Contributor: Professor Lawrence Langer
In "Self-Portrait" Samuel Bak was concerned with multiple versions of the self. That painting presents us with the idea that the boy-artist shares his destiny with countless other children who did not survive the war. The boy from the Warsaw Ghetto appears as a kind of alter ego to Bak, and the two occupy adjacent spaces on the canvas. Whatever vision the young artist may develop in the future, it will have to include the fate of those who were less lucky than he. This is a somber but a manageable idea, since it leaves to the imagination the details of what that fate may have been.
Far more challenging is the task of narrowing the gap between those details and the viewer's imagination by creating visual forms to help us cross into the landscape of disaster. Bak is fond of using single images like a smoking chimney or uprooted tree or crumbling walls to suggest the massive disruptions that trouble our consciousness in a Holocaust-wounded world. One of the most effective and original of these is the teddy bear, which appears in a sequence of four paintings from the series called Return to Vilna. "Interruption" belongs to this group. In a stroke of genius Bak strips from this icon of fuzzy intimacy all ties to sentimental security and substitutes instead a soul-wrenching reflection of loss and desolation. By a circuitous route Bak's journey to his native city leads him back to memories of his own childhood, a return to the self, and a portrait of the artist as a young boy utterly unlike the one that appears in "Self-Portrait." But "Interruption" is more than a part of Bak's personal; narrative. Use of the teddy bear universalizes his theme and allows him to identify one of the cruelest effects of the German determination to eradicate European Jewry, their assault on all defenseless children.
It would be too much, however, to expect an artist to offer a graphic representation of that destruction. That would be far too brutal. Instead, in "Interruption," Bak introduces us to an atmosphere of desolation and loss that leads us to the brink of the catastrophe, leaving us to conjure up for ourselves the impact of Holocaust "interruption" on the lives of the children who were victimized by it. The value of substitution as an artistic device is nowhere more evident than in this painting, where a non-human creature assumes the demeanor of a real child. Dressed in genuine clothes, surrounded by its favorite toys--a vividly colored soccer ball and a hoop with a stick to propel it--the boy-bear lies propped against a wall, its vacant eye-sockets betraying fear and confusion, much as we would expect to find in the eyes of its former owner. Where has that owner disappeared to? The answer hovers somewhere between normal life and abnormal death, and the spectator is invited to enter that shadowy area, a moment of nightmare in history, without the help of a favorite toy to comfort us.
Although "Interruption" can stand alone, like the figure of the Warsaw Ghetto boy in "Self-Portrait" it generated a number of variations as the artist strove to examine the meaning of loss of childhood innocence for future generations. Th other three teddy bear paintings--"Damage," "Under a Blue Sky," and "Skies were the Limit"--are grimmer in content than their predecessor, but they offer a dramatic example of how the artist can approach the topic of mass murder without filling his canvas with the imagery of human slaughter. The mound of disconsolate stone fragments in "Under a Blue Sky," what we might call human debris in search of a proper monument, and the dismembered teddy bear of "Damage" with its hint of medical experiments, reveals the value of visual metaphor inn approaching atrocity that only art can exploit. "Skies were the Limit" conveys the infinite possibilities open to the artist as he struggles to find a coherent pattern for the incoherent jumble of forms strewn across the landscape of his canvas. The engaged viewer is driven by an urgent need to interpret these shapes without feeling compelled to search for single meanings. Within the framework of the historical episodes that inspired their creation, we are invited to conspire with the artist and his work to understand how he has managed to paint what cannot be painted and to penetrate the silences that surround the loss of childhood innocence.