Friday, March 14, 2008

From the Ashes, - 2001 - oil on canvas - 20 x 24"

Shema Israel, - 1993 - oil on canvas - 32 x 40" -


Memorial, - 1986 - oil on canvas - 39 1/4 x 31 7/8" -

Small Target

Small Target, 1997 - oil on canvas - 14 x 10 5/8"

From Generation to Generation III

From Generation to Generation III, - 1996 - oil on canvas - 32 1/8 x 26 1/8"


Banishment, 1999 - oil on canvas - 32 x 26"

In the early 1960s I lived in Rome near the Sistine Chapel and could admire Michelangelo's original. It wasn't easy. The fresco was painted on a high, distant ceiling, and layers of ancient candle smoke covered its surface. Yet at the price of straining my neck and searching through powerful binoculars I could explore the painter's genius. Fortunately some Japanese TV money enabled the impoverished Church to pay for cleaning the "Creation." Later a smart editor made available a publication in which anyone can admire, at leisure and in total comfort, the electrifying colors of the Master's great art displayed on one's own coffee table.

Over the years, additional images of the Book of Genesis have been deposited in my mind. There is Doré's Bible, introduced to me by devoted Benedictine nuns who hid our family in the first months of the German Occupation. To a boy of seven or eight, the world of Doré looked frighteningly real. Older, I was captivated by Rembrandt's Biblical figures, which are taken from the daily reality of seventeenth-century Holland, examined with humility, and rendered with compassion. They go straight to the heart. In 1945 I discovered a lighter view of Genesis, first in Mark Twain's delightful "diary" of Adam and Eve, which I read in an old German translation shortly after arriving in the DP camp at Landsberg, Bavaria. I was twelve, and the idea that a sacred subject could be treated with humor was to me a revelation. I did not yet know the richness of Jewish humor, so familiar and beloved to me now: the shtetl patriarchs of Yitsik Manger's Yiddish poetry, or Chagall's whimsical, sad paintings. In another vein, the poetic translation of the Biblical texts into Yiddish, a monumental work by Yehoash, brought me closer to the original texts from which Mother's entrancing stories had been drawn.

Text by Samuel Bak, from Between Worlds: The Paintings of Samuel Bak from 1946-2000.

The Family

The Family - 1974 - oil on canvas

The Yom Kippur War of 1973, which menaced Israel's existence and forced on the rest of the world an unexpected oil crisis, had many far-reaching repercussions. Among others, it plunged London into a prolonged power shortage and bathed the city in romantic candlelight. An exhibition of my paintings, planned by one of the leading London galleries, had to be cancelled. But a timely proposal came from an enterprising New York art dealer. He offered to hold my show in his gallery on Madison Avenue. Since its space was large, I would need to add a couple of sizeable canvases. Could I create them in time?

I responded to the challenge with enthusiasm. Hastily exchanging my army uniform for a painter's coveralls, I placed myself before a large white canvas in my studio and let my hand sketch straight lines, curves and circles. My memory, stirred by the recent Israeli conflict, began to supply visual material from a more distant war. Gradually I transformed my schematic grid into more specific images. In the end a multitude of faces and objects, all familiar from other paintings, gathered themselves into this single canvas. The result was the strange group portrait that I have named The Family.

The Family sums up many of my artistic themes. The rear plan is a dark and smoke laden sky. In the first plan, bathed in a neutrally diffused light, a monumental egg, similar to a stone monument, is riddled by bullet holes. The beings that crowd the space between these two, speak of an ongoing process that is suspended between the forces of life, and the forces of death that are assaulting them.

The "story" of The Family starts at the top. Near the image of a forebear, a grandfatherly face wearing the black glasses of a blind man, is a face depicted on a half-lost panel, cut off just at the eyes. Its Leonardesque features are perhaps an allusion to the inventive talents of my blind great-grandfather and his son-in-law, my grandfather. At the time I was working on this canvas my memory was calling up many other figures of my family's colorful saga. And I painted many of them, some familiar and some less so. Several are presented as broken monuments, a few as eyeless masks, and certain ones as fragments that defy recomposition. Strewn among expressionless faces are composite beings in various modes of destruction and reconstruction, some of them images drawn from the fragmented plaster moulds that my first art teacher in Vilna gave me as models. Some heads are entirely covered in a shroud-like fabric, others only partly. Among them hide several soldiers who have come directly from the Yom Kippur war.

Positioned on an artist's easel, as a painting within a painting, I placed two ladies wearing hats from the late 1930's. This was the period in which my parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents - my entire family - seemed to be blind to the fate that was awaiting them. A boy with a cap, possibly the famous boy of the Warsaw Ghetto, peeks at us from behind this imagined canvas.

The painting contains some hints of primitive machinery, for me a reminder of the inventive spirit of my Grandfather Khone, a precision mechanic, whom I picture as a wounded WW I soldier. Improvised devices have been jerry-rigged to hold together the fragments of a world that has suffered cataclysm. In their incapacity, these devices could serve as metaphors of every artist's craft. The hopeless wish to restore a former reality, a recurring motif in my own art, is embodied in the scatter of disintegrating artifacts.

In face of all this struggle and disintegration, confronted with a world that seems to have rejected the knowledge of its past errors, on an earth whose burning horizon illuminates an endless stream of refugees, these afflicted people gather in their huge Family portrait and look at us inquiringly, asking to be remembered.

Text by Samuel Bak, from Between Worlds: The Paintings of Samuel Bak from 1946-2000.

The Ghetto of Jewish History

The Ghetto of Jewish History - 1976 - oil on canvas - 52 x 48"

It is in the nature of an effective symbol to be at once powerful and weak. Powerful, because of its ability to conjure a multiplicity of ideas and feelings from a single simple image; weak, because its very simplicity cannot encompass the specific subtleties and full richness which a symbol only begins to suggest.

Symbols are a delicate subject when used in a work of art. They are generally best avoided, for too often the work itself is not equal to the suggestive force of a depicted symbol, and the result is a painting or sculpture overwhelmed by an overload of illustrational meaning. Its didactic, if not propagandist intent robs it of its subtlety; the richness of mystery, the inexplicable elements which combine to make of a work of art an ever-enriching experience, are preempted by the explicit statement.

Put into the hands of an intelligent and sensitive artist, however, a symbol may acquire an extraordinary expressive life. Such is the case in Samuel Bak's oil painting, The Ghetto.

Standing before the large (52 x 48") work, the viewer may not immediately recognize that the configuration of the subterranean buildings is in fact a Star of David. Bak, who is surely aware of the pitfalls inherent in the use of the symbol, (and may indeed have set himself the artistic problem of infusing new life into a commonplace idea) has complicated the image in ingenious ways, imbuing it not only with an illusionistic existence, but also with a metaphorical pulse to quicken its veins of meaning. We are first presented with a Star formed unexpectedly in negative space, a hole whose walls are composed of buildings of a ghetto, an isolated underground community whose existence would be unknown to us if we were standing at ground level. An abstract geometrical order underlies the entire composition, but it is not the cool and rational geometry of Euclid. It is a geometry invested with the mortality of matter. Triangular and rectangular slabs, blocks of marble and stone seem to have been hewn and placed by a divine hand. Here and there the surface of the marble seems not to be cold stone, but living flesh, with veins and nerves pulsating beneath a pale transparency of skin. These once-occupied buildings are a ruin within a ruin: whatever the surrounding environment may represent, it, too, outside the star-shaped ghetto, is crumbling and lifeless, heir to the ravages of time.

Words cannot- perhaps, should not- express the full poignancy of this tour de force of the artistic imagination. This "invention" of Bak's, which reaches deep into the darkest wells of feeling by transforming a familiar symbol into an astonishing and original image, speaks wordlessly of a human event whose enormity has never found adequate expression in words. We know this painting to be a fictional construction, but it persuades us with such conviction of its reality that we are able to suspend our disbelief to accept the truth of Bak's unforgettable vision.

Targets Revisited

Targets Revisited - 1996 - oil on canvas - 63 x 78"

Elegy III

Elegy III - 1997 - oil on canvas - 47 ½ x 51 ½" - BK545

Two pillows signaling to each other over a chasm of centuries generated this strange encounter.

There is a pen drawing by Dürer depicting his own young face, his left hand, and a mysterious pillow whose folds suggest two imaginary faces. He drew it when he was in his teens. I was in my early teens in 1945, freshly arrived at a DP camp in postwar Bavaria, when browsing through some old and half-torn art books I discovered the drawing reproduced in an old publication dedicated to this great artist.

I was living among survivors and refugees. The memories of the Shoah were still very fresh. Having retained the vivid image of myself as a little boy being marched towards Vilna's Ghetto in a drenching rain, dragging my wet feet through the city's flooded gutters, and carrying in my hands a soaked pillow that I was soon forced to abandon, Dürer's strangely foreboding study of four centuries ago captivated my imagination.

I never lost my passion for browsing through art books. Art history serves us later artists as a kind of catalogue of possibilities, or more nearly as a display of merchandise on endless supermarket shelves. Some artists buy their influences wholesale, but are thought of as mere thieves and are fined in the coin of disparaging criticism. Smarter artists know how to steal and get away with it. But an artist like Picasso simply leapt the counter in broad daylight and seized what he liked, knowing that his unparalleled genius would impose total absolution. He made the world admire him for mastering all that loot.

Where do I position my own self in this art of "borrowing"? My courage and talent are not for me to evaluate, and I may have paintings that belong to each of the above categories. Throughout the years I have appropriated several images from other painters, in the unquestioned legality of artistic paraphrase. Yet when I turn my thoughts to the origin of my impulse to seize Dürer's "Melancholia" and make it a recurrent metaphor in my own painting, I am met by a somewhat troubling insight.

I like to reassure myself that my many painterly paraphrases of this arch-image are founded on my admiration for Dürer's masterful artistry. The expressive power of his famous engraving is indeed inspiring. A brooding angel, seated among various artifacts and instruments, contemplates a world spread out beneath a perfect rainbow. His sad face tells us that he is deeply immersed in his thoughts. Is he pondering the state of mankind in the 16th century, poised between the age of darkness and the age of enlightenment? I feel as if the angel had given me a wink: "Go ahead, explore whatever you wish, transpose me to your time and to your concerns. Show me reflecting on an age that has lost its light to the forces of darkness!"

I painted Dürer's angel in many variations. Perhaps because of this venture of mine, the German National Museum held a retrospective exhibition of my art, and the Dürer Haus museum gave me another show, entitled: "Bak und Dürer." It also acquired several of my paintings.

Here I must confess that my impulse to focus on Dürer and exploit his art came to me from an utterly non-artistic place, an old and unadmitted desire for revenge. I wanted to experience the sheer pleasure of looting something that the Germans treasured as being thoroughly German. Enacted in the sphere of creative art, the harmlessness of this deed makes me smile. Moreover, it turns out, ironically, that I plundered the work of a German of probably impure race. As I later learned, Dürer's father came from Hungary. The family lived in Nuremberg of all places -- the very city of the Nazi race laws! That my paintings should be now displayed in Nuremberg's halls of art shows that things can change, and indeed have changed. Dürer's pillow under my head feels quite comfortable.

Text by Samuel Bak, from Between Worlds: The Paintings of Samuel Bak from 1946-2000.