Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak
Danna Nolan Fewell, Gary A. Phillips, and Yvonne Sherwood
The art of Samuel Bak entrances. It also disquiets. The subject matter of Bak’s painting is anything but easy. His still lives, people, and landscapes depict a world destroyed, and yet provisionally pieced back together. A survivor of the Vilna liquidation and a child prodigy whose first exhibition was held in the Ghetto at age nine, Bak weaves together personal history and Jewish history to articulate an iconography of his Holocaust experience. Across nearly seven decades of artistic production Samuel Bak has explored and reworked a set of metaphors, a visual grammar, and vocabulary that ultimately privileges questions. In the face of such massive and meaningless suffering how do traditional religious and cultural symbols, stories, and ceremonies retain past vitality and validity? How does one authentically preserve memory of personal loss and suffering? Samuel Bak’s art and the questions he raises are important for scholars of religion today because Bak is overtly concerned with matters biblical and religious. Creation, covenant, exodus, exile, Diaspora, Torah, Decalogue, theodicy, and Midrash are recurring Jewish themes that emerge in his work. His re-visions of Genesis stories, as well as of New Testament motifs of crucifixion and apocalypse, defamiliarize these texts and our conventional ways of reading them. For readers of the Bible, whether scholar or lay, the juxtaposition of ancient sacred story with modern suffering story challenges us to see the biblical text in a different light, illumined both by the light of reason and the glow of crematoria furnaces. Bak’s images, which often include plays upon words, invite those who read the Bible as literary work to confront the Bible as canvas work. Bak’s pictorial readings invite reconsideration of the Post-Reformation privileging of word over image, and of the Post-Enlightenment privileging of reason over experience. Bak preserves memory of the twentieth century ruination of Jewish life and culture by way of an artistic passion and precision that stubbornly announces the creativity of the human spirit.
2008, Pucker Art Publications and Syracuse University Press
Hardcover measuring 8 x 10”
200 pages with color illustrations throughout