The most dangerous game
Samuel Bak proves himself the grand master of chess
by Jeffrey Gantz
"Chess is like life," has been a byword of champions from Paul Morphy to Bobby
Fischer (for whom it was more like "Chess is life"), and that may
explain why the Royal Game, which emerged out of India some 1500 years ago, is
now the world's most popular game. It was always a war game, staged between two
opposing armies on a field of battle, but its staggering complexity (consider
that the number of possible games exceeds the number of particles in the known
universe) makes it a microcosm of our existence. And the variety of its pieces,
with their class structure (from king to pawn -- but the pawn can become a
queen) and different characteristics (the king is the sine qua non, but
the queen has all the power), makes it a mirror of society. Chess has been
mirrored in the arts, from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and
What Alice Found There to the Tim Rice Broadway musical, but in the
paintings of Samuel Bak it finds its most serious aesthetic proponent ever. In
the show that will open at the Pucker Gallery this Saturday, the game doesn't
just continue, it grows and multiplies.
This isn't Bak's first confrontation with chess -- back in the early '70s he
did a number of paintings, some of which are recorded in the 1991 volume
Chess As Metaphor in the Art of Samuel Bak. Those paintings depicted
chess as struggle -- hardly surprising from a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto who
lost not only his father to the Nazis but his people, his culture, his entire
world. Yet his latest works, as recorded in the new volume The Game
Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak and in the smaller exhibition
catalogue of the same name (and if you can't afford a painting, these
publications, with their superb reproductions, are treasurable substitutes),
seem even more metaphorical, opening the game to the history of art and
philosophy, creating novel-like characters, fashioning recurrent, Wagner-like
motifs, posing theological and cosmological questions. His chess is every bit
as holy, and horrifying, as the world we live in.
Bak sets out his playing surface in his 1998 painting Introduction to the
Game (not part of the show -- some smart collector has already snapped it
up -- but you'll find it in the Game Continues book), where three
figures huddle in what might be a bomb shelter, with cloth-draped chessboards
standing on end like paintings in an artist's studio. The bearded Jewish sage,
familiar from Bak paintings like Symposium and From Generation to
Generation, is hoodwinked. A soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder
(familiar from Angels and Their Guardians and Nuremberg Elegie)
holds up a pawn, as if to acquaint him with the pieces. And between them the
camouflage-helmeted figure from Elegy II waves a banner (or is it a
white flag?), as if to signal the start of play. It is, of course, preposterous
that they should be playing a war game in the middle of a war zone. Or is Bak
trying to tell us that chess somehow transcends war?
What's certain is that his chess paintings transcend chess. Never mind that you
can't tell a King's Indian Saemisch from a Leningrad Dutch, or that you think
"fianchetto" is some pasta dish Marianne Esposito whips up on Ciao
Italia: "The Game Continues" is about the game of life. Bak's chessboards,
like the board of our existence, are cracked and crumbling; the squares --
usually great blocks of sculptor's stone -- tilt and careen like
Titanic. The pieces are often as not out of play (i.e., dead);
even when they're in action, they're not pitted against each other so much as
united against a common unseen foe (God?). They have the look of marble, or
hardwood, but they've been chewed on, gnawed at; they're crumbling into dust.
The pawns sometimes appear with hollowed-out heads, as if they were nothing but
hazelnut shells, or they might be split vertically to look like pear halves
(pears are to Bak what apples are to Genesis). Pawns and knights turn up as
two-dimensional plywood, like the Warsaw Ghetto child in Bak's Exits
series. There's a recurrent pulley that might be hoisting giant pieces into
place, like the apparatus that lifted medieval knights onto their horses; but
it also looks like a gibbet -- in this game pieces aren't just captured,
they're put to a shameful death. The knights often appear on wheels, like the
Trojan horse symbols of deceit. We see underground structures with arched
openings, like the brick oven in the story of Hansel and Gretel -- or the
Holocaust. The tin-winged messenger angels from so many Bak paintings (Music
for the Rainbow Angel, The Eternal Return) turn up, but with no good
news. The board squares sometimes appear as dice, as if to suggest it's all a
crap shoot. Over everything fly those white banners recalling the white drapery
that flutters about Christ in Renaissance crucifixions.
In Group Power (1998, like all the paintings in the catalogue), the
banner is green-tinged and fluttering over a midnight-blue sky; there's
another, bluer banner below it. Everything's a mess, with fissured boards and
pieces in the foreground. A surreal (Heavenly?) light illuminates the white
pieces huddled at the left, but they exercise no power whatsoever. On the
right, posed against ominously bright storm clouds, there are intimations of
the black pieces; the knight seems to be laughing.
Study for Greatness suggests only the greatness of King Lear. A
giant pawn is held in place by the pulley/gibbet, and most of the body has been
eaten away. Behind loom other pawns, chipped, cracked, one a head atop a rubble
of chessboards, all waiting their turn. In Passing Thoughts, pawns float
atop stone clouds (fragments from the Tablets of the Law?) while once-sacred
mountains loom in the distance and down below the tectonic chess board turns
into cubes of dice, as rule gives way to chance. Second Revolution in the
Middle Game finds the board opening up like the trapdoor in Don
Giovanni and pawns beginning a hellish descent. To the left a group of
captured pawns huddle; in the distance, against a blood-red sky, the smoke
rises from crematorium fires.
Stormy Passing sees the banner turn into the ragged sail of a boat
that's being tossed on a sea of wavelike chessboard squares in which pawns
float helplessly. The pieces on board ship seem scarcely better off -- is Bak
alluding to Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee?
Another sea painting, On the Edge, looks like the end of civilization.
Here the chessboard is a pier, with a giant rook/castle at the corner, that's
lashed by an dark, unforgiving sea. Two pawns stand forlorn in that rook
corner, with no place to go. In the right foreground there's another
rook/castle, this one with a pulley/gibbet, and on the rocks and in the water
giant pawns have washed up -- or crashed from the gallows.
Arch of Triumph and Small Arch show a single pawn confronting a
crumbling arch whose opening is a pawn/keyhole shape -- as if both
commemorating dead pawns and suggesting that the pawn is some kind of key
(Philidor's "Pawns are the soul of chess"). Sheltering Myths finds the
stone chessboard crumbling and the pieces sheltering in its recesses, like the
ghetto inhabitants of One of Many and The Eve of Sabbath and the
Alone series. Dead pieces dot the landscape like the remnants of Caspar
David Friedrich's Arctic Shipwreck; on the horizon, a king and queen
approach. The four steeds of Horsepower, each with a pawn rider, charge
into a lurid red light like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Valley of the Kings is no royal Egyptian burial area but a kind of
junkyard to which battered and broken kings have been consigned. Underneath the
rickety table on which they sit, pawns cluster in what looks like a brick oven
-- or worse. It's horrific, but the real nightmare here is the triptych
Messengers of Lost Prophecies. The messenger in the left panel has metal
wings and a strange sort of Roman helmet/oil lamp for a head, with a pawn where
the tongue should be (Red Knight has a similar odd, Bosch-like figure).
On the right there's giant broken pawn, also winged, that's been
hoisted/hanged. In the middle the head of a large pawn can be seen inside what
could be a confessional, or a bank window, or a crematorium. Outside, other
pawns, some upright, some not, await their fate.
Group Portrait holds the place that Return to Paradise did in
Bak's 1998 Pucker show. Overhead the banner hangs from a mast, but there's no
sign of water. The pieces, all different colors, look like Holocaust survivors:
the queen appears only as a plywood cutout; one bishop is represented by a tin
miter; a pawn travels on a wheeled cart; some shards of dice have infiltrated.
These troops are beaten but they haven't quit -- they just don't know who
they're fighting anymore.
Chess is, indeed, like life, and Group Portrait is Samuel Bak's family
of humankind. Like Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch, he cuts the horror of
his insight with the seductiveness of his colors (gorgeous warm reds and
yellows and greens and blues); then he throws in a generous dollop of
Botticelli's idealism. It's truth that sears and salves and sets us all free.