Creation of Wartime III by Samuel Bak

Samuel Bak

Creation of Wartime III, 1999-2008, Oil on canvas, 127 x 190.5 cm, Pucker Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts, BK1243, © Samuel Bak, Courtesy of Pucker Gallery

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Covenant Undone

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Situated majestically at the centre of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s famous fresco of The Creation of Adam depicts an almost tangible electricity between God’s finger and Adam’s, as if the Creator’s divine energy will be transferred to Adam upon their touch, bestowing the creature with spiritual life, rational thought, and a moral consciousness.

It is this energy that is drained out of the canvas in Samuel Bak’s painting, based on Michelangelo’s composition. Most notably, God is absent. The hole blasted open in a bombed-out building occupies the area in which Michelangelo imagined God leaning out of the heavens towards Adam. The electricity between their fingertips is now without vitality. The source of that earlier energy—the divine hand—is now replaced by a listless, empty glove hanging on a nail that maintains its fragile grip on the otherwise besieged wall. Adam, dressed both in ancient drapery and modern underclothes, appears more dazed than languid in this new context. Reclining before and beside two undetonated missiles, the ruins of war surround him in wrecked furniture, broken dishes, and burnt paper. Smoke rises ominously from two chimneys visible in the distance. They are juxtaposed with a cross that stands equally threateningly in the foreground.

In Isaiah 5, the author speaks of Israel and Judah as YHWH’s ‘pleasant planting’ (5:7), and in God’s lament—‘What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ (v.4)—we may hear a cry of unrequited love. But the passage goes on to announce a retraction of this favour: because of its ‘wildness’ (v.4), ‘I will make it a waste’, God says (vv.5–6). The vineyard, and all it stands for, will be undone.

The eye returns again and again in Bak’s image to negative space, to the absence of God. In that void, Bak raises timeless questions about evil and about human suffering. If Michelangelo and his patrons were confident about God’s existence—about God’s presence behind and in creation, and about God’s desire for a just society to be revealed through a covenant signed and sealed with the Jewish people—Bak depicts its undoing. Creation of Wartime III is an image of uncreation. A theology that sees divine purposes at work in the horrors of war, a theology that still affirms the reality of a covenant with Israel, even the barest belief in the very existence of God: for Bak, it was all undone in the Shoah.

 

References

Langer, Lawrence. 2012. Adam and Eve in the Art of Samuel Bak (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press)

Nolan Fewell, Danna, Gary A. Phillips, and Yvonne Sherwood (eds). 2008. Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press)


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