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Shmuel Bak was born 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.
When Vilna was occupied by the Nazis on June 24, 1941, Bak and his family were forced to move into the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he held his first exhibition inside the ghetto. Bak and his mother sought refuge in a Benedictineconventwhere a Catholic nun named Maria Mikulska tried to help them. After returning to the Vilna 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 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.
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 ametaphor 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.
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.
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.