Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Question & Answer With Shoshannah Brombacher - Painting, Chassidic Stories, & Classical Music

A Simple Jew asks:

You have written that the main ingredients for your art include Chassidic stories and classical music. After painting such works as "Bach and the Sefirot", you obviously envision that these two worlds intersect at times. How do you think your artwork would be affected if you concentrated on only one of these elements to the exclusion of the other?

Shoshannah Brombacher answers:

Do I combine the two, like in my painting Bach and the Sefirot? Sure I do! Could I separate the two by make paintings that are ‘just’ Chassidic or ‘just ‘about music? I guess I could do that too. But until now, I did not really try it, and I am not planning to do that. It is not worth it for me. And it would take away the essence of my work. Let me explain.

While I am painting, I usually listen to classical music. I have been doing this since I can remember, when I was still living in my parents’ house in Holland. I grew up with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Baroque music and opera. We went to concerts. Of all the musical genres, I still like classical music the most. At University I spent a hefty part of my monthly stipend on a subscription to a series of classical piano performances by Alfred Brendel. That’s how important music is to me. Kosher food for Pesach (expensive here, but a fortune in Europe during the ‘80s), took another hefty piece out of those stipends. What was left over, was spent on books.

Most of my drawings have Jewish subjects. My heart is in that, and those subjects are on my mind, because I live them and study them. So, the classical music which I hear all the time in my mind and my aesthetic emotions are connected to the Jewish stories I read. When I made this drawing: Bach and the Sefirot, I had just attended a lecture about Sefirot, and had also recently met with a friend from Europe and talked about Bach. I listened to Bach’s music in my studio. The resulting artwork, which was inspired by both the lecture and Bach’s music, was presented to my European friend as a gift.

Another example is a Mozart drawing I made long ago during the ‘80s in Holland: The composer sits at the piano, and plays one of his beautiful piano concertos. In the background is a Dutch shul, in the top right corner a Seder, and the collage in the middle contains fragments of poems by the 17th century Sephardic poet, Rabbi Selomoh d’Oliveyra of Amsterdam. My father came into the room when I was making this, and asked me what I was doing. The Seder he understood, it was right before Pesach; the poetry he understood, because I was writing an article about that. But what, he asked, did Mozart, a gentile composer from Austria of all places, have to do with it?

For me, they all belonged to what I was occupied with at that time: Pesach, the shul, the poetry of Rabbi d’Oliveyra and the music I listened to, in this case: Mozart. I do not like to paint composers without my own elements in the drawing, without adding what is important for me. The lives of composers are much less inspiring to me than those of le-havdil, Chassidic rabbis. So when I make a portrait of a composer, I add scenes of cities where I lived or where I attended concerts, read books and thought thoughts, Chassidic stories, or experiences I had. Beethoven and Shabbos candles on the same canvas are very normal to me. Compare it to the niggunim, which were often derived from secular songs, like the Kalever niggun which was sung by Hungarian shepherds when the Kalever Rebbe heard it for the first time:

Niggunim express the soul, and so does music express my soul when I paint. I often listen to Breslover niggunim, or to compositions by Lewandowsky, but also to the cello sonatas of Brahms, or to Moscheles.

Some music will be forever connected to certain books or subjects in my mind. For instance, my mother had a record with the violin concertos of Mendelssohn and Bruch. They are beautiful. They are deeply emotional. I listened to it over and over while I was reading the story of the “Golem of Prague”, and later I made this painting:

I put a violin in it, which represents the music of Mendelssohn, even though the stories of the Golem which I read did not deal with music, or with Mendelssohn, or with violins for that matter. Years later I visited Prague, and I kept hearing the violin music in my head. Many of my Jewish paintings show violins or pianos. They accompany me wherever I go.

These three works: Bach and the Sefirot, Mozart, and The Golem are examples of a Jewish theme with classical music in it. Sometimes, I compose ‘pure’ music paintings, usually based on a certain composer, like Beethoven. Do they contain ‘Yiddishkeit’? Some do, and some don’t, as this is a rather subjective subject. I give you an example.

I created the following oil painting in behalf a fundraising auction for the Children’s Hearing Institute in New York City. Our son was born deaf. He uses a cochlear implant and B”H, excels academically in an Orthodox Yeshiva. He delivered a very meaningful and beautiful Bar Mitzvah speech a year ago and layned his parsha. If you hear him, you cannot tell that he is deaf. He enjoys listening to the cello sonatas of Bach and klezmer music, and to Beethoven. Soon after receiving his cochlear implant, our son required several years of intensive auditory training and speech therapy, which required me me to pick him up from school, bring him to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn, several times a week. I did not paint much then. There just wasn’t any time. But I never stopped thinking about painting.

His cochlear implant surgeon is the founder of this charitable institute. The choice for a painting was easy: Beethoven was a great composer, and he became deaf nearly two centuries before the idea of cochlear implants even existed. It must have been a painful disaster for him. He composed in his head. His famous Ninth Symphony he wrote, but never was able to hear it himself. He did not have the possibilities our son Yoni and thousands of others have. I called the work “The Spiral of Sound”, based on the shape of the cochlea in the ear and the growing amount of sounds an implanted person is able to hear. I also thought about my own situation: I do not hear well, it is getting worse, I would dearly miss my music, and that would affect my art. But in the worst (or best!) case I get a cochlear implant, too, and won’t have to miss a note from the Brandenburger Concertos.

There are no clear and obvious Jewish elements in this painting. But people who are familiar my work, will recognize the ‘water and fire’ which I use often, since in Gemara they are said to be the two components of heaven. They will also recognize my use of the four elements and the bridge (“Gesher Tzar Me’od”) which I include in much of my work. The musicians have ‘Jewish’ features and postures. Of course, this is open to everyone’s personal interpretation, but I heard it often. The “dancing mal’akhim”, are some of the same elements of this painting that appear in my major ‘Jewish’ works as well, such as the “Breslover Tikkun” (posted earlier on this blog), for which this was a sketch:

This painting is very representative for my style, but not for my subject matter, which is very ‘Jewish’.

I said earlier that I hear music in my head while I paint Jewish (or any other) subjects. But the reverse is also true. While I hear Beethoven, I think of Jewish subjects. I even wondered about the Three Weeks: I refrain from listening to music (difficult, yes! But what can you do?) but the music in my head keeps coming to me. Is that bad?

Let me make a final remark. It is very important for an artist to be in the right state of mind while working. You can compare it to davening; just going through the motions leads you nowhere. Painting for me is davening. I need concentration and I need devekut. I also need ‘hitbodedut’ with my subject. I have to be careful what I read or study or see, with whom I talks (and about what!), it all influences me. I cannot paint well, when people are around, the phone is ringing and household chores distract me. The following pastel I made on a recent Friday morning.

All the Shabbes food was already cooked. The house was ready. I went to my studio, a garage about 4 minutes walking distance away from my apartment which wonderful friends let me use for my bigger works, thinking about food, and groceries, and guests. But as soon as I was alone there, and locked the door behind me and stood in front of a blank piece of sketching paper, my inspiration came. Shabbos was coming, so were the angels, the Mal’akhe Ha-Sharet, Mal’akhe Ha-Shalom in the song. When I see a white piece of paper I see colors, and I hear a melody. I sang the song. I started drawing. Then I stopped singing and put on the little radio I keep in my studio that played Baroque music. I got totally wrapped up in my work, with so much hitlahavut that you could hear the wings of the angels. I forgot the time. The flames came into the drawing, in bright red and deep blue and warm yellow. Only after the drawing was finished I woke up, and packed up my stuff, locked up for Shabbos, and went home to take care of the last preparations.

At home I think rationally, pay bills, wash dishes, help with homework and listen to music. For me painting and music are inseparable. So could I work on totally separate Jewish paintings and separate music paintings? I don’t thinks so. You don’t split yourself.

There is much more to say about this subject: about Jewish and non-Jewish composers, secular music and chazanut or klezmer, the reason why artists paint certain subjects, etc. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a commission and needing the money to buy food and paying for a few children’s yeshiva tuitions. So if they ask for a Beethoven, you paint a Beethoven. I am curious to hear your opinion about this.


At January 23, 2008 at 11:59:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Shoshannah, I've been an admirer of your paintings ever since I first encountered them on ASJ's blog. In fact, I usually copy/paste them to a file on my hard drive so that I can enjoy them whenever I need a little inspiration!

There have been discussions, here and elsewhere, about the propriety of listening to secular music from gentile composers and performers. I think your paintings prove the point that the artist can find the essence of beauty and truth in anything and can transform it to reflect his or her own spiritual ideals.

I am interested in knowing why you often utilize a palette of deep primary colors (I have to add that, although these colors are "primary," your use of them is quite variegated and complex). Do these colors express consistency with the tradition of Judaica, are the colors symbolic, or do you tend to "see" the world in terms of red, blue, and yellow?

Also, what do fishes represent in your works?

At January 23, 2008 at 12:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! The colors are dazzling. You won't be the first or the last artist who is inspired by music.
After crossing the Reed Sea, that powerful experienced inspired "Oz Yashir" and I'm sure that musical experience inspired others to other inspiring experiences.

a (not-so-simple) simple Jew

At January 23, 2008 at 1:03:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FANTASTIC interview. Please bring Shoshana back to discuss the other topics mentioned.
R'Oliveyra, Yehuda HaLevi, Ibn Ezra, Bach, Mozart, Mendelsohn...such muses!

At January 23, 2008 at 1:59:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting background information about your vivacious surrealistic paintings. I was listening to Pablo Casal's play Bach's compositions for solo cello when I visited ASJ and read your posting. The music and the art made a good combination!

At January 23, 2008 at 3:34:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The interview was very interesting because I learned more about you and how you work. The paintings were luminous--like stained glass.

At January 24, 2008 at 11:59:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was wrong of me to cite the rabbeim/poets and composers as muses rather than HKBH.

At January 24, 2008 at 2:05:00 PM EST, Blogger Alice said...

Fascinating! I'm crazy about your art work. You are seriously talented.

At January 25, 2008 at 12:45:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a great deal to say on the role music plays as both a physical and a spiritual entity. I hope to address it on the next instllment of my serieis on Physical and Spiritual on

At January 27, 2008 at 2:38:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A gut wokh to all!!

To ASJ: Thank you for asking this question, I had to think about some of my motives and write them down, that is always good! I really enjoy this blog!

To Shoshana: Thank you for your kind words! Yes, an artist can find beauty in anything. Sometimes a painter sees a heap of scrap metal, considered an eyesore by most, and admires the shape or the contrast with the sky or the background, or the color of it, and is inspired to make a great painting, and not about a heap of scrap metal. There can be beauty in the shape of the leg of a chair, a shadow, the color of and egg etc. It is all in the eye of the beholder, and HaShem gave us this beautiful world full if things to see, if you open your eyes, and all those sounds and music to hear, and silence too. But I think indeed that you filter what you see or hear through your own ideas or ideologies. So I will hear Beethoven differently than -let's say- a secular American accountant. We both love it, but for me it is connected to and leads to more Yiddishkayt. For him that is not the case. My associations with music lead to Yiddishkayt, and I think it is therefore only good and important to listens to it. It stirs my soul. And to answer your second question: yes, I see the world in deep colors. Motzay shabbos, for instance, is deep blue for me: I remember the deep blue summer sky I saw from my attic window in my parents' home, shabbos is deep yellow, the glow of the candles reflected on a white table cloth, and a bunch of red gladiolas in a vase on the table. My colors are what you see in my work. I do not cultivate it, this is how I really see things. They come to me. Monet saw the world in tender purple. I like blue, and red.

The fish in my work has many meanings. The easiest one is my connection to Holland, I loved to sit at the canals and watch the silvery fish go back and forth in the greenish water, see them disappear in the deep, play with specks of sunlight on the surface, always changing. There I learned to paint fish, they are fascinating. That is not enough for me to show them so often. Fish also represent agility and creativity. I think of the story of the fox at the bank of the rivers and the fish who refused to come out when the fisherman came, because he can't live on land. In the same way a Jew (the fish) must have Torah and immerse himself in it (the water). The fish also reminds us of the watchful eye of HaShem (as in lo yanum we-lo yishan shomer yisroel, Teh. 121): a fish never closes it's eyes, even when it rests. There are more reasons, some specifically connected to one painting, but this gives you and idea.

To Avrom: Thank you!! I did paint the splitting of the Sea, and with music. It is connected!

To Anonymous: The more muses, the better. And of course those muses are created and inspired by HaShem who is the ultimate inspiration! One thing is really bad for my art: to stop reading and studying. I need my muses, and I cannot 'just' rely on my memory, even though I have many experiences and read books. I need to daven and to study, every day. Compare it to how we read the weekly parsha, year after year, you don't study it once and say that now 'you know the story'. And every year it is new for me, I learn more, get new ideas and inspiration.

To Rabbi Sears: Pablo Casals is great, I agree, and so is Bach. There is a lot written in our tradition about music: is it good or bad to listen, etc., but in our time we deal with a whole new phenomenon: most music is accessible to most people most of the time (on CD, cassette), that never happened before in history! And I thank HaShem I live now.

to Avakesh: Please let know when your post comes out, this sounds really interesting!

At February 4, 2008 at 11:02:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please forgive me in advance for asking this question. Your artwork strikes me as being really world class Museum quality. However, some of us and possibly many of us do not have the merit to earn enough parnassah to afford to support or acquire your works. Is there any way that relatively affordable or inexpensive prints or posters might be or become available. Again, thank you in advance for answering.



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