Synchronised dance of words and images

FOUR years ago artist Victor Majzner and writer Deborah Masel completed a book and exhibition entitled Painting the Torah, which featured artwork and poetry about parshot in the Torah.

As Masel browsed through one of the first copies of the book, she excitedly turned to Majzner and asked: “So, what’s next?”

The artist replied: “Why don’t we collaborate on the Song of Songs?”

That marked the start of their second joint effort, Painting the Song, which came to fruition last week with the launch of the book and exhibition of 26 artworks at the Glen Eira City Council Gallery in Caulfield.

Sadly, Masel died in July last year from cancer, aged 54, after making a major contribution to writing, journalism, teaching Jewish spirituality and being involved in two congregations, Hamakom and Shira Hadasha.

She had completed her poetry contribution to Painting the Song, and her book, Soul to Soul, which chronicled her experience with cancer, was published shortly before her death.
Majzner said this week: “We came from different backgrounds but were on the same page for this project. It was our own artistic midrash on the Song of Songs.”

The collaboration took shape, with Majzner creating black-and-white drawings of selected stanzas for Masel to create her poetic responses, which were then incorporated in the paintings.

“At first I was a bit apprehensive that my drawings would not be clear or informative enough for Debbie to respond to,” Majzner recalls.

“After filling up dozens of pages of my sketchbook, I arrived at her house and handed over the photocopies. As it turned out she had no trouble relating to my way of working – in fact, she embraced it totally.

“Within a few days she would email me her poems … original, inventive, playful and mystical, her words gave my images an oral dimension.

“Over the next three years, I would turn up at Debbie’s place every few months with more photocopied drawings, which I would leave with her to go through and she would immediately set to work.

“The more we got to know each other, the more our collaboration became a synchronised dance of words and images,.” he explains

Although Masel became ill soon after starting on the project, she was determined to continue working on it. In fact, it proved cathartic.

Majzner says: “I only learnt recently that she would often lie in bed clutching my photocopied drawings as if to let them metamorphose into her words.”

During the four-year period, Masel made only two visits to Majzner’s studio to see the paintings.

“I would leave her alone in the studio for an hour at a time to contemplate my paintings. These occasions seemed to elevate her spirit. She was very kind with her praise,” he notes.

Majzner, who lives in the Melbourne suburb of Ormond, has been exhibiting since 1971 and is well known for his Australian Haggadah.

He says he was attracted to the Song of Songs because of its earthy eroticism and mystical spirituality. And he wanted to rectify the lack of Jewish biblical art that interprets the Torah.

“I saw myself as something of a Jewish Don Quixote, hoping that perhaps my paintings could pave the way for future Jewish artists,” says Majzner.

“If God didn’t want artists to engage with these ideas, the Torah would not have been so visually inspiring! I hope that my paintings provide a new level of understanding of Torah.”
Majzner hopes that his Painting the Song art will also be exhibited in Sydney.

The Painting the Song exhibition is at the Glen Eira City Council Gallery, cnr Glen Eira and Hawthorn roads, Caulfield until May 27. A limited edition of the Painting the Song book is on sale for $25. Exhibition enquiries: www.gleneira.vic.gov.au.

REPORT: Danny Gocs

PHOTO of artist Victor Majzner. Photo by Peter Haskin