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A review and appreciation of "...Your Move: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak" a recent exhibition of paintings at Boston's Pucker Gallery in which the artist revisits chess as allegorical material for hope and destruction. The Article orginally ran in the August 15th issue of The Jewish Journal. Since first publishing this story, I have come to see one weakness is the sheer density of interpretive content for such a short article which may make it difficult for the general reader. The technique works better in poetry and painting.
The game of chess has long provided allegorical material in art and literature, representing war, politics and reason. It has served to measure humanity against technology, from 18th century automaton to IBM’s Deep Blue.
Samuel Bak has made a career of painting worlds rich with allegory, owing much to the tradition of Breugel, Bosch, and Durur, but his work diverges from them in several important ways. These old masters’ works are filled with didactic representations of sins, virtues and apocalypses, but Bak is a Jew and a childhood survivor of the Vilna Ghetto. He has seen the world come apart again and again. His work is not didactic but questioning, and Bak has frequently posed his questions in terms of shattered chessboards and pieces.
In “Quite Clear” and “As Clear as the Day,” pawns lay across a mountainous landscape dismembered while kings, queens, knights and rooks, damaged yet still relatively intact, hide camouflaged against the rocks, but the chessboard is destroyed and they are deprived of their privileged movements. In “Boards Meeting” though, pawns of many sets, some chipped, some unscathed, are carefully hidden in boxes, perhaps to escape, perhaps to some worse fate. This theme recurs in the hopeful “Hero” and “Packed” where a single pawn is hidden away (or discovered) in a box by either a larger pawn or a winged angelic pawn, recalling Bak’s own survival when his father stole him out of a labor camp in a burlap sack.
The chessboard in “Knowledgeable” is carefully rebuilt on a stack of books and a few shattered dice — the books have been rendered unreadable. In repairing the world, has reason triumphed or has forgetfulness? In rebuilding, is the field set for future wars and atrocity? Despite this uncertainty, concealed safely underneath the board tucked amongst the pages and binding is a pawn, echoing another one of Bak’s escapes when a book lined chamber in a Benedictine convent shielded him and his mother from stray bullets as the Soviets took Vilna from the Germans.
Bak’s paintings are never solely of a shattered world. They contain hope of mending: the wounded pawns often survive and transcend their tortures. Not merely nailed or glued back together, some hover though their bases are obliterated as if by miracle or a suspension of nature. Others have had wings or wheels nailed to their bodies, allowing them to move, perhaps painfully, in ways no king would allow, some swooping down on the end of strings suspended from points off the canvas.
In “Other Rules” and “To the Right” these pieces advance into a world where the old boards no longer exist and the old rules have ceased to apply. Some repair has led to a world perhaps less rational than the one of chess, and horrors may still occur — tikkun may have unintended consequences — but it is also a world where pawns might no longer be sacrificed by kings as rules demand.