Self-portrait medium
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The content of this painting violates our surmise of what such a title usually intends. The boy who grew up in pre-war Vilna with an intact family is not the same as the one who survived the catastrophe remembering a murdered father and ruined community. The Holocaust has shattered the notion of a unified self. Indeed, the center of the picture is dominated not by the face of the living boy, but by the replica of the dead one, taken from the most famous photograph to emerge from the disaster. It reveals a frightened child, hands raised, being led from what might have been his hiding place in the Warsaw ghetto. His is a "counter-portrait," though the two likenesses are really inseparable, since the fate of the boy who was Bak is intimately linked to the to the doom of the victim whose image is imprinted on a crude assemblage of panels and canvas. On the left are some wooden cutouts of the posture that will be reproduced, the bullet-holes in the palms changing on the portrait into the stigmata of a crucified Christ. One of the muted themes of the entire series is the question of Christian responsibility for the destruction of European Jewry. The boy has only to straighten his arms to assume a cruciform position. At his elbow joint are two pieces of wood in the form of a tilted cross, though their X-shape also suggests the mystery of iniquity and — as a Roman numeral 10 — the defilement of the ten commandments.

Among other challenges, these paintings invite us to read their signs as complex visual images of strands of atrocity that will be rewoven into a tapestry of art. The rhythms of creation must somehow absorb the jagged heritage of loss. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the figure of the dead with raised arms imposes a blessing-curse on the seated child: "Remember me!" Whatever he achieves in the future, the living boy will be haunted by the memory of all the lost childhoods, including his own. The implement in his hand, presumably the shaft of a paintbrush, is a harbinger of his vocation, though Freudian commentators might also want to see in this detail a bond between creative and sexual energy....

The boy himself gazes at us like a post-Holocaust Mona Lisa, though his somber mouth betrays no hint of a smile. Instead both eyes and lips bid us to consider the violent past that has etched itself onto his inner vision. As this bitter seed sprouts and blooms, what role will it play in the later creation of the Landscapes of Jewish Experience?

The viewer is also invited to reflect on a sturdy pair of empty shoes, all that remains of a vast population of Jews whose bodies have been turned to ash. Who will wear them now, and how will he or she carry on the tradition of Jewish memory once transmitted by their former occupants? This question is deepened by the small stones in the foreground, holding down blank sheets of paper, reminding us of how the Holocaust has disrupted familiar Jewish customs for remembering the dead. Are these empty pages part of a Torah scroll at the boy's feet, and with what text will they be re-inscribed? Belching smokestacks in the distance. as well as hints of a community in flames, summon us to a vista of crimes whose impact will be portrayed in the subsequent paintings of the series.