Studio International

Published 03/06/2009

Victor Majzner, Painting the Torah

Melbourne, 2008.

by Dr JANET McKENZIE

“Without the Torah there would be no Judaism. The Torah makes temporal reality purposeful and the spiritual experience tangible”

Victor Majzner (b.1945) published a limited edition book (750 copies), Painting the Torah (2008), to incorporate Jewish experience in to his art practice. Majzner has deservedly received critical attention from his early work in the 1960s to the recent exhibition, Wounded – Land, Memory, Destiny (2004); Painting the Torah can be seen to be a culmination of many aspects of his work as an artist in formal and symbolic terms. Born in Russia to Polish parents he spent his childhood in the industrial city of Lodz and later in Paris, before migrating with his parents to Australia in 1959. Majzner completed his art training in the same year (1967) that the exhibition, Two Decades of American Painting took place in Melbourne. It was of great significance to the young artist and transformed his concept of art; he has referred to the vivid realisation that painting could be self-sufficient, and that it could assume an iconic status. The figurative tradition that had informed his art training was, as a consequence relinquished in favour of the challenge of abstraction. Majzner in fact returned to figuration, but at this stage, the exploration of structure and geometry, against a colour field was transformational. The need for personal expression and the search for meaning, throughout his career, were balanced against his wish to have a formal language. “The pursuit of these parallel aims has produced a peculiarly characteristic tension in his art as one or other impulse has prevailed. The symbolic intent, which emerged at such an early stage in his work, has been one constant feature, but its function in the early non-figurative works was so abstracted and private as to be barely perceivable. [The] desire to invest his art with the significance of human and spiritual experiences has guided his development from the early precise colour-field paintings through the more lyrical, poured canvases of the mid-70s to the explicit figuration of his recent work. As the representational quality became more recognisable so the narrative aspects gradually emerged with increasing clarity and also tended to assume a more personal and autobiographical bent”.1

In contrast to many large-scale paintings produced as a response to American works, Majzner found working on a small scale in pastel conceptually suitable. Alongside paintings he produced several hundred pastels during the 1970s. These involved a ritualistic working through of ideas and in turn a physical involvement with the surface. He worked on the floor, building the image up, equating pigment with earth, the earth with primal instincts. Process was more important than the finished product.

Majzner’s pastel drawings are not sketches for paintings; each is complete and possesses its own particular content. In each, a single element, brushstroke or object is isolated from its normal context in an attempt to expose its particular characteristics. Alongside this ‘process’ Majzner became increasingly preoccupied (1975–1980) with the process of defining a cultural identity for himself through Jewish mystical iconography. “Kabbalistic symbols and metaphors were often the inspiration for the images and processes. Words of visual potency (although clothed in metaphysical meaning) have the capability of metamorphosis into physical actuality. The Kabbalah is a visual language with a multi-symbolic content. The act of painting or drawing is (at once) celebratory, documentary, diaristic, ritualistic, masturbatory and mystical”.2

Majzner asks: “How can one visualise the idea of the soul?” It is one of those concepts that has to remain abstract, in the realm of thought, as that is its precise habitation. In 1987 Majzner gave a lecture at the Victoria College (Prahan) on the drawings he had made from 1976 to 1979 from which the following is taken. In his pastel works Majzner begins by diluting pastel powder in water and flooding it onto the paper to define the area of the work. While this is still a wet blob of thickened pastel (with acrylic additives) it is dragged, smeared, pushed around by hand, and by pieces of board or sticks and worked from the centre of the paper to the edges until a desired form emerges. This is allowed to dry (often powdered pastel is sprinkled onto the work to hasten the drying). When dry and bonded to the paper, layers of pastel are rubbed onto the surface, utilising the established form but often reshaping it. The image is built up into the layers to form a skin that is both light absorbing and reflective. The images are invented, discovered through the making process. They hang, float or hover within the compounds.

Majzner’s calligraphy, scratchings, rubbings and pictographic shapes invented through the psyche are the result of introspection. He prefers to work in total silence, by himself, within the enclosed stillness of the studio, on the floor, very close to the paper. The drawings are akin, he says, to wall and pavement markings and are made with the same urgency. The intention is to “transcend the momentary sensations and fix the transient nature of urban experience”. With hindsight, Majzner realised that working on the floor was the same as traditional Aboriginal artists method, be it sand drawings during ceremony or painting on canvas for commercial distribution. The earth in their case and the floor in Majzner’s case were the spiritual connection to the land and urban reality respectively. Unwittingly at the time, Majzner was searching for an urban spiritual ritual. Later he became interested in Aboriginal culture and whilst teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts he took students on an annual trip to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and Central Australia to meet the ‘masters’: Rover Thomas, Jack Britain, Queenie McKenzie, Michael Nelson and others.3

His doctoral research at RMIT in the late nineties enabled him to carry out research into the proposal, in the 1930s, to establish a Jewish settlement in the Kimberley region. A debate ensued but the proposal was finally defeated in 1942, not before the level of prejudice in Australian society against ‘aliens’ had been revealed. The irony, as Mazjner points out is that to provide a sanctuary for one dispossessed race caused by Nazism in Europe, the Jews, another, the Kija tribe would have in turn, to have been displaced from their land. The body of work, Wounded – Land, Memory, Destiny addresses the, “the dispossession of Aboriginal populations, migration as a major reality of European Australia, anti-Semitism both historically and currently, landscape traditions in Australia – both black and European – but my main aim was to re-establish Australian art (painting and drawing in particular) as no longer being possible to represent this country as a romantic wish fulfilment of our European origins but as a complex, politically charged, full of unresolved issues vis-à-vis our indigenous inhabitants, new migrants and the politics of power”.4

It was according to Majzner, in 1977 when he visited the Rothko Interdenominational Chapel in Houston, Texas, that he encountered his first experience of art that provided a direct contact with the Divine, his “first Jewish spiritual experience”. He recalls, “I felt that I was being transported out of myself. I must have been there for hours on my own.  Rothko’s paintings were the perfect vehicle for [an] amazing lightshow brushing across them. Perhaps it was the light that tripped me out? Perhaps the silence in this space was taking on a physicality? In retrospect, it sounds like a Hollywood cliché but the paintings, the simplicity of the space, and the varying degrees of greyness/nothingness in this enclosure made me conscious of powers outside of my immediate control…. I always had a strong sense of Jewish identity based on my secular, humanistic upbringing but from that day Jewish subject matter and spiritual content started to enter my paintings”.5

When I first met Victor Majzner in 1987, I was researching The Testing Ground, Pastel in Australia. He had been part of an exhibition with two other artists, at the National Gallery of Victoria: Colour and Transparency: the watercolours of Lesley Dumbrell, Robert Jacks, Victor Majzner (22 February – 27 April 1986). That exhibition had focussed on another body of small works, linking them to his interest in book illustrations from his childhood and to “the sense of fantasy contained in the stories, their encoded moralizing and simple narration”. Irena Zdanowicz observed then, “All these factors have facilitated the disclosure of personal, at times autobiographical concerns in his painting during a period which has sanctioned the re-admission of figuration and expressiveness”.6 In relation to Painting the Torah, the ‘process’ of working in pastel and the watercolours produced in the 1980s and his drawn images for Wounded – Land, Memory, Destiny, (2004) are all extremely important.

The question of his Jewish identity has been a preoccupation for Victor Majzner since he became aware of world art. The Jewish religion has traditionally opposed the visualisation of their faith. The second of the Ten Commandments states, “You shall not make for yourself graven images, nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water beneath the earth”. There are numerous references in the Torah to the danger of the visual medium. The story of the Golden Calf is an example of how the Jewish nation descended into idol worship within a matter of days of divine revelation at Mount Sinai. The revelation was so powerful that the Jewish people perceived a visual manifestation of spiritual forces: “The heavens opened and the Jews observed a glorious heavenly chariot with faces – a lion, an ox, an eagle and a man – on each of its four sides”. Moses had apparently abandoned them for almost 40 days. The Jews took The Golden Calf as the visual intermediary to God, so that when Moses returned he was horrified and angry to see such idolatry that he smashed the tablets from God. Dovid Tsap, teacher of Jewish mysticism, in his Foreword to Painting the Torah offers an explanation for Jewish anxiety and distrust over images: “Tragically, the Jews’ over-attachment to their creation eclipses and replaces their attachment to G-d. The powerful visual experience, which had led the Jewish people to G-d, ultimately leads them away. The sin, effectively, is one of perspective: confusing mere emanations of G-dliness for G-d himself; confusing the tool with the essence”. Tsap also points out that as Jews, approaching Majzner’s work, Painting the Torah, “one might ask whether painting and Torah are not perhaps mutually exclusive of each other. Is art and Torah compatible – and according to Torah guidelines – even permissible?”7

Profoundly aware of the Jewish prohibition of art, in historical terms, Majzner set about to work with Jewish scholars to achieve a balance between the Jewish faith and individual experience. Tsap observes, “The harmonious composition of diverse dimensions and qualities as seen in Majzner’s images of Torah allude to th[e] quality of song. In Majzner’s paintings one can perceive profound meaning and vivid depiction, the abstract and the realistic, revelation and concealment, ancient tradition and contemporary relevance”.8 Indeed Painting the Torah is not only an exquisite publication, it is also a deeply moving expression of an individual’s life and faith. After his Rothko experience, Majzner engaged in the study of Jewish history from cultural, socio-political and religious points of view. He also embarked on a study of Torah, “This brought all my other Jewish interests into a cohesive focus. Through Torah, I understood my Jewish self”.9

Majzner recalls feeling continuously disappointed, yet not surprised, by the lack of Jewish concepts and/or images in the official history of art, “while Jewish culture made a significant contribution to that Art of the past 2000 years”. Majzner decided to “make a little space for myself within it”.10 During the 1970s and 1980s he used Jewish references in the titles of many of his paintings, as a way of exposing his cultural background. In the 1990s he and his son Andrew (who designed the new volume) collaborated on the Australian Haggadah. He also made many other paintings that dealt specifically with Jewish concepts. As his confidence grew he contemplated painting the entire Torah. Although it was a daunting prospect, Majzner was encouraged - by the lines in Deuteronomy, 30:11–14, “it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven.. Nor is it across the sea… Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it”.11 Majzner took this as a challenge. He explains his fascination and excitement for the text and the adventure of discovering the many levels of meaning: “The more one studies it, the more it reveals. The more one learns from it, the more one appreciates the fact that there is no limit to the depth of its content and inspiration. Just as it is impossible to ever reach a total knowing of the Torah so it stands to reason that it’s impossible to ever do complete justice to it visually. I knew that to paint images of the Torah could be a difficult and perhaps even a dangerous task. The danger was that the mere idea of visualising some aspects of it would create possible philosophical difficulties for some people. I took heart in the fact that the Torah inspired some of the most memorable images of Art by some of the greatest artists like: Giotto, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Gauguin and others. I was excited by the thought of playing in the same playground as these artistic heroes of mine, but with Jewish content and from a uniquely Jewish perspective”.12

Majzner chose to base his paintings of the Torah on purely Jewish sources and concepts. He was learning the Torah from different perspectives – literal, interpretative, and mystical. He wanted to bring all three together. Given the absence of a Jewish visual tradition, Majzner felt remarkably free “to straddle across all levels of interpretation, all styles of representation and all known modes of visualisation. The fact that my paintings looked distinctly different from images of Torah painted by non-Jewish artists became a source of pride and achievement for me, although it often felt a bit lonely.”13 Majzner had lived in Australia for 50 years when he published his interpretation of the Torah. Any European migrant to Australia struggles to accept the alien landscape; the history of Australian art has as a sub-text the European interpretation of the strange landscape there. Majzner found abstract art easier to identify with, as a young artist, but over the decades he has absorbed the lessons of the Australian landscape tradition, the colours, the creatures that inhabit it. The landscapes of Majzner’s Torah paintings are imbued with the Australian landscape itself, and also with the inclusion of flowers (such as the Desert Sturt Pea in Hayei Sarah) or animals (such as the Tasmanian Devil, wombat, amongst others in Bereishit) or a reference to Aboriginal aerial view mapping (as in Lech Lecha and Masay). The purely artistic considerations of style and imagery co-exist with the artist’s personal spiritual quest in Painting the Torah. He describes particular episodes, which he has illustrated, in so far as an imaginative interpretation can ever be an illustration.

Vayishlach (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) is an episode made familiar in art through Paul Gauguin’s famous painting of the same title. Majzner explains the significance of the episode “Jacob wrestled with the Angel all night; God changes Jacob’s name to Israel (this is the derivation of the name of the Jewish people and the country Israel). One meaning or interpretation of the Hebrew word Israel is that Jacob wrestled with the divine and conquered and thus survived. References to the festival of Succot, where the Jewish people are commanded to build temporary dwellings outside, where the stars can be seen through a palm leafed roof and where they have their meals for seven days, refer to the temporary dwellings made in the desert during the Exodus”.14 The significance, Majzner points out, lies in Jacob’s wrestling with the divine and achieving a level of spiritual awareness, experienced by only the few. The episode reminds Jews to keep their feet firmly on the ground mindful of the hardship of Exodus and the miraculous survival for 40 years. The constant connection between the spiritual and the earthly is the basis of Judaism. A striking aspect of all of the paintings in the Torah, are their intense colour. Majzner’s watercolours of the eighties, share the purity and symbolic power of the Torah paintings.

Ki Tisa is a particularly powerful image. Citing Bob Dylan, Everything is Broken, as well as the Torah, Majzner presents the story of the Golden Calf, an image also well known in Australia, due to Arthur Boyd’s painting The Golden Calf (1946), and other works inspired by the stories from the Old Testament such as Moses throwing down the Tables of the Law (1946) in which he warned of false idolatry and the worship of Mammon. Majzner explains, “the first tablets of the Ten Commandments were written by God while Moses was on Mount Sinai. The letters were carved, through the rock, and held miraculously in place. You could see through the rock, around these letters. Biblical Hebrew is regarded as a sacred language, part of God (so to speak) so when Moses smashes the two tablets on the ground, the letters go back to God and ascend to heaven. The second set of tablets were written/carved by Moses into the rock”.15

Painting the Torah took Victor Majzner six years to complete. He took the words from Deuteronomy (31:19) that each individual Jew should take the Torah and write it for himself: “So now write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel, place it in their mouths”. Majzner took the view that he was not a scribe, but a painter, and therefore his Torah would have to be painted, and that it would be a personal celebration of the Word. This is a visually exciting artist’s book that draws together disparate aspects of spirituality in a complex age,16with a plethora of influences from childhood picture books, to Abstract Expressionism and the Australian landscape. Majzner engages with the processes of art making and an intellectual dialogue with exceptional integrity.

References
1. Irena Zdanowicz, “Victor Majzner” in Colour and Transparency: the watercolours of Lesley Dumbrell, Robert Jacks and Victor Majzner, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 22 February–27 April 1986, p. 49.
2. Interview Melbourne, 1987.
3. Email 19 March 2009.
4. Victor Majzner, Wounded – Land, Memory, Destiny, Glen Eira Council Gallery, Melbourne, 14 October–7 November 2004.
5. Victor Majzner, “A Personal Journey”, Painting the Torah, Melbourne, (2008), p.10.
6. Zdanowicz, op.cit., p.49.
7. Dovid Tsap, “Victor Majzner, Painting the Torah”, op.cit., p.6.
8. Ibid, p.6.
9. Ibid, p.10.
10. Lecture, “Painting the Torah” Melbourne August 2008.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Email, 10 April 2009.
15. Email, 10 April 2009.
16. Cindi Di Marzo, “Wrestling with the Angel in the Modern Age: Biblical Art in a Secular Century: Selections, 1896-1993”, Museum of Biblical Art, New York, 14 December 2006–11 March 2007, Studio International, www.studio–international.co.uk.