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Divine comedies
Giotto, Giuliano, and Fra Angelico at the Gardner, Samuel Bak at the Pucker

"But to apprehend/The point of intersection of the timeless/With time, is an occupation for the saint," T.S. Eliot wrote in "The Dry Salvages," and though heís more likely to have had Juliana of Norwich than Giuliano da Rimini in mind, thatís the challenge currently posed by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Pucker Gallery. The Gardner has taken "Off the Wall" three of Mrs. Gardnerís most important Early Italian acquisitions and mounted them in the first-floor special-exhibition gallery, where they can converse with one another as well as with us and with God. Theyíd have a lot to say too to the Puckerís exhibition of Samuel Bak, whose Holocaust-haunted vision is no less holy.

The Gardner has been counterpointing Museum of Fine Arts blockbusters with "infinite riches in a little room" shows ó Titian, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Cosmè Tura ó that give you at most a half-dozen masterpieces and invite reflection rather than rambling. This is the first such show drawn entirely from Mrs. Gardnerís collection; itís also the first without an accompanying catalogue. No apology is necessary for any exhibit that makes paintings by Giotto and Fra Angelico more accessible, but I wish the light this one sheds could have been intellectual as well as physical.

Granted, itís all but impossible to borrow a Giotto or Fra Angelico from another institution, and bringing in the Gardnerís other Early Italian masterpieces (Simone Martiniís Orvieto polyptych and Virgin and Child) wouldnít have made for a more focused exhibit. Giulianoís Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints bears not only the name of the painter but also its date, 1307. Giottoís Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple was done around the same time, and though Fra Angelicoís Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin is a century later (1430Ė1435), itís closer in feeling than the Simone Martini works (circa 1320Ė1325) would have been. The irony is that whereas we know nothing about Giuliano except that he painted this Virgin and Child, we know everything about Giotto and Fra Angelico except whether they themselves executed Mrs. Gardnerís two paintings, both of which have been attributed to workshops.

The impulse for the generically titled "New Perspectives on Early Italian Art" was the 2002 conservation of the Giuliano. The silver leaf of the Virginís white robe had tarnished; the brocade pattern that had been scratched into the tempera has been painstakingly restored but not the brocade on the gold leaf of her bodice and train. This halfway house makes its own visual sense, but you might still wish the Gardner had explained the decision in greater detail. The altarpiece itself was commissioned by the Order of Poor Clares (a womanís order inspired by the Franciscans) for a convent church in Urbania (about halfway between Arezzo and Rimini), and itís notable for the row of female saints at the bottom: Clare, Catherine of Alexandria, Agnes, Lucy. The stigmatization of St. Francis at the upper left looks to have been inspired by Giottoís version in the Upper Church at Assisi.

Dwarfed by Giulianoís large (179 by 320 centimeters) painting in size, Giottoís Presentation and Fra Angelicoís Dormition and Assumption both dwarf it in achievement. X-rays of the wood grain have proved that the Giotto was originally part of a seven-scene panel depicting the life of Christ whose other parts now reside in New York, London, Munich, and Florence. The Gardnerís wall commentary includes a re-created color reproduction of that panel but no reproduction of the Presentation in the Temple from Giottoís Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua. The mystical blue ground of the Arena Presentation both gives birth to its figures and, in the angle its temple forms with the picture plane, projects them into space. The Gardner Presentation is more conventional with its gold-leaf ground and four-square temple and less individual figures. Yet itís here that Jesus extends his left hand to silence Simeon. In the Gospel of St. Luke, Simeon is ready to depart in peace after setting eyes on the Messiah and pronouncing the "Nunc dimittis"; here, Jesus acts to forestall his death.

Fra Angelicoís Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin is likewise part of a set, in this case a quartet of reliquary panels commissioned by Fra Giovanni Masi for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Gardner has provided color reproductions of the other three as well as an illustration of the "extension" that a previous collector ordered so as to turn the piece into a more conventional rectangle. Mrs. Gardnerís good taste in reframing her purchase to match the original is patent. Whatís less evident is any appreciation of the intellectual legacy bequeathed Fra Angelico by Thomas Aquinas (both were Dominican friars), one aspect of which Georges Didi-Huberman cites as "the Thomist dogma of the Virgin conceptualized as a cause, the material cause of the incarnation of the Word." Didi-Hubermanís generative view of Fra Angelicoís landscape leads inevitably to the identification of the Virgin with the temple, a notion that would have cross-fertilized both versions of Giottoís Presentation. (In the Arena Chapel, Simeon and Mary stand outside the structure; in the Gardner work, they reach out to each other through it.) The conjunction of Giotto and Fra Angelico in one room is a rare and treasurable event. But the apprehension of the intersection of the timeless with time is left to the viewer.

Born 1933, Samuel Bak is one of 200 Jews (out of 80,000) who survived the Nazi destruction of the Vilna Ghetto. He lost his father, his grandparents, his culture, his entire world. In the catalogue that accompanies "New Perceptions of Old Appearances," Stephen Feinstein writes, "Those who are interested in theology see in his paintings a visual Midrash, focusing on the problem of God and Jewish identity in the aftermath of the Shoah."

Bak, who now lives in Weston, is a prolific artist; sometimes it seems heís determined to turn out a painting for every Jew who was exterminated. Certainly every painting puts a question to God. His iconography, like that of Giotto and Fra Angelico, juxtaposes absence and presence, visible and invisible, time and timeless. He draws from Hebrew Scripture but also from the Gospels and the history of Western art. His trademark figures include the moody angel of Dürerís 1514 etching Melencolia I and the boy with hands raised from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto photo; he conflates house chimneys with crematorium chimneys, the Tablets of the Law with headstones, yellow leaves with yellow Stars of David, crosses with scaffolds. His Pucker Gallery shows are usually generated by a single image. Last yearís " . . . Your Move" represented life as a game of chess that we seemed to be playing less with one another than against God. The massive 2002 show "Return to Vilna I and II" grew out of the tree ó frequently uprooted ó as a symbol of Jewish and human culture and the forest as a grim reminder of the one where Bakís father and grandparents were shot.

"New Perceptions of Old Appearances" is actually a matter of new "pear-ceptions." Genesis does not identify the fruit that Eve gives to Adam; Western tradition has made it an apple, but for Bak, itís the pear that represents our humanity and our mortality ó itís even human-shaped. In the charcoal drawing Humble, a pear lying on its side is wrapped in a swaddling cloth/pajama, the infant Jesus, or any infant. In the oil triptych Enactment, the three pears are Jesus and the two thieves ó or any three Jews, or any three persons ó being crucified. (The swaddling cloth has now become a loincloth/drapery, Bak using it to tie his works together and also to bind them to the iconography of Renaissance Nativities and Crucifixions.) In between, pears are eaten (Close Up), sacrificed (the Sanctuary series), sliced (Reflection, with its Kristallnacht allusion), shot (Multiple Studies with Holes), rescued/removed (Swinging), executed (Exposure and Second Exposure), entombed (Protected). They huddle together in Gathering (where Feinstein suggests they might be trying to make up a minyan) and Group Power, Godís people in the wilderness, no power in sight. Theyíre the Tower of Babel and a slightly misshapen Earth.

Absent Presence and Present Absence take up the Augustinian trio of memory, perception, and imagination, the first a still life placed against a plywood pear with easel and gallows allusions all in a setting of red rocks, as if Godís holy mountain were oozing blood, the second a reverse pear silhouette through which we see Ponar, the Vilna execution forest, with a dove to remind us both of Godís (absent) pledge to Noah and of Bakís (absent) father, Jonas. (The Hebrew word for "dove" is "yonah.") Coffee Break is one of the two works here with a prominent figure, a man whose world has been flash-fractured. The outdoor table heís been sitting at is smashed; a bottle, a goblet, and a partly eaten pear are sliding to the ground. The man is lying on his side, still seated in his chair, still drinking his coffee; above him, part of the table hangs in a tree, forming a gibbet. The seated man in Close Up holds a knife and a partly eaten pear, but he himself is emerging from (or being enclosed and eaten by?) two halves of a giant pear.

The complexity of his work suggests that Bak could hold his own with Augustine or Aquinas; yet itís his simplicity thatís often most moving. Between Then and Now has just two elements, a pear, leaning slightly, and a lit candle propped against it and dripping wax all over. Godís promises, Godís tears, humanityís tears. Like the work of Giotto and Giuliano and Fra Angelico, simple and yet not.

"Off the Wall: New Perspectives on Early Italian Art"

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through January 9.

"Samuel Bak: New Perceptions of Old Appearances"

At the Pucker Gallery through November 30.

Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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