Art of the Week

Samuel Bak (b.1933)
Landscapes of Jewish Experience: Study of Stars, 1992
Mixed media, 49 x 63 cm.
Gift of Samuel Bak

Bak was born in Vilna. A few years later the area was incorporated into the independent republic of Lithuania. He was eight when the Germans occupied the city. Bak began painting while still a child and, prompted by the well-known Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, held his first exhibition (in the Vilna ghetto) in 1942 at the age of nine. From the ghetto, his family was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of the city. Bak’s father managed to save his son by dropping him in a sack out of a ground floor window of the warehouse where he was working; he was met by a maid and brought to the house where his mother was hiding. His father was shot by the Germans in July 1944, a few days before Soviet troops liberated the city. His four grandparents had earlier been executed at the killing site outside Vilna called Ponary. After the war, the young Bak continued painting at the Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany (1945–48). He also studied painting in Munich. In 1948, he and his mother immigrated to Israel, where he studied for a year at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. After fulfilling his military service, he spent three years (1956–59) at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He then moved to Rome (1959–66), returned to Israel (1966–74), and lived for a time in New York City (1974–77). There followed further years in Israel and Paris, then a long stay in Switzerland (1984–93). From 1993 Bak lived and worked outside Boston, in Weston, Massachusetts. In 2001 he published a detailed autobiography, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Indiana University Press).

Samuel Bak is arguably one of the two or three most important artists dealing with the Holocaust as an integral part of his work. On any list of five his name would appear. “My paintings,” Bak admitted more than a decade ago, “convey a sense of a world that was shattered, of a world that was broken, of a world that exists again through an enormous effort to put everything together, when it is absolutely impossible to put it together because the broken things can never be made whole again. But we still can make something that looks as if it was whole and live with it. And more or less, this is the subject of my painting, whether I paint still lives, or people, or landscapes, there is always something of that moment of destruction there. Even if I do it with very happy and gay colors, it has always gone through some catastrophe.” If he can be said to celebrate anything in this series, it is the stamina of the spirit of Jewish memory, affected and even afflicted by the powers of darkness, but never entirely annulled.

Painted in Words: A Memoir. Indiana University, 2001 (ISBN9780253340481)

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