University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
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  • Melencholia: Remembering Angels

    Melencholia: Remembering Angels

    Samuel Bak’s paintings are well known to Holocaust educators. Examples are found on the covers of books produced by Facing History and Ourselves, David Roskies’ Against the Apocalypse, Geoffrey Hartmann’s Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory, and several dozen books and catalogues which deal directly with Bak’s barren and thought-provoking landscapes. To some his work is a variant of surrealism, with an exquisite treatment of the canvas’ surface. For others his work is metaphor and symbol, dealing with the legacies of World War II, the Twentieth Century, and the Holocaust. Those who are interested in theology see his work as a visual Midrash, focusing on the problem of God and Jewish identity in the aftermath of the Shoah. What may be the case is that Samuel Bak’s paintings may be both about himself, the rest of humanity, and his own and our wrestling with a God that was silent for most of the Twentieth century.

    Bak’s references to the works of other painters from the Renaissance onwards have been a part of his work from the outset. Descendants I and II from the early 1970s were conceived as modern versions of Piero della Francesca’s Portrait of Federcio di Montefeltro and Portrait of Battista Sforza. However, Bak’s version of this portrait shows a red silhouetted image of a man wearing a Stetson had, pock marked with two gunshot wounds to the head, a metal-like profile of the face nailed on, and a second plate with lock on the body.  The key is missing, as is the key to understanding the existence of this strange object against the backdrop of Renaissance beauty.  Both of these famous works of the Florentine school are profile portraits set against detailed landscapes of the Tuscan countryside. Bak’s interpretations showed similar idyllic landscapes. However, the image of Cardinal di Montefelto has become an object against the backdrop of Renaissance beauty.  Battista Sforza has also become a mechanical silhouette in profile, her white head bound with a rope. The landscape of the world in many places has not changed. But human brutality as, and the Renaissance image of beauty of the human body is hard to accept after the Shoah.

    Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving of 1514, Melencolia I  has become an important part of Bak’s oeuvre. Bak’s wrestling with Durer’s image covers a period of more than 25 years. Durer’s engraving is famous for many reasons. First are the thematic elements found in it.  Melancolia (Melancholia I is the modern spelling) is one of the four humors, associated with genius. In the engraving, Melancolia, a female angel, is surrounded by elements of art, math and natural philosophy. In the engraving, Durer created what has been termed  “the metaphysical angst incited by an unrealizable perfection….”The brooding angel laments that she cannot achieve the God-like, creative mastery such as that embodied in the turusphere (which resembles Bak’s chess pawns and other images) at her feet or understand the polyhedron in the background, a lamb, a ladder, nails on the ground, a rainbow, the balance, measuring weight, the ruler measuring length and the sand clock measuring time, a bell, and a magic square. Bak has created many works, which allude to Durer’s Melancolia. Melencolia itself connected so much with mourning, is perhaps an ideal metaphor and symbol for creating understanding of the Holocaust and post-Holocaust trauma.

    The works below represent Bak’s attempting to deal with Durer’s challenges in Melencolia from 1514.  Hopefully, these paintings especially dealing with a repetitive theme can show the different possibilities of art in probing serious questions that have come out of the Holocaust, especially about God and the role of angels, and attempts to understand the world in which we live. The titles of the paintings allude to different issues about the world and how it works, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

    Stephen Feinstein, University of Minnesota

    Remembering Angels: The Memory of Samuel Bak by Donna Nolan Fewell & Gary A. Phillips (PDF)

    samuel bak melancholia
    Albrecht Durer, Melencholia. (1514) engraving.
    samuel bak melancholia
    Between Right and Wrong, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Guardian of Sleep, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Winds of Ponary, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    With Other Remnants, (2003-06) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Two Views, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Force of Gravity, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Measure of Time, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Guardian of Suspended Warnings, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    Consultation, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Appearing, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Boarding the Saint Louis, (2006) oil on canvas 40 x 30 inches

    Covenants, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    How to Remember, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    Six Wings for One, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    On the Other Hand, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    Ongoing Elegy, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    Testimonials, (2006) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    New Wings, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    To the Left and to the Right, (2007) oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

    Study for Measure of Time, (2007) mixed media on paper, 10 ½ x 8 inches

    Study with New Wings, (2007) mixed media on paper, 10 x 7 ½ inches

    Study after Travelers, (2007) sepia ink on paper, 15 x 11 inches

    In Thought, (2007) conte crayon on paper, 11 ¾ x 9 ¾ inches

    With a Key, (2007) gouache on paper, 12 ½ x 9 ¾ inches

    Study with Bell, (2007) watercolor on paper, 10 ¼ x 7 ½ inches

    Study with Steamship, (2007) mixed media on paper, 10 ¼ x 7 ¾ inches

    Fire on Board, (2007) gouache on paper, 11 x 8 ½ inches

    No Way, 2007 pencil on paper, 18 x 15 inches

    De-Centered, (2007) mixed media on paper, 19 ½ x 14 ½ inches

    Study in Charcoal, (2007) charcoal on paper, 25 x 19 inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Study with Rainbow, (2007) conte crayon on paper, 11 ¾ x 9 ¾ inches

    Study for To the Left and to the Right, (2007) mixed media on paper, 25 ½ x 19 ¾ inches

    Study with Wings, (2007) crayon and gouache on paper, 25 ½ x 19 ¾ inches
    samuel bak melancholia
    Study for Appearing, (2007) mixed media on paper, 24 ¾ x 19 ¼ inches

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