Samuel Bak

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Samuel Bak
Samuel Bak.jpg
Born (1933-08-12) 12 August 1933 (age 85)
Wilno, Poland
EducationBezalel Academy of Arts and Design, École des Beaux-Arts
Known forPainting

Samuel Bak (born 12 August 1933) is an American painter and writer who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel in 1948. Since 1993, he has lived in the United States.


Samuel Bak was born in Wilno, Poland, Bak was recognized from an early age as possessing extraordinary artistic talent. He describes his family as secular, but proud of their Jewish identity.

When Wilno was occupied by the Germans on June 24, 1941, Bak and his family were forced to move into the ghetto. At the age of nine, he held his first exhibition inside the Ghetto. Bak and his mother sought refuge in a Benedictine convent where a Catholic nun named Maria Mikulska tried to help them. After returning to the ghetto, they were deported to a forced labour camp, but took shelter 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 Wilno and travel to central Poland, at first settling briefly in Łódź. They soon left Poland 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, Bak and his mother immigrated to Israel. In 1952, he studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.[1] After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he continued his studies in Paris (from 1956 at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts[2]) and spent various periods of time in Rome, Paris, Switzerland and Israel before settling permanently in the United States.

In 2001, Bak returned to Vilnius for the first time and has since visited his hometown several times.[3]

The Family, oil on canvas, 1974

Artistic style and influences[edit]

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 Vilnius, 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, visually inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto boy photograph. 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.[4][5]

Bak 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. A collection of Samuel Bak's works are on permanent display at Pucker Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts.

Selected publications[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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 Hill College, Greensburg, PA – 1995
  • Spertus Museum, Chicago, IL – 1995
  • South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. 2013-2014.
  • 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


  1. ^ Painted in Words: A Memoir, Samuel Bak. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2002. ISBN 0-253-34048-9.
  2. ^ "Samuel Bak". Medizin+Kunst, 1/1996, p. 12.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Samuel Bak’s Adam and Eve: On Holocaust and Beauty, Maya Balakirsky Katz. Pucker Art Publications, Boston, 2011, p. 2.
  5. ^ A collection of images from the Adam and Eve series Archived 2011-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.

External links[edit]