What is it that has, for centuries, been infecting people from all walks of life around the world: Wall street tycoons and paupers, slave and free, knights, gentlemen, laborers, seamen, soldiers, lawmakers and lawbreakers, with this fascinating game?

Samuel Bak is one of them. Born in 1933 in Vilna, Poland. Writer and painter.

He has created a visual language to explore some aspects of our shared human condition,  forever mysterious and elusive,  and to remind the world of its most desperate moments. Of the destruction and dehumanization.

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Landscapes… that look almost familiar. Objects that we recognize, yet something in them has different. Something has transformed them.

There are faces. Soldiers. Musicians. Angels. Perhaps fallen angels. Figures that we recognize as human. But in a different state of being.

Are they stones awakening to life?

Or are they beings that were alive, but have fallen apart and are now mere fragments of what they once were?

An artist’s imagination is trying to tell us something. What can we learn or understand from these images?

Something in the images  is rooted in an undeniable reality. Is it the reality of the past? Or a future reality, yet to be seen? Or is it perhaps the reflection of our times represented by pictures that seem to come from a world that is parallel to ours? (from The art of speaking about the unspeakable)

Samuel Bak | Auspicious Moon, 2001 | oil on canvas

To me the human condition is forever mysterious and elusive. The game of chess, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of clarity, logic and intelligence. So it is that images drawn from chess can map onto the realities of life in especially provocative ways. It makes me think of what jazz musicians do to the old standard songs, transforming their familiar rhythms and melodies so as to evoke quite other feelings and thoughts. Old and new are played off against one another.

Chess pieces are organized by standards of force. Some are unique, like the King (at once supreme and vulnerable) and the Queen (most mobile and dangerous). Some go in pairs: knights, bishops and rooks. The eight common pawns seem less powerful, yet a single pawn can determine the outcome of a game. It can also be promoted to the highest rank.

Anyone who plays Chess knows how important the “unimportant” can become. But if one employs logic, if one has a plan, if from the alignment of the opponent’s moves one can guess his projects and counterattack them in time – there is a chance! In the game of chess everything is rational, each error has its effects, consequences must be accepted.

How very different from ordinary life!

Such meditations came to me in response to the death of my stepfather Markusha in the early 1970’s. He was a Dachau survivor whom Mother met and married in Landsberg’s DP camp. This soft spoken and intelligent man, once a brilliant chess player, spent the last years of his life in an ever-thickening fog of Alzheimer’s disease. I used to observe his clear, spent eyes, and try to imagine what was going on in his mind. I knew that the loss of his pre-war world, his first wife and his daughters, had left him irreparably wounded. Now his beloved game of Chess, his one remaining realm of calm and certitude, was also falling apart.

In using images drawn from chess in my paintings, I was entering troubling terrain. Thinking of the emblematic implications in the myth of chess, I found myself touching on the dark side of the mind. I found myself rendering those primordial fears and struggles from which the game itself perhaps arose, or the landscapes of cataclysm that such fears have always projected. In my chess-world there are many more questions than answers. The surfaces undergo constant change. Values have shifted. Borders are redefined. Things are broken, the powerful have fallen apart and the weak have become strong and dangerous.

Ever present in these disrupted vistas is the hope of a Tikkun Haolam — recovery, repair, restoration.

Text by Samuel Bak, from Between Worlds

More artwork by Bak

The art of speaking about the unspeakable video


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