Reading

Interpreting a Painting

Contributor: Professor Lawrence Langer

A painting is a visual text. In literature we are faced with a written text, in most cases drafted in familiar words because we speak the language (assuming that the work is in English) that appears on the page. The characters we meet in literature are usually recognizable human beings even though we can't see them, and we can understand their dialogue because we have often heard speech like theirs before.

Looking at a painting requires a different set of expectations. An author can describe a landscape or the setting for a scene, but an artist tries to reproduce a version of it so that we can see it with our own eyes. This raises issues unique to painting, questions of color, shape, texture, size (since an artist is limited by dimensions of his canvas), the relation of one group of figures or objects to another, all finally coalescing into what we call the style of the work.

Of course, different painters have different styles, and those familiar with Samuel Bak's recent works will quickly recognize special qualities and themes that we associate with his style. The novice viewer needs to spend time scrutinizing carefully the details of a few paintings by Bak in order to grow intimately acquainted with their content. The next step is to ask ourselves what kind of questions each painting prompts us to ask. After that we can begin to express tentative responses to what we see, recognizing that images can have multiple meanings.

Although Bak's paintings are frequently concerned with the Holocaust experience, they are also designed to comment on the human condition, in general. The universe he depicts is filled with broken objects or fragmented structures in need of repair. The tension in his work reflects a world that has known war and violence and is struggling to reestablish order amidst the ruins. Anyone familiar with the global atrocities of past decades will recognize the alternations between disorder and unity that recur in Bak's paintings.

Finally, as with all works of art, we need not restrict ourselves to Bak's conscious intentions. The finished work may contain implications of which the artist was only vaguely aware, and a spectator should feel free to search for multiple meanings. This does not mean, however, that a painting can express anything we wish it to. The evidence for our reaction must lie within the painting itself, and in responding to it we must be careful to use that evidence to support our various interpretations.

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