The man who hears colors

Visitors to Barak Nachsholi’s ‘Seeing the Sounds’ – which depicts what goes on in the mind when one listens to music – may be in for a totally new experience.

311_mind on music art (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_mind on music art
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Barak Nachsholi will tell you almost anything you want to know about him. Physically spry and mentally sharp, he has no objection to divulging his age, for example.
“I am 88 years old,” he says, with a genial smile. “Most people my age are living in homes for the aged. I prefer to paint.”
What Nachsholi will not tell you, however, is his original name. His smile fades as he says, “I have wanted very much to forget my original name.
“ I was born in Berlin and I lived there when the Nazis took over, and afterward. I had many bad experiences there and I want to forget everything that was in Germany besides my family, my Jewish Zionistic school where I studied, and my close friends. Besides that, I have wanted forget everything that Germany was since the day I made aliya.”
Nachsholi, however, has not forgotten his childhood in Berlin, and how he was drawn inexorably to a life of art.
“I was a very shy child,” he recalls. “It was very difficult for me to express myself verbally, but I found that I could express myself through painting. And I painted from the age of around 10 or 11. At the same time, I studied to play the piano – like every Jewish child from a nice Jewish family. At the age of 13, I told my parents that I could not dance at two weddings; that I could not paint and play the piano. And that I wanted to paint.”
As fate would have it, Nachsholi wanted to paint at precisely the time that the Weimar Republic was coming to an end and the Nazis were coming to power. It wasn’t long before the sheltered child was forced to deal daily with the rapidly worsening conditions for Jews in Berlin.
As Nachsholi remembers those days, many things seemed to change for the worse overnight.
“I went first to the Schliemann Gymnasium, where life became very harsh for me. I was there when the Nazis came to power. A new principal was appointed, who came to school in an SS uniform. And all the youngsters who were studying there together with me, who had been more or less friendly to me, were now wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth and behaving to me with open hostility.”
As one door slammed shut, however, another one swung open, leading Nachsholi to a better school and his first intensive instruction in art.
“My parents sent me over to the Theodor Herzl School, run by the Zionist Federation of Germany, and there I had an art teacher who was very nice and became a big influence on me. She saw what I was creating out of my imagination, and she volunteered to teach me. So she taught me in private lessons for two years.
“Then she said she had no more to teach me, and that I had to move on to a professional painter. She sent me on to Hans Michaelson, an outstanding artist – not quite abstract, but with a very strong and interesting style.”
One would hardly expect a budding young artist to learn and develop under the tightly controlled culture of Hitler’s Germany, but Nachsholi did develop as an artist in spite of the Nazis’ most concerted efforts. His smile broadens as he relates what must be one of the most ironic stories in the history of contemporary art.
“In Nazi Germany, I became acquainted with the Cubist group of artists, and with the German Expressionists. They both made a great impression on me.
“HOW DID I encounter such art in Nazi Germany? Well, aside from seeing art books, very surprisingly there was an exhibition in 1937, organized by the Nazis, entitled ‘Degenerate Art.’ It was designed to display the ‘sick’ and ‘inferior’ works of Jewish and ‘Bolshevist’ artists.
“I told my parents that I wanted to go to the exhibition, and there I saw the art of Paul Klee, Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and all the German expressionists. And the Nazis, of course, had big posters all over the exhibition shouting against the decadent, degenerate Jewish art. But I was deeply impressed.”
The viciousness of the Nazi posters inside the exhibition hall was a clear reflection of the growing danger to Jews outside in the streets. Nachsholi says, “To this day, I cannot understand how my parents could have allowed me to go [to the exhibit] by myself, at age 14, just because I said I wanted to go. Conditions in Germany were already quite dangerous for a Jewish boy. In our neighborhood, a band of Nazis had already murdered a Jewish boy and left his body on the sidewalk.”
It was quite evidently time to leave. Having studied in a high school that taught the values of pioneer Zionism – and having become a member of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement – Nachsholi had no doubts about where he wanted to go.
“I left Germany and made aliya in 1938, at the age of 15. I left my parents behind. I regretted this very much; but on the other hand, I was very happy to fulfill my desire to go to Eretz Yisrael to live on a kibbutz and to be a farmer. My family succeeded in making aliya one year after me, in 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War.”
The young immigrant arrived in Mandatory Palestine with Youth Aliya, and lived for two years with a “Hevrat Noar” group on Kibbutz Merhavia, in the Jezreel Valley. The group of youths were then moved to Kibbutz Negba, in the northern Negev, for a period of intensive training before finally settling on Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz, near Acre. Nachsholi lived there for the next 15 years.
Nachsholi may have left many things behind in Germany when he made aliya, but not his commitment to art.
“When I arrived at Kibbutz Merhavia, I continued to paint – after studying, and after my work. There was a sink next to the building where I worked. Water from the sink was dripping onto the ground, and the ground was a sort of nice clay. I took some of this and made several sculptures, mostly heads.
“I had never studied sculpture, but I just went ahead and did it.”
As he was making these sculptures, the young immigrant from Germany also made himself a new name. He took his inspiration from the word barak, meaning lightning, and nachshol, a wave from the sea. Each name, says Nachsholi today, with the eye of an artist, both offsets and completes the other – one straight, sharp and linear; the other “round and curvy.”
Time passed and conditions became more difficult, but Nachsholi remained compulsive about creating art.
“In the year 1946, it was a difficult situation here with the British. I volunteered to serve in the Palmah. We had hard training, but in the evenings I was able to paint and draw a bit also.
“In Jerusalem, there were two outstanding art teachers. I told my commander that I would like to have lessons from those teachers, and he said OK. One of these teachers was Rudi Lehman, the sculptor.
“Lehman asked me, ‘So, how are you going to pay for your lessons? Do you have any money?’ “I was a member of a kibbutz. From where would I have money? I had no money. He asked me, ‘So what do you have?’ I had rations for cigarettes. He said, ‘That’s fine. One lesson, one pack of cigarettes.’ And so I managed to have lessons with Rudi Lehman, which were amazing.”
Nachsholi also had lessons with Mordecai Ardon, for which he was able to gather a little money.
Then came 1948, and the War of Independence. Nachsholi recalls: “We were all very patriotic. We had no choice – we had to defend ourselves against all the Arab states that were attacking our new State of Israel.
“I was in the artillery, in intelligence. My job was to deal with aerial photographs. It was an amazing experience for me because I had to look at two photographs together with a stereoscope, in order to try to see the enemy’s strength and positions. The stereoscope made the hills appear like big mountains, and the valleys like deep wadis. It was a very exciting experience for me.”
ONE DAY, Nachsholi fell ill with a high fever and was sent to an IDF field hospital. There, he met a young nurse named Shoshana who was serving in the medical corps. The two were soon married, in army uniforms, in the midst of the war.
“After the war, we went to my kibbutz, Ein Hamifratz, and lived there for a couple of years. In 1953, we moved to Jerusalem, and there I studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. I studied there for four years, and this gave me the knowledge and inspiration to work in art. After my studies, we moved to Holon, where our daughter Hagit was born in 1959.
“I had to make a living out of something other than pure art. So I worked full-time as a graphic designer, doing some painting on the side.”
The years passed quietly until Shoshana became seriously ill. “Her situation became progressively worse, until she passed away in 1986.”
A year later, Nachsholi met artist Rachel Gordin, who had also been recently widowed.
“We met through art,” Nachsholi says, “and the two of us have been together ever since.”
The death of his first wife set off a virtual revolution in Nachsholi’s life.
“When I was together with my wife Shoshana and our daughter Hagit, and I had to make a living. I painted a little bit, but my art was really simmering on a low fire.
After my wife died and I became acquainted with Rachel, the low fire burst up into a large, strong flame.”
This “flame” ignited a creative outburst of paintings, encompassing several different periods of work. They have included lengthy explorations of desert landscapes, urban landscapes, biblical themes, mirror images, and aerial views.
For his series of aerial views, Nachsholi found himself drawing from a deep well in his mind, filled with the long-forgotten images of the aerial photography he had viewed through a stereoscope during the War of Independence.
Nachsholi created prolifically and exhibited his paintings in numerous one-man shows in Israel, throughout Europe, and the United States.
Then came the second intifada.
“The times upset me very deeply,” he recalls, “and I found that I could no longer go on making ‘beautiful’ paintings. I felt I had to do something else. I took newspaper clippings that reflected the horrors of the time, enlarged them on a photocopier, pasted them onto large sheets of brown packing paper, and then painted on them in somber colors. On each painting I wrote in blood red: ‘It’s the same blood,’ in both Hebrew and Arabic.
“In this way I expressed my protest against the violence and my desire for peace. Afterwards, I also participated in projects for peace.”
The intifada not only exerted an influence on what Nachsholi painted; it changed the very manner in which he painted.
“When I was producing the series of paintings to express my revulsion against violence and war, I started to stick newspaper clippings onto packing paper.
Since that time, the newspaper clippings have stuck to me. I have been sticking newspapers to canvas, or wrapping paper directly on the canvas or wrapping paper, and then painting on it – right down to the present day. Almost all of my work is done this way.
It gives me the structural shapes and outlines of a newspaper, and sometimes – not always – what is written in the newspaper becomes a faint part of the painting as well. All but one of the paintings in my current exhibition are made this way.”
Visitors to Nachsholi’s current exhibition are being treated to paintings that may well be unlike anything they have ever seen before. Called “Seeing the Sounds,” the exhibition features an array of paintings that attempt to depict what goes on in the mind when one listens to music. The result of more than four years of constant work, “Seeing the Sounds” has already attracted considerable attention, both here and abroad.
“All this was a very big surprise to me,” Nachsholi declares. “I never suspected that I would ever be able to paint music. Of course, some aspect of music was always in the background of my paintings, but only in the background. Something happened.”
What happened was a meeting of the minds between Nachsholi and his close friend Zvi Avni, world-renowned composer and winner of the Israel Prize for music.
“Prof. Avni invited me and three other painters to a workshop in front of an audience. He said to us, ‘I will now play you some music, and you will please paint your impression of what you hear.’ “I made some doodles – nothing very ingenious.
But when I held them up to the audience, the audience applauded. I have no idea why. What I drew was not worth the applause. Anyway, I forgot about it for months. But I’m listening to music from morning to night – especially when I paint. I listen mostly to Baroque, pre-Baroque, and contemporary orchestral music.
“And one day, I had no idea what I was painting, just something on a big canvas. I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I’m painting the music of Edgard Varese!’ “From that moment on, it began to flow, one after the other, a series of 65 paintings called “Tributes to Composers.”
HAVING EXPLORED the subject of composers to his satisfaction, Nachsholi then attempted to make new music paintings that sprang purely from his own imagination.
The resulting series of paintings, “Seeing the Sounds,” for which the whole exhibition has been named, perhaps comprise Nachsholi’s most ambitious undertaking to date.
“I borrowed the title from the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where it says ‘And all the people saw the voices.’” Building on themes he began with his visual representations of the works of different composers, Nachsholi now more aggressively attempts to portray the emotions, physical sensations and visual images that he experiences when listening to specific pieces of music.
In short, he is producing visual representations of what he hears and feels. These representations, it must be noted, are not painted images from something one might see on MTV, but rather purely abstract – the most uncompromisingly abstract work that Nachsholi has ever produced.
So, how exactly does an artist paint music? Walking through the exhibition, we stop at the painting Homage to Edgard Varese. Gazing at the shapes and colors, we ask, “How is this Edgard Varese?” Nachsholi smiles and replies, “I paint according to my feelings. I’m listening to the music, hear something rising here, some very special movement there, and I respond to this with my painting. It’s done completely emotionally.”
The current exhibition, consisting of paintings from both “Tributes to Composers” and “Seeing the Sounds,” is curated by none other than Zvi Avni himself. The relationship between music and art – the ability to “hear the colors and see the sounds” – has long been an area of particular interest for Avni.
Like Nachsholi, Avni also had a German boyhood heavily laden with both art and music. And, also like Nachsholi, Avni decided he had to make a choice between the two. Avni, however, chose music instead of art.
He recalls: “When I was younger, I was really wondering which way I should go, because I couldn’t go both ways. I chose music, but I painted a lot when I was young. The relationship between music and art has fascinated me ever since.”
Most feature stories about artists end on an upbeat note, and this one will also.
Nachsholi was diagnosed with incurable bone cancer around two years ago. He receives regular chemotherapy treatment, remains physically active, displays a positive attitude and, most importantly, continues to paint each and every day.
“I have cancer,” he says, “but I ignore it. I absolutely ignore it and continue to paint.”
In a recent film retrospective, the artist assures his audience that the movie, containing the full story of his life and works to date, is merely an interim summation, “as I continue to work vigorously at full scale.”
Nachsholi promises many more paintings, and more exhibitions to come.
“Seeing the Sounds” is showing at Beit Dundikov in Rehovot until September 21.