Friday, March 14, 2008

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.

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