Friday, March 14, 2008

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.

No comments: