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The Artist Was a Spy: Operation Finale 14

Gail Sachson, guest blogger, owns ASK ME ABOUT ART, offering lectures, tours and writings about the art world.

Sometimes movies only paint half the picture. The recent film Operation Finaletells the riveting story of the capture and extraction of  Holocaust mastermind, Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, but leaves out the role that art played in the picture..

The movie tells us of the brazen, unflinching exploits of Peter Malkin, Israeli Secret Service agent, who overpowered, captured, connived and cajoled Eichmann. Malkin has been credited with the Nazi’s capture and eventual return to Israel to stand trial, which he did, and where he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and hung a year later.

The film, however,  takes little notice of how art helped Malkin survive and succeed as an agent and spy for the 27 years he was in the Mossad, Israel’s Secret Service.  Other than for a few confusing shots of anonymous hands painting, it ignores the fact that Peter Malkin led a double life. He was both an artist and an agent.

I am especially sensitive to the omission because, in 2000, I was fortunate to meet Malkin when the Dallas Holocaust Center (now the Dallas Holocaust & Human Rights Museum), sponsored an exhibit of his paintings. (Malkin died in 2005) He was engaging and dynamic. He spoke then of the inspirations for his artwork and the necessity for a spy to have a cover.  Art was his cover.

“The life of a spy is a deception,” he said. “When you are on a mission, you have to decide who you are- a painter, teacher, inventor, shoemaker. Every moment, every action has to have a cover story.”

Why a painter? “A painter is the best cover you can have. For me, it seems to have come naturally. I met a lot of painters. I studied their techniques. If somebody was following me, he’d see me in an art bookstore, or a church, looking at an icon or museum.”

Although Malkin had no formal training, he pursued art-making seriously since his teenage years, and as an agent, took lessons when able- anonymously. He painted at night. Mostly in churches while on assignment.  “Churches have always been the best refuges for an agent,” he wrote. “No one bothers him.” He painted on what was available and inconspicuous- guidebooks, maps, and newspapers.

Influenced by the styles of  Rouault, Matisse, and Picasso, Malkin painted his memories and memorable moments of watching people on the streets.  He painted portraits of family members lost in the Holocaust. He painted street scenes, streetwalkers and still-lifes. Using the makeup pencils he brought to Argentina for disguise work, he painted Eichmann’s portrait over and over again.

Malkin was brave, burly and brash (unlike the soft-spoken hero portrayed in the film). His colors were bold and commanding as well. Red, yellow and turquoise dominate. The figures are boldly outlined in black. The black eyes are emotionless; the mouths joyless and the skin chalk-like. The memories and interactions he could not share as a spy were his subject. Painting was his release and also a way to keep a record since journaling was forbidden.

After living a double life for years, Peter Malkin retired as Chief of Operations from Mossad in 1978. His paintings have been shown and sold throughout the world and continue to be in demand today. In  2000, Valerie Gladstone, an ART News reviewer, wrote of his New York exhibition, “Some of his most memorable work was done while on his mission in Argentina, where without proper supplies, he painted and wrote on newspapers, maps and books. The paintings, which are on view, constituted a diary. Each was powerful in its juxtaposition of personal and world history.”

Peter Malkin experienced fame in both careers, but he wrote, “You know, the big difference between an agent and an artist, is that an artist wants to be as famous as possible. When you are an agent, you don’t want to be noticed.” I wish “Operation Finale” had noticed Peter Malkin, the artist.