Friday, March 14, 2008


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.

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