Equal parts bravura and humility are needed by the artist who bases his own art on another's masterpiece. Courage is required of the contemporary artist who addresses historical events in a realistic rather than metaphorical way, putting himself in direct competition with photography, the chronicler of record.
Samuel Bak possesses all of the above in creating a new body of work based on Albrecht Durer's Melencolia I, his iconic engraving from 1514, and on one of the most famous and haunting photographs from the Holocaust of a little boy in front of a crowd in Warsaw, raising his arms as a German soldier points a machine gun at him.
This is Bak's third exhibition at the Florida Holocaust Museum and it hews to his lifelong exploration of the Holocaust both as a personal and a societal experience. He was only 7 when Nazi occupation began in 1941 in Vilna (now Vilnius), his Lithuanian birthplace. He and his mother survived, barely, but his father and grandparents were shot by firing squads along with 95 percent of the Jewish population there.
Bak's art is narrative and his main genre has been landscape painting with household detritus or recurring images as stand-ins for people. While still making the landscape an integral part of the works, his new series puts human figures at the forefront. As always with Bak, though, the figures have many layers of symbolic purposes as they are interpreted on canvas.
He painted 75 in the series completed for his 75th birthday in 2008 and 62 are on view at the museum. Bak paints with Baroque formality and, in addressing only two central images in varying ways, he also creates the visual version of that great 18th century musical form, the fugue.
You perhaps saw Melencolia I during the recent Durer exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. It's a strange, perplexing assemblage that is subject to many interpretations. Its central figure is a winged female, usually thought to represent creative genius. She is surrounded by geometric tools and references to alchemy, a melding of the scientific desire for order and reason and the imaginative impulse that is elevated by intellect.
Bak turns that neo-Platonic Renaissance conceit around. The winged genius here is an angel amid rubble who, in some paintings, sits passively near the little boy whose raised hands sometimes bear stigmata. Readings seem to come down to three or four central themes. The broken and scattered mathematical tools suggest the absence of logical explanation for the Holocaust. The angel attending the boy could represent God's abandonment since he is not saved by this angel as Isaac was in the biblical story. Or the angel could represent the Christian world's general indifference to the Holocaust during most of World War II. The little boy, whose identity has never been confirmed, represents the multitudes who became nameless numbers, suffering and dying in anonymity. Many times the boy is tied to wood planks, suggesting crucifixion.
Some familiar images return: Trees levitate and rocks float. Fire and smoke call to mind concentration camp ovens. There are allusions to mass graves and ghetto tenements.
Yes, this is grim. I would like to say that I found some of it uplifting but thematically, I did not. Yet as always, the artist's work is ravishing, a unique hybrid of Old Master and early surrealism with rich colors in lush, even lurid combinations. You may not want to look but you can't look away. I consider that a mitzvah.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.