Years from now, when researchers write the cultural history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the art of Samuel Bak may very well be one major source for their investigations. In many of the paintings and drawings that have emerged from his fertile visual imagination over the past few decades he has captured the struggle of western civilization in a post-Holocaust era to regain its spiritual footing. But he has also been concerned with the need to repair the intellectual and emotional damage caused by the ceaseless turmoil of wars and other forms of violence.
He challenges modern consciousness to confront and try to comprehend the failure of the covenantal promises of the Jewish narrative and the salvational hopes of the Christian tradition to launch a global community based on virtue and love. Through the indirect stimulus of art he forces us to ask why nations and their inhabitants have so much difficulty achieving the ideals set forth in the scriptures, declarations of rights and various international treaties and charters that are supposed to improve human conduct and discourage conflict. The crumbling structures and broken monuments that often rule over his arid and rockstrewn terrains, defacing the beauty of the natural landscape, are stark visual reminders of an imperfect world that may finally have to surrender its expectations of the best in order to settle for the compromise of a society that can only grow a little better.
The paintings and drawings assembled in this collection comprise a fair representation of Bak’s vision of the human dilemma as it has evolved over the years. The contrast between the beauty of artistic composition and the decay inherent in his imagery expresses a paradox that parallels the contradictions in the history of our time. We fight wars to establish peace, we purge peoples to create ethnic “purity,” we strive for reconciliation after the most unimaginable massacres, and we seek justice after deeds so unjustifiable that surviving victims are left bereft at the slow progress toward that impossible goal. By assaulting our perception with elegantly composed images haunted by an aura of decomposition, of pictorial scenes whose edges seek to burst through the frames containing them, of creatures in diverse stages of disintegration and buildings clinging to formal outlines while simultaneously threatening to collapse into a pile of rubble, Bak recapitulates the tensions that constitute the disturbing diet we are obliged to consume virtually every day of contemporary life.His work urges—or more precisely, compels—us to cast off the consoling bonds of myth and legend and to look at the scarred features of modern history—and not only the history of the Holocaust—until we begin to recognize that the apparently surreal content of his canvases represents not a flight from current reality but a venture into the caverns of its deepest disquietudes.
Any educational enterprise worthy of its name aims to develop minds that will remain in a perpetual state of awareness, and the same may be said of the artistic works in the series called Illuminations. Looking at a painting like Under Blue Sky(BK807), we are struck by the desolate spectacle of dismembered teddy bears turned to stone. The tranquility of the title greets us with an ironic force as we gaze at the sphinx-like impassivity of an adult teddy bear presiding over the collapse of what once may have been a monumental tribute to the memory of childhood joy. Among the many victims of a century of violence were the more than one million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, but this is only a single extreme instance of the worldwide abuse and misuse of children that has been one of the least admirable hallmarks of our time. To hold in consciousness the visual evidence before us of this dismal statistic while concurrently valuing the serene blue sky above it is to define the paradoxical state of awareness that Bak invites his viewers to strive for.
This kind of dual vision is one of the principal legacies of his art. Its philosophical implications have scarcely been recognized. Bak achieves this effect in several ways. One is to introduce into his canvases animate and inanimate features at the same time, like the living sky and the dead landscape of the painting we have just examined. Another is to allow two works to address each other, as it were, like separate sections of an orchestra sequentially playing variations on a similar theme.
For example, Sanctuary (BK526) and The Cup Was Full (BK1193) contain related and in some cases almost identical images, though they seem to address different phases of consciousness. The first was created a decade before the second, and might serve as a preface to our encounter with the latter. Nothing human exists in Sanctuary. Only nature is alive, making slow inroads on the twin effigies of what was once the face of a boy; its vines will soon entangle them in a jungle of undergrowth. If this bizarre monument is a sanctuary for anything, it is for the fading memory of the fate of the boy from the Warsaw ghetto with his hands raised, perhaps the most famous photo to have survived the Holocaust. All that remains of the figure below are two hands amputated at the wrist; its visage has already been defaced by the ravages of time. The pierced palms and faint rivulets of blood evoke reminiscences of a more promising era, when sacrifice was intended to bring salvation and redemption. That spiritual refuge now seems as obsolete and inaccessible as this abandoned shrine where no worshipper appears to perform a ritual of remembrance.
Except perhaps for the members of Bak’s audience. As custodians of memory, we seek to rescue from these gloomy remains some vestige of identity for the victim who inspired this creation. The Cup Was Full (BK1193) provides an entry to this task by stripping from the boy his most familiar garments—his cap and shoes now lie on a platform in the foreground—and leaving only a silhouette of his head. From the open space a human countenance peers out, perhaps a portrait of the artist as a young boy. Is he imagining the “sanctuary” that one day will be the only trace of his former existence, pondering the irony that sanctuaries are usually designed to precede rather than to follow death? Here the face ceases to be a symbol and becomes instead an example of the human loss suffered by childhood during the Holocaust.
A faded Jewish star in the center of the painting nailed to a stone tablet like the ones that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai proclaims the Jewish origin of both the absent victim and the still living one who has taken his place. In this context, the pierced palms suggest that crucifixion has been replaced by execution, deprived of the transcendent dimension that was earlier associated with such wounds. The empty cup, once metaphorically full of hope and promise, provides no nourishment now. Its former handle lies by its side in the shape of an inverted question mark, confirming that once we have removed the commemorative stone mask of Sanctuary, we are left with a defenseless boy staring at an ominous future filled only with uncertainty. Together, Sanctuary and The Cup Was Full announce the necessity and the vanity of monuments. Once more Illuminations has enlightened our divided consciousness with a paradoxical and unresolvable truth.
Two other thematically related works, The Number (BK328) and Reconstruction (BK802), further clarify our journey into the cemetery of remembrance. The first, a monochromatic tribute to the fate of the twin tablets that once were inscribed with the ten commandments, furnishes a stark contrast to the richly diverse coloration of the second, which pays homage to the subsequent law—and lore—of the Jewish tradition. They may be seen as companion pieces, chronicling the oral and written sources of faith for the Children of Israel. According to the Book of Genesis, God first spoke the Ten Commandments to his chosen people, then presented them to Moses on Mount Sinai inscribed on twin stone tablets. In The Number, those tablets are on the verge of tumbling in fragments onto a pile of gravestones, uprooted from their stable base by the contradiction between the admonition of the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder”) and the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. History has challenged the authority of the Lord, a version of whose name is imprinted on one of the tablets. How shall modern consciousness respond to this trial of the belief that lies at the heart of Judaism?
Such an inquiry is not blasphemous. The many volumes and manuscripts occupying the foreground of Reconstruction (BK802) represent the intellectual origins of this damaged faith, which has a venerable tradition of commentary on its meanings for a current generation. The Hebrew letters in The Number identifying God have their echo in the Hebrew letters of Reconstruction, spelling Midrash, signifying that habit of responding to sacred texts by learned scholars through the ages. The large blank canvases in the background of this painting await new inscriptions about the substance of Judaism to account for the violation and destruction of spiritual, physical and intellectual existence during the Holocaust. They hint at the major role that art will have to play in this arduous labor of renewal.
The works of Illuminations thus spread their challenge to enlightenment in many directions, soliciting viewers to identify with the title by clarifying the complexities of their appeal. They project muted tones that require us to activate what we might call a “listening eye” to hear the silenced voices buried within their visual surfaces. For example, The Number invites us to ask how the voice of God would explain the suspension of the covenant that promised to bless his people and nurture their seed till the end of time. Similarly, Reconstruction asks the sages of Israel whose ancient works crowd the canvas to develop a modern Midrash by seeking in their sacred texts a justification for mass murder, and to announce their findings to an anxious audience. The blank canvases behind their writings, which reinforce the notion of silenced voices, raise a related but different kind of question: how will those findings affect our mental and emotional as well as our religious vision of the future?
One main impetus of Illuminations is to train the “listening eye” to avoid searching for definitive answers and instead to ask provocative questions. A very recent (2009) mixed media work like Broken Strings (BK1300) virtually demands such an approach. Who are these musicians who literally can only produce sounds of silence on their wounded or absent instruments, playing with thin branches instead of genuine bows? Were they not so earnest in their endeavors we might consider their jarring presence some kind of visual joke. But as a revitalized Jewish culture rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, it must have begun with some sort of minimal resources such as these performers display. Music has its own voice, and this improvised recital seems to initiate the arduous journey needed to repair the damaged art of chamber performance.
A world in disarray, like the one in Broken Strings, is not necessarily a world without hope, but only human intervention can restore it to the realm of possibility. If one thing is clear in Bak’s visual universe, it is that the illusion of automatic security based on political or religious promises is no longer worth pursuing. Quite literally, renewal begins with dis-illusionment. Sometimes Bak moves us in this direction through an adventure of viewing that is purely symbolic. This is the case with Study after Nocturnal A (BK626), where a chess pawn is witness to a cosmic catastrophe that registers far more than the mere loss of a romantically shining full moon. Through a kind of aesthetic ventriloquism, we are enjoined to ask what the transfixed pawn cannot: how has our thinking about spiritual existence been changed now that we can no longer regard the cosmos only as a mysterious habitat for the human soul?
As if in response to our concern, After Dürer (BK1161) acknowledges the dilemma. Bak’s brooding angel, once cast as a messenger between earth and heaven but now marooned on an island of doubt, wonders about finding a new role for itself in an unfamiliar setting. It sits surrounded by outmoded artifacts from the age of Albrecht Dürer, whose earlier engraving called Melencolia I from 1514 of a nearly identical image showed an angel troubled by the transition from medieval to Renaissance thought. When we face the modern age “after Dürer,” how do we organize into a coherent program for human aspiration advances in technology, science, medicine, astronomy and the arts that would have astounded Dürer in his own time? If Bak’s angel could speak, what words would it utter? And how would it balance such achievements against the violent ends so many of those discoveries were used for?
Creating a discourse to respond to such inquiries, or to record the difficulty of doing so, is one of the unspoken summons implicit in Bak’s art. It reflects the distinctly modern tenor of his work. But there is another side to his achievement which is equally striking, and equally important. Commenting on the problems encountered while trying to produce an accurate text in his recent translation of the Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter deplores the “heresy of explanation” that taints so many earlier English versions. Literature in general, he says:
and the narrative prose of the Hebrew bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution.
He might have been describing the imaginative thrust of Samuel Bak’s visual universe. The influence of scriptural strategies may be only hinted at in Bak’s work, but Alter has inadvertently formulated that connection in a precise and convincing manner.
Bak is unapologetically frank in his conviction that the burden of memory inhibits our devotion to a promising future, much as the cluster of objects in Commemoration (BK810) blocks our imagination from entering into a liberating distant vista. The candles weeping tears of wax are a tribute to the vanished Jewish community of Vilna, whose name is inscribed in Hebrew letters near the lower left hand corner of the painting. In a more specific historical allusion to such loss, the candles of Camp (BK189), a very early work, are still burning, eternal flames that ironically immortalize death. The passage of time may have extinguished those flames in the later painting, but the obligation to remember remains. Illuminations emblazons on modern consciousness the melancholy truth that the ruins of memory are now a permanent part of our human heritage: any effort to build a future while ignoring those ruins would compromise our allegiance to both decency and hope.
Lawrence L. Langer
Newton, Massachusetts, 2010
(From Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak: Collection at Facing History and Ourselves. Facing History and Ourselves, Brookline, Massachusetts. 2010, pp. 5-11.)