights, shapes, waves of rhythm, merging, weaving a dialogue…” He ends by mentioning the largo from Bach’s concerto for cembalo and orchestra in F minor, “that I heard in a car speeding over the Judean Hills.”

The exhibition, titled Music, opened on August 21, 1962, with salutation and praise from Dr. Kurt Grunwald. Although we cannot reconstruct the selection of works displayed, we may assume it was assembled by Bertha Urdang, together with the artist, of course. Most of the works were given the names of the composers who inspired them, and only a few were named after a musical piece – Kodály’s Háry János, for example. And there were also works titled Symphony, Concerto, and Sound Beat, works that were not associated, and cannot be attributed today, to any specific composer or piece of music.

The exhibition garnered considerable attention. Guy Weelen himself mentioned in his telegram, referring to the drawings – at least those that he had with him – “an alternating calm and nervous rhythm.” Yehuda Haezrahi wrote of “an endless abundance of hues hidden in black and white. The graded nuances of gray, with their transition from light to dark, may surprise the viewer with their power of expression, both in ‘color’ and form.” He goes on: “The very attempt of the artist to embody them (the objects of his impression) in charcoal, not by drawing lines, but through a combination of surfaces of various hues – which he achieves by using alternately ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ charcoal, one on top of the other – obliged him, from the first, to approach nature in his own, unique way… this approach deviates from any attempt to mimic the visible, with its external dimensions and superficiality, and relies on a pre-determined formal and emotional expression – on style. (…) Malachi’s charcoal drawings, “observes Yehuda Haezrahi with subtlety, “are organized in two apparently contrasting poles… the combination of formal geometry with the flight of free, exuberant imagination is what links between Malachi’s drawings and the world of music.”5

5 Yehuda Haezrahi, “Musical Pictures – Malachi’s Charcoal Drawings,” Ma’ariv, August 31,1962 [Heb.].


This was an excerpt from the book Malachi by Yona Fischer, published by the Engel Gallery in 2015, one year after Shmuel “Malachi” Engel’s passing that same year.
To inquire about and purchase the book press here.