A portrait of the artist
12 August 1933|
|Education||Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, École des Beaux-Arts|
Born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna - Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), Bak was recognized from an early age as possessing extraordinary artistic talent. He describes his family as "secular, but proud of their Jewish identity." Immediately following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Vilna and the whole East of Poland was attacked by the USSR. After one month though, the Soviets retreated, giving back the city to the Republic of Lithuania. An estimated 50,000 Jews found refuge in the city.
As Vilna came under German occupation on June 24, 1941, Bak and his family had to move into the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he had his first exhibition inside the ghetto, even as massive executions and murders perpetrated by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators took place almost every day. Bak and his mother escaped the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto by seeking refuge in a Benedictine convent. They were helped by a Catholic nun named Maria Mikulska. From the convent they had to flee back to the Vilna ghetto, and were then deported to a forced labour camp, and found refuge again in the convent where they remained in hiding until the end of the war.
By the end of the war, Samuel and his mother were the only members of his extensive family to survive. His father, Jonas, was shot by the Germans in July 1944, only a few days before Samuel's own liberation. As Bak described the situation, "when in 1944 the Soviets liberated us, we were two among two hundred of Vilna's survivors--from a community that had counted 70 or 80 thousand." Bak and his mother as pre-war Polish citizens were allowed to leave Soviet-occupied Vilna and travel to central Poland, at first settling briefly in Łódź. They soon left Poland for good and traveled into the American occupied zone of Germany. From 1945 to 1948, he and his mother lived in Displaced Persons camps in Germany. He spent most of this period at the Landsberg am Lech DP camp in Germany. It was there he painted a self-portrait shortly before repudiating his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Bak also studied painting in Munich during this period, and painted "A Mother and Son", 1947, which evokes some of his dark memories of the Holocaust and escape from Soviet-occupied Poland.
In 1948, he and his mother immigrated to Israel, and four years later he studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Bak spent most of his time in Israel studying and living in a modest flat in Tel Aviv and did not paint very much during that period. He continued his studies in Paris, and then lived in Rome, in Israel, in Switzerland and then moved to the U.S.A.
||This section is in a list format that may be better presented using prose. (April 2012)|
- 1933 On 12 August, Samuel Bak is born to an educated, cultured middle-class family in Vilna.
- 1941 On 24 June, the Germans occupy Vilna and order the Jews to wear the yellow Jewish Badge. Bak, aged eight, is charged with preparing badges for his parents and extended family.
- 1941 On 6 September, the deportation of Jews to the Vilna Ghetto is initiated. Samuel’s father is sent to a labor camp while the child and his mother flee the ghetto to the home of Janina Rushkevich, his grandfather’s sister who had been baptized in her youth. Janina finds shelter for the family in the city’s Benedictine convent, where the nun Marija Mikulska takes the child under her wing and supplies him with paint and paper.
- 1941 When the Germans suspect the convent of collaborating with Soviet forces, they place it under military jurisdiction. The Bak family is forced to flee again, returning to the Vilna Ghetto.
- 1943 In March, the poets Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski invite the nine-year-old Bak to participate in an exhibition organized in the ghetto. Sensing that their end is near, the poets decide to deposit the Pinkas, the official record of the Jewish community, into the hands of Bak in the hope that they both survive. Paper is a precious commodity and the white pages of the Pinkas beckon the young artist: he uses them to satisfy his craving to draw. Over the next two years, Samuel fills the page margins and empty pages of the Pinkas.
- 1943 Bak’s father is sent to the forced labor camp HKP 526, named after a unit of the Wehrmacht’s Engineering Corps (Heeres Kraftfahr Park). Samuel and his mother are sent to the camp later, upon the liquidation of the ghetto, on 24 September.
- 1944 On 27 March, a children’s Aktion takes place in the camp in which 250 children are sent to their death. Bak’s mother takes advantage of the confusion in the camp to flee while Samuel hides under a bed in the living quarters of one of the camp buildings. A few days later, his father smuggles him out of the camp in a sack of sawdust. Outside, by a pre-arranged signal, he links up with a woman waving his mother’s scarf. Janina Rushkevitch saved the family again, sending her maid with the mother’s scarf to fetch the child. Samuel and his mother are forced to look for shelter. Again, they make their way to the Benedictine convent, where they find shelter for 11 months, until liberation.
- 1944 On 2–3 July, forced laborers rounded up at the city’s camps, among them his father, are shot to death at the Ponary killing site, ten days before Vilna’s liberation.
- 1944 After liberation, Bak takes art lessons with academician Professor Serafinovicz, who cultivated the boy’s natural draftsmanship by having him draw from broken plaster casts. As pre-war Polish citizens, the family has the right to return to Poland and so move to Lodz. Bak continues his art studies with Professor Richtarski, an impressionist artist.
- 1945 After a short time in Berlin, Samuel and his mother arrive at the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp. They are greeted by survivor Natan Markowsky, who holds a senior position in the camp’s administration, and will later become Samuel’s stepfather.
- 1945 Bak is sent to Munich to study with Professor Blocherer. He frequents the city’s museums and becomes familiar with German expressionism.
- 1947 David Ben-Gurion visits Bad Reichenhall, where an exhibition of the art of the child prodigy, Samuel Bak, is organized in his honor. Bak’s art is published in the Hebrew newspaper, Davar HaShavua, and the Yiddish The Jewish Daily Forward in New York.
- 1948 Aged fifteen, Samuel arrives in Israel aboard the Pan York, carrying with him many artworks from the Landsberg DP camp.
- 1952 Prior to military service, he studies for one year at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.
- 1953–1956 Military service in the Israel Defense Forces.
- 1955 Meets Peter Frye, then one of Israel’s most prominent theater directors, who prompts him to design backdrops and costumes.
- 1956 Moves to Paris and enrolls at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Receives the first prize of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.
- 1959 Moves to Rome. That summer has a solo exhibition at the Robert Schneider Gallery in Rome and exhibits at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
- 1964 Exhibits at the Venice Biennale.
- 1966–1974 Returns to Israel.
- 1974–1977 Lives and works in New York.
- 1977–1980 Lives and works in Israel.
- 1980–1984 Lives and works in Paris.
- 1984–1993 Lives and works in Lausanne, Switzerland.
- 1993 Settles in Boston, Massachusetts and is represented by the Pucker Gallery.
- 2001 Bak returns to Vilna for the first time. During the following years he often visits his hometown.
- 2001 Publication of his book Painted in Words: A Memoir, ISBN 0-253-34048-9, which has been printed in four languages.
- 2002 Receives the Herkomer Cultural Prize in Landsberg, Germany.
- 2013-2014 Retrospective Exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town
Artistic style and influences
- Samuel Bak is a conceptual artist with elements of post-modernism as he employs different styles and visual vernaculars, i.e. surrealism (Salvador Dali, René Magritte), analytical cubism (Picasso), pop art (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) and quotations from the old masters. The artist never paints direct scenes of mass death. Instead, he employs allegory, metaphor and certain artistic devices such as substitution: toys instead of the murdered children who played with them, books, instead of the people who read them. Further devices are quotations of iconographical prototyes, i.e. Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" (1511/12) on the Sistine Ceiling or Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving entitled "Melencholia" (1516). He turns these prototypes into ironical statements. Irony in the art of Samuel Bak does not mean parody or derision, but rather disenchantment, and the attempt to achieve distance from pain. Recurring symbols are: the Warsaw Ghetto Child, Crematorium Chimneys or vast backgrounds of Renaissance landscape that symbolize the indifference of the outside world. These form a disturbing contrast with the broken and damaged images in the foreground. Samuel Bak's paintings cause discomfort, they are a warning against complacency, a bulwark against collective amnesia with reference to all acts of barbarism, worldwide and throughout the ages, through his personal experience of genocide.
While Bak's work is complex and difficult to characterize, a few themes stand out:
- In Childhood Memories, 1975, the pear, possibly the fruit of knowledge, evokes the loss of paradise and discovery of war. Pear trees are also ubiquitous in many areas of Europe, especially Vilna, where Bak grew up.
- The possibility of repair, the repair of a broken world, tikkun olam, is an important meaning contained in many of his still life works.
- Bak's childhood frustration with the story of Genesis, and his admiration for the genius of Michelangelo, blend in his post-Holocaust visiting of this theme.
- Still lifes—in times when life is never still, never sufficiently protected, nor granted to everyone—attracted him as a metaphor full of symbolic implications.
- Chess as a theme of life has always fascinated Bak. In the DP camps and in Israel, he often played chess with his stepfather Markusha. Underground II, 1997, portrays chess pieces in a sunken, subterranean evocation of the Vilna ghetto.
- A solitary boy can also be seen in his works. The boy represents his murdered childhood friend, Samek Epstein, and the memory of himself as a child during the Shoah.
- In Bak’s 2011 series featuring Adam and Eve (which comprised 125 paintings, drawings and mixed media works), the artist casts the first couple as lone survivors of a biblical narrative of a God who birthed humanity and promised never to destroy it. Unable to make good on the greatest of all literary promises, God becomes another one of the relics that displaced persons carry around with them in the disorienting aftermath of world war. Viewers often describe Bak as a tragedian, but if classical tragedy describes the fall of royal families, Bak narrates the disintegration and disillusion of the chosen people. Bak draws upon the biblical heroes of the Genesis story, yet he is more preoccupied with the visual legacy of the creation story as immortalized by Italian and North Renaissance artists.A collection of images from the Adam and Eve series can be viewed here.
Now 80, the artist continues to deal with the artistic expression of the destruction and dehumanization which make up his childhood memories. He speaks about what are deemed to be the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust, though he hesitates to limit the boundaries of his art to the post-Holocaust genre. He creates a visual language to remind the world of its most desperate moments. A collection of Samuel Bak's works are on permanent display at Pucker Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts and many exhibitions of his artwork are held in leading international museums and galleries.
- Samuel Bak, Paintings of the Last Decade, A. Kaufman and Paul T. Nagano. Aberbach, New York, 1974.
- Samuel Bak, Monuments to Our Dreams, Rolf Kallenbach. Limes Verlag, Weisbaden & Munich, 1977.
- Samuel Bak, The Past Continues, Samuel Bak and Paul T. Nagano. David R. Godine, Boston, 1988.
- Chess as Metaphor in the Art of Samuel Bak, Jean Louis Cornuz. Pucker Art Publications, Boston & C.A. Olsommer, Montreux, 1991.
- Ewiges Licht (Landsberg: A Memoir 1944-1948), Samuel Bak. Jewish Museum, Frankfurt, Germany, 1996.
- Landscapes of Jewish Experience, Lawrence Langer. Pucker Art Publications, Boston & University Press of New England, Hanover, 1997.
- Samuel Bak – Retrospective, Bad Frankenhausen Museum, Bad Frankenhausen, Germany, 1998.
- The Game Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak, Pucker Art Publications, Boston & Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.
- In A Different Light: The Book of Genesis in the Art of Samuel Bak, Lawrence Langer. Pucker Art Publications, Boston & University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.
- The Art of Speaking About the Unspeakable, TV Film by Rob Cooper. Pucker Art Publications, Boston, 2001.
- Between Worlds: Paintings and Drawings by Samuel Bak from 1946-2001, Pucker Art Publications, Boston, 2002.
- Painted in Words: A Memoir, Samuel Bak. Pucker Art Publications, Boston & Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002.
- Samuel Bak: Painter of Questions, TV Film by Christa Singer. Toronto, Canada, 2003.
- New Perceptions of Old Appearances in the Art of Samuel Bak, Lawrence Langer. Pucker Art Publications, Boston & Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2005.
- Samuel Bak: Life Thereafter, Eva Atlan and Peter Junk. Felix Nussbaum Haus & Rasch, Verlag, Bramsche, Osnabrueck, Germany, 2006.
- Return to Vilna in the Art of Samuel Bak, Lawrence Langer. Pucker Art Publications, Boston & Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2007.
- Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak, Danna Nolan Fewell, Gary A. Phillips and Yvonne Sherwood, Eds. Pucker Art Publications, Boston, and Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2008.
- Icon of Loss: The Haunting Child of Samuel Bak, Danna Nolan Fewell and Gary A. Phillips. Pucker Art Publications, Boston, and Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2009.
- Retrospective Journey into the art of Samuel Bak. Ute Ben Yosef. The South African Jewish Museum. Cape Town, 2013.
Selected museum exhibitions
- Bezalel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel – 1963
- Tel Aviv Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel – 1963
- Rose Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA – 1976
- Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany – 1977
- Heidelberg Museum, Heidelberg, Germany – 1977
- Haifa University, Haifa, Israel – 1978
- Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, Germany – 1978
- Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, Germany – 1978
- Kunstmuseum, Wiesbaden, Germany – 1979
- Stadtgalerie Bamberg, Villa Dessauer, Germany – 1988
- Koffler Center for the Arts, Toronto, Canada – 1990
- Dürer Museum, Nuremberg, Germany – 1991
- Temple Judea Museum, Philadelphia, PA – 1991
- Jüdisches Museum, Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Germany – 1993
- Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, NY – 1994
- Janice Charach Epstein Museum and Gallery, West Bloomfield, MI – 1994
- National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, Seton Hall College, Greensburg, PA – 1995
- Spertus Museum, Chicago, IL – 1995
- South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. 2013-1014.
- B’Nai B’Rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, Washington, DC – 1997
- Holocaust Museum Houston, Houston, TX – 1997
- Panorama Museum, Bad Frankenhausen, Germany – 1998
- National Museum of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania – 2001
- Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, IN – 2001
- Florida Holocaust Museum, Saint Petersburg, FL – 2001, 2007, 2009
- Canton Museum of Art, Canton, OH – 2002
- Clark University, Worcester, MA – 2002
- Neues Stadtmuseum, Landsberg am Lech, Germany – 2002
- University of Scranton, Scranton, PA – 2003
- City Hall Gallery, Orlando, FL – 2004
- Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX – 2004
- Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN – 2004
- Felix Nussbaum Haus, Osnabrueck, Germany – 2006
- University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH – 2006
- Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem, Israel – 2006
- Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL – 2008
- Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, Tulsa, OK – 2008
- Keene State College, Cohen Holocaust Center, Keene, NH – 2008
- Brown University, John Hay Library, Providence, RI – 2009
- Wabash College, Eric Dean Gallery, Crawfordsville, IN – 2009
- DePauw University, The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics, Greencastle, IN – 2009
- Drew University, Korn Gallery and University Library, Madison, NJ – 2009
- Queensborough Community College, Holocaust Resource Center, Bayside, NY – 2009, 2010
- Holocaust Memorial Center, Zekelman Family Campus, Farmington Hills, MI – 2010
- Holocaust Museum Houston, Houston, TX - 2012
- Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak Resource Collection
- University of Minnesota, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
- Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority
- 2015 Samuel Bak interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star
- Painted in Words: A Memoir, Samuel Bak. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2002. ISBN 0-253-34048-9.
- Samuel Bak: Life Thereafter, Eva Atlan and Peter Junk. Felix Nussbaum Haus & Rasch, Verlag, Bramsche, Osnabrueck, Germany, 2006, p. 84. ISBN 3-926235-26-8.
- Samuel Bak’s Adam and Eve: On Holocaust and Beauty, Maya Balakirsky Katz. Pucker Art Publications, Boston, 2011, p. 2.