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.”