Chess Midrash: The Art of Samuel Bak

Article excerpt

Chess Midrash: The Art of Samuel Bak

Daniel Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin writes about the arts for New York Jewish Week and is also an editor at kasparovchess.com, a website devoted to chess.

The Game Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak with introduction by Lawrence L. Langer. Pucker Gallery/Indiana University Press, 1999.

The game of chess--with its richness, complexity and barely suppressed violence--is an extraordinary metaphor for the human condition. Some of the most important fiction writers and poets of the last two centuries--Nabokov, Borges, Tolstoy, Canetti, Aleichem, Eliot, and others--have fully recognized the uncanny ability of a chess game to represent the contradictions, struggles, and hopes of human society. Despite the gigantic shadow cast by IBM's supercrunching Deep Blue computer's win over Garry Kasparov, the game of chess continues to offer lessons about what makes us essentially human.

Samuel Bak, a painter and child survivor of the Holocaust, has done visually what some of the best writers have done verbally--employ chess as a vehicle for exploring the brokenness of our world. More centrally, in his new book of paintings, The Game Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak," Bak lays out a visual midrash on Jewish fears and dreams in the post-Auschwitz age.

Bak's art, which has been shown internationally for many years, is rooted in loss, a certainty that any grandeur the world once possessed is long gone. His paintings are both surreal and utterly precise, Kafkaesque in their ability to simultaneously expose the almost criminal essence of much of human society while leaving open the possibility of redemption.

Bak's use of chess to mirror Jewish life in history is neither incidental nor glib--as Nabokov's approach often was--for chess has had a very specific, and symbolic, place in twentieth-century Jewish life. For many middle-class European Jews during the last century or so, chess--along with classical music--represented the core of Western culture and sophistication. The beauty and promise of the game represented Jewish possibilities in a Europe they believed would continue to welcome them with open arms.

On a purely intellectual level, chess was also a kind of substitute for the study of Talmud, since both activities required detailed analysis, an excellent memory, and a keen awareness of the great commentators/players who had come before. Every serious game of chess was a gloss on another serious game, and the tradition of chess strategies was a Gemara-like web that grew in depth and complexity as new generations of geniuses added their thoughts. In this regard, chess seemed like a continuation of an ancient pastime as well as a leap into the heart of European intellectual life.

The Holocaust, of course, was the checkmate for European Jews. This can be seen in the re-imagining of chess after the fall, from Stefan Zweig's 1942 novella, The Royal Game, to Paolo Maurensig's 1993 novel, The Luneburg Variation, as well as in The Game Continues and Bak's earlier Chess as Metaphor in the Art of Samuel Bak. In all of these works, the sense of loss, dislocation, and insanity is palpable. In The Luneburg Variation especially--an Italian novel about chess and the Holocaust--the absence of God is woven into the texture of the narration. God is only the best and most cunning chess player, or perhaps God is just the chess move itself.

There are many references in Holocaust literature, both in fiction and nonfiction, to how Jews, starving and filthy in the camps or in hiding, made chess a priority. They took great pains to fashion chess pieces out of garbage and bric-a-brac in order to continue playing a game that represented both personal continuity and some ideal of "civilization." Yossi Klein Halevi, in Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, describes how his father survived the war mentally while he lived with two other men in a hole in the ground outside his hometown in Transylvania: "While it was light, they played chess. …