Wings of desire

Samuel Bak’s ‘Remembering Angels’
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2008
TESTIMONIALS: God’s angels deliver messages; Bak’s angels just wait to receive them.

Slideshow: Samuel Bak's 'Remembering Angels'

“Remembering Angels: New Work By Samuel Bak” Pucker Gallery, 171 Newbury St, Boston | Through February 24
“The bow of promise, this lost flaring star,/Terror and hope are in mid-heaven, but She/The mighty-wing’ed crown’d Lady Melancholy./Heeds not.” That’s the beginning of Victorian poet Edward Dowden’s sonnet “Dürer’s ‘Melencholia,’ ” an ode to the Nürnberg artist’s engraving that depicts an angel seated and sunk in thought, à la Rodin’s Thinker, surrounded by a dizzy array: a bell, an hourglass, scales, a four-by-four magic square (the numbers in every row and column and diagonal add up to 34, and the middle numbers in the bottom row give the engraving’s date, 1514), a ladder, a grindstone with a putto seated on top, a truncated polyhedron with what some have seen as the ghostly impression of a human skull, a dog, a sphere, a caliper, a hammer, nails, a saw, a plane, a crucible. In her hands the angel holds a drafting compass, symbol of God’s act of creation; from her waist dangle keys and a purse. In the upper left, over a stillborn sea, the sun blazes (or perhaps it’s a comet), and a rainbow arcs, and a flying bat holds the engraving’s title, Melencolia I.

Dowden concludes by warning his reader not to “Expect this secret to enlarge thy store;/She moves through incommunicable ways.” More than 100 years later, our store has been enlarged only by the innumerable attempts at interpretation, among them Peter-Klaus Schuster’s two-volume Melencolia I: Dürers Denkbild. One of the four humors of Hippocrates and mediæval philosophy (as in George Balanchine’s 1946 ballet The Four Temperaments), “Melancholic” designates a thoughtful individual capable of being imaginative and creative but also prone to depression and sterile inaction. Dürer’s angel is imagination in freeze frame (it’s been suggested that the engraving’s title refers to the type of melancholy the contemporary German philosopher Cornelius Agrippa called “Melancholia Imaginativa”): she has, it seems, no idea what to do with any of the implements of creation and alchemy, and the light that’s breaking in the distance could be a comet presaging disaster rather than the sun promising illumination. She looks ahead to Hamlet and Keats and 20th-century ennui, the Age of Faith receding into the Age of Uncertainty. Half a millennium after her birth, in the wake of world wars and genocides, she’s become timeless.

Samuel Bak has wrestled with this angel before (The Traveller, Seascape with Melancholia, Angel of Travellers, Nürnberg Elegy), but in the “Remembering Angels” show that’s up now at Pucker Gallery, she’s the touchstone. Bak, who was born in 1933 in Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania), was with his mother one of the 200 survivors (out of 80,000) from the Vilna Ghetto; he lost his father and all four grandparents. Resident in Weston since 1993, after stops in Paris, Rome, Israel, New York, and Lausanne, he’s devoted his art to the Holocaust, asking his absent God not just “Why” but “What now?”

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