Samuel Bak has described himself as a "wandering Jew," unable to stay in one place very long. Though he is an esteemed painter, he has lived a life that in many ways emulates the Book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise as punishment for eating the fruit of knowledge.
Bak, 78, has created a body of work during his life that explores a sense of displacement, and in none is it more focused than in a new collection, the Adam and Eve series. About 60 of them (or half of the series; he's prolific) are on view at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
He is a Holocaust survivor whose themes are informed by his ghastly experiences as a child. He was born in Vilna, Lithuania, a child prodigy in a loving and supportive family who lived in a city renowned for its culture and intellectual institutions. He says his family was "secular but proud of their Jewish identity." Like thousands of other families, his was shattered by the German occupation. He and his mother were the only survivors, saved by a nun who hid them in a convent for months after they escaped from a concentration camp.
After World War II ended, they moved several times around Poland and Germany. He studied with several artists and was awarded a show in 1947, when he was a young teenager, that got a lot of press. His mother married another survivor and stayed in Europe; Bak settled in Israel a year later and stayed for about eight years. He began a peripatetic lifestyle that lasted almost four decades and took him to Paris, Rome, Switzerland and back and forth to Israel and the United States, where he now lives.
Bak's figurative style is immediately recognizable. Using Renaissance techniques, he creates unsettling, bizarre scenes with recurring figures and objects distorted and reimagined. The precision of his painting is juxtaposed with the dislocating scenarios that seem the stuff of dreams or nightmares and have been compared to surrealist art, especially that of Salvador Dali. Images in all his series reference the Holocaust: wasted lands and cities and smoke-belching furnaces, for example.
They recur here in the context of the Adam and Eve narrative. The couple has departed the garden and embarked on a tortuous journey that sometimes seems more like the worst parts of Dante's Inferno than the conciliatory lessons of Genesis. They don't have a consistent physical appearance, changing from shabby to chic, careworn to sophisticated, suggesting not a chronological progression of natural aging but a changing vision of circumstances. In one of the most curious depictions of the couple, Eve cradles her newborn son, dressed in the red garment and deep blue mantel associated with Renaissance paintings of the Christian Virgin Mary. She sits on a broken cart, stranded (as Mary was in Bethlehem), as Adam looks toward a city that appears to be burning down.
Most of the time, they drag around an enormous, partially eaten pear. They spend time sitting under pear trees, too. The trees' leaves, often oversized as well, can offer protection or camouflage.
The pear is, of course, the forbidden fruit. In Adam and Eve and the Sweat and the Pain, they sit beneath a small tree with chunks bitten from its hanging pears. The trunk has been snapped in two, and the upper part appears to levitate, still tethered by a rope to its earthbound roots. Adam is dressed as a laborer, and Eve looks exhausted from her obviously pregnant condition, illustrating God's condemnation to a life of toil for Adam and childbirth pain for Eve. A bucolic landscape is in the far distance that they will never reach.
Many viewers see disillusionment with God in his paintings. They can certainly be interpreted that way. Many in this series have references to the story of Noah and the ark, which saved a small, righteous remnant of humans after God flooded the world. His covenant with man, never to destroy the earth again by water, was symbolized by a rainbow. The ark and the rainbow make frequent appearances, but the rainbow is often fractured or frayed, while the ark is sometimes nothing more than makeshift, as in Adam and Eve Where the World Ends. In Adam and Eve and Dissent, the two wear small "boats" strapped to their shoulders while they wave a faded rainbow banner as if in a parade.
The only appearance Cain and Abel make is in Adam and Eve and the Boys, in which the early Genesis story is combined with the later ark story and God's promise. In this work, the family seems jubilant as they parade through a wooded area holding a balloon and flags. But one of them has blue stripes, like those worn by prisoners in the Nazi camps, which makes this seem more like a naive march to their death. Cain, who carries the "rainbow," is, in the Genesis story, the first murderer after killing his brother.
My lack of knowledge of Hebrew hindered me from interpreting some of that language Bak incorporates into his works that would provide even deeper meaning. But there is plenty for non-Jews to appreciate. These paintings burst with ideas and associations, with soul-probing parables that can sometimes be obscured by the weight of too much mixing of metaphors and symbols.
The past is still painfully fresh for Bak; there's nothing easy about any of these works. But he doesn't create art relevant only to a specific event, and he avoids bathos, which can reduce art to illustration or overpersonalize it. Nor does he aim at Everyman universality. Adam and Eve are walking a path that is purposefully singular, though with recognizable sign posts along the way.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.