Features and texts of various authors about the artist and his work
"Like the inexorable visions of Dante and Milton, Samuel Bak’s uncontainable cascades of unparalleled images plumb the deeps of the moral imagination. A deluge of genius, they are more than merely rending; they are silencing. They catch at the throat and strangle, they burn with history’s meaning, they strike hard against metaphysical ease. To gaze at Bak’s art is to learn to see and to feel and to know." (Cynthia Ozick, 2017)
When I arrived in Israel in 1948, the war for its survival and independence was still raging. I was 15, a gifted teenager.
At 23, when I left for my art studies in France, Israel was merely 8 years old, a young, small, idealistic, and struggling society, lightyears away from what it is now.
Much had gone on in my life between those two significant dates. As an adolescent, I brought with me boundless expectations, some bewilderment and regret (of being brought to Israel and not to Paris!), and a deeply buried trauma inflicted by what had gone on in my world up till then: the paradise of childhood, the hell of the Holocaust, and the limbo of the DP Camps.
Eight years later I left, supposedly a young man with a clear sense of pride in his fresh identity and a brand-new passport. Having completed all my obligations, including the military service, I was seemingly mature. And when I boarded the plane, wearing a jacket and tie, holding two small suitcases with my worldly belongings wisely packed by Mother’s loving hands, I surely looked contented. Yet I was full of contradictions and more open to future disenchantments than I dared to imagine.
True, between those two ages I somehow evolved as an artist and tasted the beginnings of a professional success. But too many obligations, and above all the need to make money and overcome the labyrinthine bureaucracies of that era demanded a huge effort. They consumed much of my precious time, intended for art, and left in me a keen sense of frustration. I was hungry for freedom.
Certainly, as a person I had somehow matured, but I was far from knowing who I really was, what were my unpronounced and hidden desires, my potentials, my capacity for consistent choices, the nature of my looming limitations, and ultimately – my goals.
I wish I had kept a diary. It would be wonderful to hold it right now in my hands and read from its yellowing pages an array of daily briefings, thoughts, and – probably - naive observations of that complex era. No doubt, I witnessed times of our history that were dramatic, crucial, and unrepeatable. Alas, since such a document does not exist, I must rely on my gray cells. Memory, I know, will be as imperfect as it always is, when the system of remembering is asked to do us this favor.
But I wish to tell the story of the marking experiences of those eight years, the ones which have so much shaped the young Samek, the teenage Shmuel, the future Samuele, the Sami and the Sam of today. Bonding friendships, encounters, accomplishments, and vicissitudes that contributed to who I have become: the Samuel Bak that now, at 88 writes these lines.
Art and life are inseparable. The various art-teachers that I had encountered in the above-mentioned period, - about whom I have already written - gave me an undisputed know-how. But they did not determine the nature of the art that I would create. It was Life with a capital L that shaped me as an artist. I know, it sounds like a cliché. . .
My past achievements and my losses, my wanderings and wonderings, my existential needs, and my forever willing adaptability, as well as my search for answers to innumerable queries – in the period that I am describing, as well as later - all these experiences made me go beyond the mere pleasure of producing art for its own sake, for its mere beauty, for showing off my skills.
I realized that I had the means to visibly speak of what I profoundly care about. Our human condition, man’s malleable nature, its capacity for destructiveness and resilience, the elusive sense of right and wrong, the self-evident importance of truth and the challenging perception of reality, past, present, and the one of the things to come.
All that has brought me to the present writeup.
In 1948 my Stepfather Markusha got a modest job at the Bank of Industry and Commerce in Tel Aviv. He had a small salary but was able to obtain a loan, so 1949 brought us a home of our own. We were entitled to the allocation of a small, low-rent flat, consisting of a room-and a-half. We lived in a row of identical, quickly erected buildings in a burgeoning neighborhood called Yad Eliahu, that belonged to the municipality of Tel Aviv.
The half-room was exclusively mine. It contained a foldable bed, a small easel, a bookshelf, a chair, a desk and barely the possibility to navigate between all this encumberment. I also received an old and heavy bike to drive to my new high school.
Most of the tenants of the subsidized buildings in which we lived were survivors. Some of them were friends from times bygone. My stepfather’s friends were from Kovno (today Kaunas) Mother’s from Vilna. For people like us, penniless newcomers, there were no phones, no private cars, and the mail was unreliable. The public transportation, which equaled forever overpacked busses was very erratic. Yet, despite all these misgivings, Mother - forever the queen of social gatherings - instituted on all Saturday evenings her “Open House”. It was impossible to say how many guests to expect or who would come, but most of the times people crowded our modest abode, shared chairs, sat on the beds, and sometimes on the floor.
I shall never forget these evenings. The only thing in abundance was tea, but not sugar. Israel’s economy was in a crisis. We were amid severe food rationing. Yet, like a magician, Mother conjured her famous Babka and shared it with all present. The usual treats were marinated herrings, hard boiled eggs, and fried eggplants that pretended to be chopped chicken liver. The conversations of the adults were animated, at times hilarious, occasionally nostalgic, and sad, and always politicized, and I never missed them.
I felt comfortable with the adults, they were my world, and I was their kibitzer. They felt so much closer than most of my classmates, only very few in my school shared the experience of past upheavals and the awareness of expatriation, but we never spoke of it.
Among us, the Olim Hadashim, the newcomers, something of the ambience of the Landsberg DP camp could not totally be dissolved. The almost permanently blue skies of Israel could not destroy Bavaria’s black clouds.
Across our street lived Mania, my mother’s best friend, and the mother of my best friend Samek. The boy, who was discovered in his hiding and murdered by the Nazis. Sholem, Mania’s new husband, who had lost his wife and children in the Shoah, used to be a colleague of my Father. Whenever Mania’s sad eyes looked at me they would fill with tears, even after she succeeded to get pregnant (in spite of her age and condition) and gave birth to a daughter, in whom she found more apprehension than joy.
My old bicycle would carry me from Yad Eliahu to the old center of Tel Aviv, then a varied collection of derelict Bauhaus architecture. The Municipal School Aleph was on Balfour Street, near the huge water tower that was destined to disappear. It was considered the best high school of Israel, that undertook to prepare a generation of geniuses who would become Israel's future leaders in Humanities, Sciences, Economy and the Arts. Admitted to this institution were only the very best. The teachers, not even one missed the Dr. before his or her name.
Most importantly - the tuition was free, and this is the main reason why my penniless parents put me there using my talent for painting as an entry permit to this pressurized cauldron of ambitions. The effort that I had to provide was excruciating.
Furthermore, getting to my school took me half-an-hour of intense pedaling. I had to navigate between paved streets, rough terrain, major roads, train passages and excavations for ongoing constructions. It was a chore, especially in wintertime when the roads were wet, slippery, and covered by mud.
Luckily one of my stepfather’s friends worked for Israel’s daily evening paper, the Maariv’s, as a car driver. Every morning he took two well-known journalists who lived not far from our home to their headquarters in Tel Aviv. They were Shalom Rosenfeld and Shmuel Schnitzer, founders of this influential paper, both among the most famous voices of the press of that time. They agreed to make a place for me in the small car that must have known better days. What a car, what a relic, and yet what a privilege! The animated conversation of my benefactors never ceased to flow, and they were my daily lessons in politics, equity, intrigue, corruption and above all what the press could or couldn’t do, its moral responsibility and its intricacies. I would sit in my corner, make myself as little as possible, pretend to look at the passing landscape, and listen. Were they aware of their input into the evolution of my thinking?
As said, my school expected from all its pupils a huge effort, and in return it gave them a lot. At first sight, some of my memory of that time is akin to a condemnation to hard labor. But that is an obvious overstatement. I managed to have many wonderful times and memorable moments of great pleasure.
At 15 I was mostly self-taught, and my experience of collective schooling was meager and mostly incidental. I knew much about what wasn’t needed, and little about what was a must. I missed the basic knowledge of math, sciences, history, Jewish history, the Bible and English, and above all the key to everything: Hebrew.
For the acquisition of all these goodies there were no shortcuts. Discipline, hard work, and many, many hours of being bent over books. Gradually I made progress. Gradually I made friends with highly intelligent individuals. And not only the remarkable teachers that took care of us.
My closest friend became Adam Federgrin, a bespectacled boy that looked so much like me, that people confused our identities. Like me, he was an only child and desired a same-age brother. His father was a physician, not well paid because as a newcomer his knowledge of Hebrew was very limited. Adam and his parents survived the Shoah by a timely escape from Poland and arrived in Palestine via Iran. They lived in a very modest flat, but the Polish they spoke at home had about it something classy and slightly pretentious, a mark of much better times.
With Adam I spoke Hebrew and we both imagined that we belonged to another world, we were Israelis, and if not totally authentic, then in the process of becoming. There must have been something wrong about Adam’s parents as a couple, something kept secret. Adam was often sad, looked depressed, guarded, and I erroneously ascribed it to some painful matters of his heart. Perhaps some unrequited love? The way he looked at the girls in our class made me think of it. But I was wrong. The later years gave some clues about his pain.
Adam undertook the study of medicine in Jerusalem. For that purpose, he delayed his obligatory army service and was later enrolled as a certified physician. Having completed an officers course, he became the doctor of the army’s unit of paratroopers.
In the early sixties, at that time I was living in Rome, we met in my mother’s home on one of my visits from Italy. He wore Zahal’s olive uniform, was well-tanned, muscular, an inch or two taller than I remembered him. All smiles, he radiated a great deal of self-confidence. That was new to me.
My eldest daughter was still a toddler and I kept her in my arms. He looked at her, spoke of his girlfriend, the possibility of creating a family. He also spoke of his parents, they were always together. They had moved to an old and comfortable flat in a poor neighborhood, situated between Old Jaffa and the oldest part of Tel Aviv. The population was very poor and Dr. Federgrin accepted many patients without pay. He was now beleaguered by a huge crowd and seemed to enjoy it.
Sometime later a letter reached me in Rome in which Mother wrote that Adam was killed in one of the military exercises of his unit. He lost his life due to an excessive fatigue that made him fall asleep while driving his Jeep. An accident?
I thought of my friend Samek at 8, and of Adam at 28, and the Biblical Isaak at an age I do not know, the perpetual testing to which we are exposed, and the loss that makes no sense . . .
A year later I went to revisit Adam’s parents in their home on Nahlat Benyamin Street. I climbed a dark and dusty staircase and rang the bell that responded with a sigh. The door opened and I hardly recognized the mother, now gray and aged before her time. She spoke with a whisper, told me that her husband was in a synagogue, and made me follow her to her son’s room. His uniform hung on a chair, as if he would come out from one of the dark doors at any moment and put it on. The shoes were next to the chair and seemed overly polished. His parachuter’s beret with its known insignia of wings were under a small cube of glass. I felt that I was in a strange mausoleum, and the tongue stuck to my palate. I tried to hug the bereaved mother, but my intention made her feel uncomfortable. Shortly after I learned that Adam’s father died of a stroke. He died in the synagogue of his neighborhood, in which he began spending much of his time. Mutual friends said that he died of a broken heart. I do not remember Dr, Federgrin’s name. Shouldn’t it have been Abraham?
The study of the Bible had been a very important part in our high school’s curriculum, and not for religious reasons. We studied it as a work of literature or poetry. For us it represented several centuries of ancient Jewish culture, texts that were created in separate linguistic styles, altogether a cornerstone of what the Hebrew language could produce.
The bible I studied in Israel, and above all the way I did it, had little to do with the incredibly absorbing biblical stories of the patriarchs that I was told when, as a distraught child, I would open my mouth in amazement and imperceptibly swallow some boring food that slid from a spoon held by the hand of my zealous mother or nanny.
The bible that I studied spoke of all that man was capable. Slaughter of innocents, greed, injustice, perversions, murder, exile, and loss, but also social order, military strategies, discipline, social care, extasy, love etc. etc. I was particularly taken by the interpretations of the biblical texts that were created over many centuries, representing changing attitudes of philosophy and research.
Israel of that time was a very left-leaning country. Yet it accepted two systems of education: religious and secular. The observant people had one, they wouldn’t open the Tanakh without wearing a kippah. While the secular had another, of which the country’s laborer-party, the Mapai, seemed very proud. Extreme nationalism was nominally disapproved, but nevertheless we were being brainwashed to accept our inevitable uniqueness. Who would question Israel’s incomparable exceptionalism? Yes, we were supposed to be the “New Jews”, heroic, proud, openminded, and as perfect as possible. We, the young ones, were to add to the bible a new chapter and do it with a vigorous crescendo. After all we were the people of the Book, which means books, books, and books (and an equal number of swords). And this Book, the Tanakh, was more than the matchless keeper of our language, it was the Fort Knox, the indestructible vault of our culture.
As important as Shakespeare (whom I had read in German) is for the British, and as essential for the English language and its literature. . .
English was for me another challenge, and not a very easy one. The school demanded a high standard of knowledge, several years of preparation. While I needed a shortcut, self-learning books helped me to reach a point in which its incomprehensible sounds became more and more comprehensible, and so ended my former giggling (a very hot potato in a speaker’s mouth – that is how English sounded to the ignorant youth that I was).
Gradually I began to understand some of the dialogs in American movies. And my reading of books, many books, mainly the ones that one couldn’t put down, (to hell with understanding every word!) transported me to other shores. I even began to distinguish accents. Hollywood had actors who were unintelligible. But others, especially with names like Von Stroheim, Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, or Peter Lorre, spoke the language as clearly and as understandably as our English Teacher, Dr. Alex Aronson, whose German accent was of great help. He was born in Breslau in 1912, as my mother’s year.
I guess he never realized how much I admired him. A certain shyness of a young person stood in my way. I knew that many of my classmates were in awe of him. There was something very moving in the way he treated us with respect and generosity, and it touched all of us. He might have been the first important father-figure-of-choice that I secretly adopted in my heart, I loved his classes. Romantic poetry, Woodsworth, Shelley, Keats, contemporaries like E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, G.B. Shaw, and above all the towering Shakespeare. All these English treasures seemed to go so well with his tall stature, his clear eyes, blondish undulated hair, and a collection of well starched and checkered shirts which were his distinctiveness. Macbeth, was in our curriculum. Wow, what a play, and what a slaughterhouse, and how could one forger these lines?
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Lines of such despair, chilling! And so much at the opposite pole of the luminous future that I was expected to embrace. I, the new citizen of a very small country, the Israel before 1967, which dreamt of unlimited greatness, spiritual, and why not territorial?
At his small ground floor flat, in the school’s vicinity, Dr. Aronson voluntarily offered a small group of interested classmates a reading and analysis of Julius Ceasar, biscuits and lemonade included.
What a bonus. There, he not only delighted us by a submersion into literary texts, and their analysis, but he filled our late afternoons with music that he produced on his upright piano. Preferably sonatas of Beethoven, which he accompanied with explanations and sonorous illustrations. I do not know if he was an accomplished pianist, but the ease with which his fingers manipulated the keyboard, seemed to me sheer magic.
There was a touching magic in his easy disdain for certain undisputed rules of our establishment, where every minute was sacred and the transfer of knowledge had to happen with maximal efficiency. Sometimes he would put aside the books of grammar or classics, whose subjects awaited our forthcoming exams, and tell us stories about himself, about India, about the time he worked at the Rabindranath Tagore University, and its incredibly rich archives, which he had helped to create and direct. He told us stories about monkeys that used to take advantage of open windows and search the pockets of his pants, even the ones he wore. Heartbreaking was the story about the suicide by refusing food of the Great Indian Poet’s dog, that followed Tagore in his death. Sometimes, while teaching, Aronson would murmur a suggestion, that if a few pupils of our class preferred to listen to a rehearsal of the Philharmonic, under the baton of Bernstein or Villa Lobos, which at that instant were held in a hall nearby, he would close his eyes . . .
A few of us were even entrusted the secret of his affair with a “certain lady.” We were his clandestine letter-carriers, but we never met the fortunate lady, and her letterbox was supposed to carry an alias. Years later it downed on me that this mysterious romance might have been a ploy to distance us from wondering, even suspecting his soul’s preference: the phantomatic lady, or the go-betweens? There had never been any hint of anything else.
I shall forever carry a very fond memory of Alex Aronson and a true sense of gratitude. Over the years I often wondered what I would give for a return in a time machine to one of his classes, in the since long demolished building of my high school. He left it in the mid-fifties, when I was serving in the army, and became one of the founders of the Tel Aviv University’s English department. He also taught in Jerusalem and in Haifa, where he took his retreat. He died in 1995. But this isn’t the end of his story.
How great was my surprise that when reading online an interview with Ori Bernstein, an Israeli poet of my generation, I discovered that Ori’s admiration and sense of debt to our shared teacher converged with my own feelings. I followed up with a search on the internet and in a New Dehli bookshop found The Seeds of Time published in India and bound in sari fabric: Aronson’s Autobiography in three volumes, they arrived via mail. More books followed, about 6, published in the US by Indiana Press or Vintage, on Music and The Novel, on Psyche and Symbol in Shakespeare, on the Concealed Self in Diaries; they added up to the collection of his priceless output that I possess.
They are ready whenever I wish to return to my youth, to my old class with Dr. Aronson and feel again that eager hunger for the exploration of the secret mechanisms that shape our souls and make them tick. I imagine my friend Adam, barely 16, sitting next to me, as always his glasses slip down his nose, a small bead of sweat hangs above his mouth, and we drink Dr. Aronson’s words. And then in one gulp seventy years go by, and it is today.
But I know that tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after that, I shall be able to open one of his books and again hear his familiar voice and its accent that discloses his birthplace.
And when I go on thinking of all the people who have much invested in my young person, and contributed to my becoming who I am, the list seems endless. In an earlier write up of remembrances, dedicated to my important art teachers, I wrote about the theater and film director Peter Frye, and the preeminent role he played in my becoming a well-appreciated stage and costume designer. He was yet another father-figure who is deeply embedded in my heart. My story of our long friendship, and my ongoing friendship with his widow, the actress Thelma Ruby, is a necklace of priceless memories. Peter was a provocateur, and fought for what he believed in.
Another friend, even a greater inciter and fiercer fighter than Peter, who generously contributed to the formation of my thinking before I left Israel for my studies, led a very active life until his mid-nineties, and kept on writing with an astonishing clarity and brilliance. A massive stroke suddenly ended his life. I was employed by him as an illustrator of the weekly publication, which he owned and edited; and because of our collaboration we became quite close. The savings of what I gained of that work allowed me to undertake my studies at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris.
I shall never forget how we met. I was 18. It was a hot summer afternoon of a lazy Saturday, and I was enjoying a much-needed siesta. Mother woke me: “There is a young boy who is looking for you, He waits on the landing of the staircase.” I needed a while to emerge from my sleep. Opening the door and perceiving his silhouette against a sunlit wall it took me a moment to realize that the so-called boy was perhaps ten years my senior, and moreover, not less than the well-known Uri Avneri, whose provocative weekly paper, Haolam Haze, dealt with all the crucial issues of Israel’s reality.
Apparently, he had heard that I was a young art student, able to produce lifelike illustrations and that was exactly what he was looking for. I agreed on condition that I could sign them with a fictitious name, Bak was reserved for my paintings. . . And so, over more than four years I kept on producing covers and illustrations for his popular weekly.
In later years Uri became a parliamentarian, very much to the left, and disregarding all the severe interdictions of that time, he was the first Israeli to meet in 1982 face to face with Arafat in Beirut.
For years I would read his courageous articles that often irritated the Jewish establishment. I did it with a growing admiration and shared them with my wife Josee.
Again, as with Alex, I travel in time and think of all the numerous encounters we had in the faraway years, of our limitless enthusiasm, hopeful anticipation, risk of disappointment, fog, clarity and fog, - and the inevitability of acceptance of something that wasn’t completed, the structure of our world.
Uri Avneri was a man of incredible courage. As a confrontational publisher and political activist, he faced severe attacks, physical harm, and several attempts on his life.
Fortunately, I do not belong to his league, nor could my peace seeking nature make me face its ongoing threat. But when I was 17, my magically safeguarded life had its moment of scare and it promises a good ending to this chapter.
In 1950, I was 17 years old. In the home of my parents’ friends, Raya and Aron Peretz, I met the young painters Yossl Bergner and his wife Audrey. They had arrived from Australia, via Paris, and were determined to settle in Israel. Yossl was no more than 30, had an amused round face with glittering eyes, Audrey was a lovely slender blonde with a disarming smile, who looked several years younger than her husband.
They had heard about me, as far away as Australia, the very young artist from Vilna, and were incredibly excited to meet. We spoke in Yiddish, I in my Vilna Yiddish, Yossl in his of Warsaw, and Audrey in the Yiddish she had expressly learned to better belong to the Jewish world. Yossl extracted from his wallet an old multi-folded yellowing paper, carefully unfolded it and presented it to me: “I brought it with me from Australia, hoping one day to meet you in person.” It was the centerpiece of the Israeli weekly Dvar HaShavuah dated when I was still in the DP camp, and it reproduced several of my drawings and watercolors. The pages were taken out from the issue dedicated to Moshe Sharet’s historically famous speech at the UN, which demanded the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Now the dream had become reality – The war of independence was over and the Bergners and I were in a Jewish state called Israel. True, lots of difficulties loomed on the horizon, but the feeling of great and never experienced enthusiasm was still in the air. Yossl, Audrey and I had finally met, with the help of Raya and Aron, and it was decided that at a given date the Bergners would come to my parents’ house for dinner. We would talk and talk and get to know each other. I was very excited, recognized artists had been talking to me as equal to equal.
That special dinner did not happen. In the morning of the day we expected their coming, I became sick. Stomachaches had been upsetting me already for a few weeks and had gotten much worse. After I threw up whatever was in my stomach, Mother brought in an elderly doctor who walked with a cane, and looked like a lovely grandfather. He checked me, squeezed me, listened to all my inner noises and after that tranquillized my distressed mother: “Nothing to worry about, nerves, probably nerves, the boy will be fine.” I wasn’t. And my situation grew more and more acute. Mother tried to reach the Bergners, to annul the evening’s encounter, but we didn’t have their phone number.
Night was falling. By the time they arrived, carrying a bunch of flowers, the expressions on their faces abruptly changed. I could hardly respond to their greeting, I was in bed and my room reeked of vomit. They excused themselves, the situation could not have been foreseen, they wished us all the luck in the world and we should keep them informed, they made more excuses about not yet having a phone, their inopportune arrival, and they left.
Clearly, my situation was not improving; it was grave. Mother knew neighbors that owned the rare commodity of a phone. She woke them, begged a thousand pardons and in extreme urgency called our friend Misha. Wisely she called him because a call for an ambulance, in that period of austerity would have been very impractical.
Mother trusted her old and devoted friend. Years ago, in 1943 at the Kinderakzie of the HKP camp, Dr. Misha Feigenberg and his wife Slava contributed to the saving of my life; my memoir, PAINTED IN WORDS speaks of it at length.
Fortunately, in Israel, in the evening in which the ferocious pains hit me, our Misha had a phone and a car and the physical strength to put me on his back, descend three floors, place me in his vehicle, drive through black streets to a private house, bring out from it a befuddled man in pajamas, and rush - uninterruptedly honking - to the emergency door of a hospital. I was too much in pain to understand that the man in pajamas with undone hair was a known surgeon. Then there was a mask on my face, I counted 10, 9, 8. . . and departed into deep anesthesia.
When I woke, I saw Mother’s exhausted and smiling face. I felt her hand on my arm and heard from her the summary of my frightening story. Apparently, my appendix exploded. Doctors worked on me for more than two hours to clean up my messy bowels. Now Misha was running around Tel Aviv in search for a new medication that was indispensable. “It kills bacteria even more efficiently than Nazis kill Jews”, Mother never lost her humor! “It is called something like penicillin or streptomycin”, she couldn’t remember, “Misha promised to get it, which is very, very difficult. But he has many connections. Perhaps the army has brought it from America. Misha said that he had saved me once and he will save me again. Saving Samek must form a habit.”
In later years Misha, became my urologist, and he saved one of my kidneys, but this is a very different story that belongs to a different sliver of my time on this planet.
The Bergners and I met as soon as I recovered, and we developed a very close relationship. They lived in an old Arab house in Saffad, and whenever I had a short vacation, I would board two or three of the smelly and overcrowded busses of that time that rattled over a network of roads in the making and reach their beautiful oasis. Always welcoming, and a small foldable cot was at my disposition.
Yossl was a great storyteller, and the art of painting was only a fraction of what we discussed, argued about, agreed, and agreed to disagree.
The last time we spoke on the phone Yossl was 96. He still joked about my Lithuanian Yiddish, while his was the Yiddish of the gangsters of Warsaw. As usual, he continued to complain about his body that succumbs to age. He said that he still paints, and the best part of his day is when his brushes fall out from his hands, and the lovely Philippine girl, who assists him, slowly bents over to pick them up.
The story of Samuel Bak and Israel wasn’t finished in 1950 by the rage of a ruptured appendix. My life went on, and a lot of it is awaiting more writeups.
(c) Samuel Bak, Weston, October 2021
Published with kind permission of the author.
My memoir entitled PAINTED IN WORDS was published two decades ago, shortly before the memorable date of NINE ELEVEN.
Earlier, in May of 2001, my wife Josée and I travelled to Lithuania to revisit my birth town Vilna, today Vilnius. A first visit after an absence of 56 years. A first—after years of being haunted by ineffaceable memories that demanded difficult acceptances and imposed a protecting distance. Memories of perilous escapes that were followed by interminable, and sometimes fascinating wanderings. Fortunately, a fruitful career in the arts and a gratifying life which spread over three continents nourished adaptability and strengthened my resilience. The undertaking of the journey to Vilna imposed a huge emotional effort. When we approached its airport my entire structure of inner defenses began to quiver. We had a very smooth landing, a most warm welcome, and an unexpectedly serene atmosphere appeased all my concerns. This stay was to add several pages to my book. Upon returning home, my past and present still banged at my door, but with less force. I succeeded in completing my manuscript and sent it to the printer. By the end of September, holding seats on one of the first planes rescheduled to depart Boston’s overcrowded and agitated airport, we again journeyed to Vilnius. This time for an opening of my large retrospective at its Museum of Fine Arts.
Two decades ago, I was in my late sixties. The lingering idea of “one-day-writing-a-memoir” had been continuously reproposing itself with an insistence that mounted. Obviously, my head was packed with recollections that echoed the darkest of times. All of them personal, visual, and gripping—and as fresh as if they just happened. So scary that I tried to imagine them as parts of an alternate reality. It wouldn’t work.
Human memory does not come with a guarantee of durability. I knew that my capacity to remember might one day surprise me and begin to depart. It might do it as furtively and as nefariously as it had deserted my stepfather Markusha. This ongoing apprehension became my sword of Damocles. About the time the twentieth century neared closure I acted. I decided to download on paper whatever crammed my overloaded head. A personal closure, a stockpile of pages that could be placed in a drawer. A chest of drawers from which I could walk away. Could I do it as a part-time project?
These were days in which many paintings, in various stages of completion, filled my ample studio. My work requires full concentration, full availability, and no interference. Jobs on the side are out of question. So, I washed my brushes, put away the tubes of color, gazed at my canvases, lowered my eyes, and excused myself. I went to my downstairs study to my computer and began writing. Whatever emerged in my thoughts popped up on its screen. I trusted my free flow of recollections; it would tell me in time what to choose, what to discard, and how to focus on the basic span of my writing.
It was a challenge. My search for adequate words in English was continuously disrupted by words in other languages. They seemed better but weren’t of help. Although I felt comfortable in my “alien English,” it could never be considered my own. I reached it to too late in my life, beyond the natural period for the appropriation of languages. However, I was determined to create a memoir. Whatever the cost! I needed a more orderly look at my life and my art, a scrutiny of how they coexisted and so generously fed on each other. And I wanted to share it with my readers.
There were loads of recollections, some direct and others indirect, some I experienced and others that were told to me. Their reawakening got me into a state of heightened emotions, a phase I expected. Wasn’t I “waking sleeping dogs?” Certainly, the scars of the old wounds began to hurt. And then something appeased them. The liberating effect of this entire process made itself felt. More so, much later. Also, this didn’t surprise me.
I knew what kind of voyage I took on myself. The story of times before my time. The intricate saga of my family. So much of it had been deposited in me by Mother’s incredible gift of storytelling. Her tales had to be revisited with the utmost care. The unforgettable presence of my four doting grandparents. Father, Mother, and their unusual story of love and infidelity. My own childhood; the heartwarming details of its make-believe paradise. Then the brutality of war. All the loss and the mourning that it engendered.
Somehow, these stories intermixed with more recent events. My professional career. Intercontinental wanderings. Fulfilments, longings, and regrets. More and more stories kept on resurfacing from the maze of my brain, and I had to deal with a real mishmash of absurd, tragic, funny, magical, painful, and comforting reminiscences. Typing with two fingers and one pounding heart, I had no idea when I would reach the very last page. Subsequently, after months of long days spent with a serviceable computer, my memoir began to take shape. Hundreds of pages that had to be reread. A lot went into the dustbin. Others were reshaped. The outcome of about 1000 pages had to be edited. A very devoted friend, Irene Tayler, helped me with this task, and we brought it to 500.
Ultimately, I had a book. It told my story, and much more, the story of Vilna’s annihilated population. It also liberated me from the responsibility of “on-call” remembering.
Memory is a recreation; a verbalization of the images that I see in my inner eye. My book wasn’t preceded by historic research, it is pure memory. Its language, my singular English, gave me the advantage of a greater distance from what ached and enabled a protecting perspective. It helped me to reemerge as a child, remember the individuals that shaped me, recall the years of the Shoah, and recognize that I, as a man in his sixties, retained of all that.
Let me get to the point and speak of events and the people who shaped me as an artist. I had been told that I was an especially gifted child, much loved and pampered. This I remember. My memoir talks about how my artistic talent was discovered, acknowledged, and cemented into my foremost identity. How I journeyed through the world of painting and acquired its basic knowhow.
Here is a short list of the teachers that TAUGHT ME TO PAINT:
Vilna, 1944-1945: Mr. Makoyinick and Zofia Serafinovich
Lodz, 1945: Adam Rychtarski
Munich, 1946-1947: Karl Blocherer
Haifa, 1948: Shelomo Neroni
Tel Aviv, 1950: Arieh Alweil and Marcel Janco
Jerusalem, 1953: Ardon, Stern, Ascheim, Eisenscher and Steinhardt at the Bezalel School of Art and Design
Tel Aviv, 1955-1956: Peter Frye
Paris, 1956-1959: Jean Souverbie at the École des Beaux-Arts
Each one of them deposited in me something and has a secure place in my memory and my heart.
Separately, there would be the need for a long list of all the GREAT MASTERS of the past. They gave me so much when I was very young, middle aged, mature, and they still go on teaching me.
Hardly a day passes without my looking up a reproduction of Breughel, Dürer, or Rembrandt. Sometimes it is Manet, Braque, or Freud. The internet is an artist’s cave of Ali Baba. But this is stuff for another chapter. Moreover, my painting wasn’t and isn’t everything in my life. What about being a husband, a father, a friend, a reader? What about listening to music, interacting with others? Of course, these are rhetorical questions.
In the domain of art there were art teachers who showed me how to see what was put before my eyes and how to render its realistic representation. Others taught me to compose paintings that resonated with rhythms and variations, with colors, bright or subdued, cold or warm, light or immersed in deep shade. Some asked for paintings that had to look flat, while others required a suggestion of space. Sometimes I had teachers who tried to help me find the kernel of the genuine artist that dwelt in me, while others, seemingly, didn’t care. Perhaps they believed that the passing on of their well-established craft would take care of my artistic “uniqueness.” It was wise. Moreover, certain teachers gave me a lot by making me contradict their teachings. When between me and me I questioned their well-established truisms, I thought that I knew better. And then I remained imbedded in doubts. This state of perpetual wondering is who I am and who I was. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that when good teachers come into the picture, they do leave their mark.
The first and foremost of all my art teachers, to whom I owe the world, was MOTHER. She studied in one of Vilna’s art schools and had quite a discerning eye. Her total belief in the exceptionality of my talent was supreme. For her, every opportunity to find a good teacher of art for her gifted boy, whatever went on in the world, had to be attempted at any occasion and properly secured. For as long as she lived (only until age 60), she wouldn’t refrain from commenting on my art. Sometimes critically, and more often less critically than I deserved.
Vilna, 1944-1945: Mr. Makoynik
In 1944, the Soviet occupation of Vilnius liberated Mother and me from the Nazi Horror. Father didn’t survive. I was almost 11 and the war would go on for another 10 months. The conditions of our life imposed many restrictions. Mother’s need to recover from the shock of her husband’s death became imperative. There were no organizations that took care of survivors or refugees, no helping hands. She had to provide for the two of us. That is when her incredible resilience set in. And as a first she decided that what I most needed was an art teacher. It had to be someone very exceptional. Someone who merited access to her little prodigy. Someone who would enlighten her boy’s spirit. Could the famous theater designer Mr. Makoynik be granted this privilege?
Mother had no doubt that I was born to be a painter, more than a good painter, a master. Skies had no limits. World fame was the least that my dead father and my dead grandparents would have expected from me. Oh, yes, the gift of a talent comes with a price. The fulfillment of such expectations is a demanding task. I knew Mother’s view. Even if my “genius” was never mentioned in my presence I was destined to reach the stars. Often Mother giggled: “Have you ever seen a Jewish child that isn’t a most usual genius?” I was to be proud of my rare talent, of being an authentic genius—but preserve a most sincere humility and act as humbly as possible. A legacy of love, confidence, and unwavering perplexity.
As mentioned, Mother retained a great admiration for the designer of the Polish experimental Reduta Theater. Sometimes, when she departed with me into her old pre-war memories and spoke of concerts or plays, she mentioned Makoynik. How he managed to suggest a lot by very limited means. It was admirable—a meaningful costume, special lighting, a sharp accent on a significant detail, and the job was done.
The idea that less is more, conveyed to me by my mother’s interpretation of Makoyinik’s art, is perhaps the only contribution that this designer had left in me. But at a second thought I might be wrong. He deposited in me the belief that the art of theater is very important. And so many years later, from 1955 to 1980, when I dedicated to it a great deal of my time, energy, and attention, he sometimes arose in my thoughts.
Seventy-eight years ago—I see my mother and me ringing the bell of Makoyinik’s flat. It is a Sunday, and Mother is free. A middle-aged man, with gray and slightly undulated hair, soberly dressed, opens the door to a skinny boy and a young woman with blue-grey eyes. We enter a spacious flat in which only the windows, taped with strips of paper over cracked glass, speak of the war. Accepting to be paid by victuals to which Mother has access (she works in a military center for the distribution of food to high-ranking officials), he agrees to take me on as a pupil.
The first lesson is about time and space. I sit on the edge of an uncomfortable chair. The walls are covered by photos of ancient ruins. Makoyinik speaks of the Greek amphitheater, the use of masks. Euripides, Sophocles … He speaks and speaks and shows me pictures in a book or two.
I am very disappointed. I wanted to learn how to produce drawings and paintings. How to create Realism. How to paint paintings that would equal the ones on the postcards of the Louvre. Somehow, somewhere, there was a misunderstanding. Maybe not. As said, little did I then know that in the years to come I shall work for various theaters and that all the concerns of the stage shall become my daily bread.
Vilna, 1944-1945: Zofia Serafinovicz
Mother understood that her first choice was overly precipitous. The next search brings us to a partly dilapidated building, a walkable staircase, and a massive door with a sculpted knocker. A kind smile of a middle-aged lady welcomes us. We are invited to forego the parts of the apartment that are affected by recent bombings and brought into a large and well-lit room. On the wall are two sizable canvases. Both representing a male and a female, leisurely protracted, and only partly dressed. Shame on them. There is also a child with wings. The two very monumental figures look like a legendary king and queen in very elongated poses, stuck in a dark landscape. They must be brooding about something secret. “These are my works for the final Diploma of the Academy” says the lady that let us in, “the one here is the required proposal, and this one above is the definitive execution. And, as you can see, it is much more elaborate. It also had the jury’s award,” she completes her explanation with a satisfied nod.
I loved my lessons with Professor Serafinowicz. She was sweet, motherly, and utterly devoted to my needs. She lived among a mess of furniture, broken tables, overturned chairs, a piano player, torn carpets, and an infinity of heteroclite objects, intriguing and fascinating. All of it had been amassed against walls to allow for a small area to sleep and work. I was expected to draw in black and white and learn academic rendering of light and shade. Sometimes I used sanguine, a reddish chalk that helped me to get an illusion of volume, foreground, and background.
From the school in which my teacher was a professor she brought plaster fragments of human anatomy. Past explosions of Russian or German bombs had randomly dissected casts of Greek or Roman statues that habitually lived there. I observed their shapes and drew them with meticulous attention. Then I would return to Aunt Janina’s home, take out my watercolors, forget all I learned about classical painting, and I let my brush pick up water then color and freely play around on the papers I was able to find.
One day Professor Serafinovicz found two lovely branches of a flowering apple tree, which she put in a vase. She asked me to sit behind the vase and pose for a portrait. After it dried, I brought it home. Mother looked at my portrait with an enigmatic smile. Didn’t she like the art, or the fact that instead of teaching me, my teacher used me for posing? In later years I thought of her and painted the Warsaw Ghetto boy entangled in flowering rods.
There was something else in the work of my teacher that fascinated me. By means of a huge brush, loaded with thick paint, she would paint huge and incomprehensible signs on white bed sheets that were fastened to the floor. The fastening of the fabric had to be impeccable, and I often helped her with it. Her technique was called dry brush and it took me a while to understand her intriguing labor. I learned that together with other members of her faculty she was ordered by the Soviet authorities to provide huge portraits of Stalin, Lenin, and several Generals of the Red Army like Voroshilow or Budyonny. Such portraits reassembled from the sewing together of numerous bedsheets covered facades of the city’s decrepit buildings. Were they meant to compete with the crosses of Vilna churches? A competition between terrestrial and heavenly power? The Soviet gods reminded us that the war was still on, and that Berlin wasn’t yet in our hands. Moreover that we, all inhabitants of the Capital of the new Lithuanian Republic, owed our lives to the legendary heroes whose likenesses on old bedsheets were kept in place by ropes usually utilized for hangman’s nooses.
What has survived of all the work I did with Professor Zofia Serafinowicz is only one drawing. A Greek hero’s decapitated head.
I loved her. She was my first REAL teacher of art, and it was very sad when unexpected circumstances made me escape from Vilnius without a real Goodbye.
Lodz, 1945: Adam Rychtarski
We were in Lodz. It was shortly after the end of the war, summer 1945. Mother and I, my aunt Yetta and her little daughter Tamara, four escapees of VILNIUS on our way to Palestine to join their brother, my uncle Yerachmiel. The plan was to go via Berlin, hopefully find my great-uncle Arno Nadel and his wife, and proceed with them to the Holy-Land. We were so naïve, so naïve …
Mother’s uncle and his wife were killed in Auschwitz, and our road to Palestine was met with three years of waiting in a DP camp in Bavaria. Finally we disembarked in Haifa, in the new state of Israel, with sirens still warning about warplanes, but people glowing with enthusiasm about the fact that after 2000 years Jews had a state of their own. All these stories belong to my memoir.
We were in Lodz for a duration that was difficult to evaluate, but we had a roof over our heads, enough money to subsist, and enough food to fill our stomachs. I had to hurry and pursue my education. I tried to attend a regular school. A few days after my inscription I was bullied and called “dirty Kike.”
Studying painting seemed an excellent alternative.
“Poor boy,” said Professor Rychtarski, “when I see these samples of his great talent, I can immediately tell you that this poor child fell into the hands of an academic moron. Of course, the provinciality of WILNO comes through, it doesn’t surprise me….” Mother put the cherished drawings back into their folder.
That is how my new teacher of art, Professor Adam Rychtarski, a so-called-modernist, came into the picture. Mother swallowed his disdain for the city from which we managed to escape and paid for my tuition.
I found the studio of Rychtarski’s home a true paradise. He and several of his students spent time in front of separate easels and smoked. He allowed me much more liberty than Serafinovicz. Rychtarski guided my hand and my imagination to take advantage of what the pre-war modernisms permitted. Art could offer a lot of liberty when it opened itself to the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the Cubists, and the Expressionists, and other “ists” of which he spoke. Still lifes were perfect models, patient and immobile, perfect beginnings for the study of color, brushwork, and composition. Alas, I do not remember too well all his explanations, which came from a mouth that must have been struggling with uncomfortable dentures.
But what I could not get directly from him, I partly picked up from his students. It seems to me that most of them freely pursued their personal search of the universal and absolute truth of color and form. They made me believe that such a thing was possible, that it really existed, and all we had to do was to undertake our explorations with courage. We had to trust our feelings.
It was a great time. Three months of enjoying gouaches and watercolors of which nothing remains. All the works of that time that I saved vanished in northern Germany, near Kassel, together with a suitcase that was stolen from us. But all I had absorbed in my very young mind continued to affirm itself in what I had produced in the DP Camp of Landsberg. My catalogue abounds in those early works
Munich 1946-1947: Karl Blocherer
I believe that the school of Karl Blocherer in Munich still exists. It is a school of design and is administrated by his inheritors.
In early 1946, after Mother and I got settled in the DP Camp of Landsberg am Lech, it was time to find a school of art. Munich had something to offer. Distanced by only one hour by train from where we lived, Mother and I got there regularly. Professor Blocherer’s system was different and simple. There was no painting in place, no guiding hand, but a lot of talk. The students were given well-formulated themes or special subjects on which they had to work at home. Then they brought their products for evaluation and discussion. Blocherer would review the results and speak of them at length for a couple of hours. It happened weekly.
What previously seemed to me a drawback became something I truly enjoyed. The spirit of the freshly reevaluated Bauhaus hovered in the air of my new school that might have been pretending its disengagement from a shameful past. I was 13, 14, 15, and did at home whatever came to my mind. And even if some concepts of design and their rigidity did not agree with the open spirit of the world I received from Rychtarski, Blocherer taught me that art can exist in many different forms, each one of them adding something to the understanding of the unfathomable mystery of great art.
Haifa, 1948: Shelomo Naroni
My first art teacher in Israel was Shelomo Naroni. He lived in an old Arab house on a slope of Mount Carmel.
In 1948, Mother, my stepfather Markusha, and I were stationed in Haifa, preparing one day to move to Tel Aviv where jobs and dwellings were much more available. In the interim, time was passing and Mother began a search for a reliable teacher of art. It brought us to a local painter, Shelomo Naroni, whose reputation and main pride was a large mural in a Labor Union’s collectively owned restaurant. He had spent years in Paris, Egypt, and Palestine, but his Russian accent was overpowering. The people who sent us to him thought of him highly—much less so did the art establishment of Israel. His place in the history of that country’s art remained very minor.
When I met Naroni, he was over sixty and radiated the not uncommon arrogance of a friendly and self-satisfied artist. I was fifteen, my Hebrew almost nonexistent, and his articulated Yiddish spoke in his favor. What perplexed me was the rigidity of his method. No more spontaneity, no freedom, utter control. He asked me to synthesize and stylize what I saw and invent what I didn’t see, represent it in large forms, and only in black and white. The medium was charcoal. Inspired by a certain superficial view of Cézanne and by the strong feeling for Art Deco, he must have been trying to turn me into a devoted acolyte, and he almost succeeded. But Mother didn’t like this kind of style. My present catalogue contains one of the drawings I did with Naroni, which is a decent still life. Perhaps I should have kept most of the other drawings. Maybe they weren’t that bad. But at a certain moment I found them awful.
Oh, yes! Questions about how I came to where I am in my art keep on reproposing themselves endlessly. I believe that Shelomo Naroni played well his part in shaping my sense of evaluation, critique, and acceptance of artforms that differ from mine, and sharpened my own professional ability.
All this brings me to the old cliché that defines the essence of how we learn to draw and to paint. It is a process that reveals to us what we always knew. The “others” help us to unveil what has always been waiting to be released and to sprout. They cannot give us what we do not possess. I probably owe to Naroni as much as I owe to the rest of my past teachers—the ones I very much liked and the ones who have not stolen my heart.
Tel Aviv, 1950: Arieh Allweil and Marcel Janco
In late 1948, I lived in Tel Aviv with the chess master Alexander Macht, Markusha’s old friend from Kaunas. His family offered me the use of their mobilized son’s room. Finally, I was able to contemplate my initiation to normal schooling. I knew a lot about the Italian Renaissance, but there was a huge gap in my general education. Especially Hebrew (a new language) and its literature, math, English, the Bible, Jewish and universal history, etc. The school’s art teacher Arieh Allweil, within his very first lesson, recognized in me a true artist and treated me as a colleague. He invited me to his home, and we carried on conversations on art, its past, and present. He also raised money that allowed me to travel to the Galilee and paint during the period of vacations. I shall never forget his warm kindness.
Schoolwork took up most of my time. 24 hours a day didn’t suffice. The need for sleep seemed a waste of precious time! However, art was important and I managed to attend several evening classes for drawing that were given in Tel Aviv by Marcel Janco, one of Israel’s most celebrated artists. Today, the refurbished artist’s village Ein Hod has a museum, on a southern slope of the Carmel, which is dedicated to his art, and the mere googling of his name tells us that he and Tristan Tzara were the founders of Dadaism.
I do not remember having learned much from Janco’s direct way of teaching. But his art left in me a valid deposit. His own paintings and drawings told me more about the power of art than his poorly articulated words. I might have been prejudiced. Janco was at that time involved in inner battles within the group of the Israeli avant-garde artists New Horizons. They struggled to define Israeli Modernism. He tried to engage us, his pupils of drawing, to search for Matisse-like simplifications, which I found rather shallow. This kind of virtuosity convinces when it is a result of careful observation and deep knowledge. As a point of departure, it leads to mere mannerism. Obviously, his heart wasn’t with us.
Jerusalem, 1953: Ardon, Stern, Ascheim, Eisenscher and Steinhardt at the Bezalel School of Art and Design
An unexpected scholarship of the America-Israel Foundation directed me to pursue my studies at the Bezalel School of Art and Design in Jerusalem. A single year under its roof proved enriching, profitable, and above all sufficient. The curriculum was 4 years. The board of directors offered me a Diploma after 2. I had no interest in its certificate but craved for knowledge. My principal teachers were Ardon, Stern, Ascheim, Eisenscher, and Steinhardt. As a student of Design and Graphic Art, I got the basics from a certain Rudy Deutsch-Dayan who never forgave me my talent. We had no mutual sympathy, but I learned from him quite a lot.
Ardon’s contribution to the school’s program was a series of lectures on art history, perception, and techniques. He was a capable artist. A proud student of the Bauhaus. Quite full of himself and his importance — he was the commissar of Israeli art for the world community. In most of his talks he remembered to remark that if he weren’t that short, he would have been a great actor. All that, according to him, was what the mythical Max Reinhardt whispered into Ardon’s perceptive ear. The lectures were strange exercises of theatrical showmanship. We called them “the missing centimeters” …
Yossi Stern (a teacher of drawing) was a lovely man, gay and openly gay (which in those days denoted much courage), warm and friendly, who treated me as a fellow artist. He gave me the feeling that I could give him much more than he could offer to me. Ascheim and Eisenscher were pleasant to work with. They were part of the newly born desire in a freshly created country to offer something that might be identified as Israeli Art.
The kindest of all was Bezalel’s director, Jakob Steinhardt, a famous printmaker and a pupil of Herman Struck (who in Germany, together with the known Expressionist Meidner, belonged to the group called Die Pathetiker). I greatly respected him as a person and greatly appreciated his art. He reinforced in me my belief that one year of BEZALEL was enough.
I had to get rid of the load of my forthcoming military service, 30 months in olive green uniform, and begin it as soon as possible. I dreamed of having these months behind my back. With money put aside from all kinds of art related jobs, I would then aim for Paris. Oh Paris, the heart of the ART WORLD. The library at the school provided me with a good choice of books and publications that spoke of all that went on in magical Paris. New York hadn’t yet stolen its crown.
The memory of grandfather Chayim’s voice, and his love for that city: “Paris, ah, Paris”—what a bequest!
Summing up my year in Jerusalem and looking at it from the distance of many years, I know that I had a wonderful time. The city, divided between Jordanians and Israelis, was very often peaceful, rarely not so. It was, among other things, like many Jews in black Kapotas, abundantly packed with the Yekes, who had escaped Nazism. Elegant German Jews—ladies in small hats, and men wearing bowties—practiced “Kaffe mit Schlag und Strudel.” BEZALEL gave me l lot of time to indulge in my passion for painting. I clearly made progress. Side jobs that asked for artistic talent allowed me, as expected, to earn money for my plans to follow.
Israel, 1954-1955: General Headquarters of Zahal [Israel Defense Forces]
My military service, after the first months of learning to be a soldier, wasn’t overly demanding. I was employed doing mountains of graphic stuff for the army’s Medical Corps, its Educational Department, and the General Headquarters of Zahal. These were diagrams, layouts, and instructional brochures and their production gave me a certain dose of freedom. My service was appreciated. As one of the 100 best soldiers of the year 1954 I was invited on YOM HAATZMAUT, the Day of Independence, to shake the hand of Israel’s president Itzhak Ben Zvi, poor man, then in a state of total dementia.
That freedom to circulate, despite my military obligations, enabled me to meet the theater director and designer PETER FRYE.
Tel Aviv, 1955-1956: Peter Frye and the Theater
When I met Peter he was about forty, handsome, boisterous, reassuring, and charismatic. He was born in Canada and had been part of the Foreign Brigade of the Spanish Civil War. He proudly carried about him the aura of its legend. It was the McCarthy era that expelled him from the States and made him settle in Israel. At a certain point he looked for a young artist whom he could employ for his sets. That is why we met, and then something special clicked in that encounter. I learned from him all I wanted to know about theater. He crammed me to the brim with books on stage design, lighting, costume design, and everything in between. Books of American contemporary literature, science-fiction. Playing records on his then very rare HiFi he taught me to listen to music. I was introduced to the entire series of Beethoven’s quartets. I had to learn to see what I hear and hear what I see. I had to become discernible about what I ate and drank.
For the young and rather shy man I was, inertly self-assured and overly self-questioning, full of contradictions and very proud, my friendship with Peter became a life-changing experience. In fact, I hungered for an inspiring and challenging mentor. My mother was in total awe of Peter Frye, above all his looks. No wonder he became a father figure.
I became his assistant, and later an acknowledged designer of several of his productions.
Our deep friendship lasted until the last day of his life.
Paris, 1956-1959: Jean Souverbie at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris
Wikipedia tells us that “Jean Souverbie was a French painter known for his sensuous depictions of Classical subject matter. Influenced by Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and the Cubist painter Georges Braque, he explored his interest in Neoclassical ideals and Greek sculpture throughout his monumental nudes, seascapes, and still lifes.”
Professor Souverbie was a renowned painter to whom the École des Beaux-Arts entrusted one of its famous Ateliers for painting. It was for him a great honor. In 1956, upon my arrival to Paris, I enrolled with Souverbie and frequented this Atelier until 1959.
I must confess that the kind of painting that was expected from its students—post-cubist renderings of male and female nudes or arrangements of still life objects—bored me. But another matter were Souverbie’s prolonged conversations and lectures on art. I loved them. The entire atelier would listen to him enthralled, mostly while he stood in front of a wall covered by hundreds of postcards of the most peculiar artworks, smoked his never-ending cigarettes, and spoke of Art with a capital A. Art of all epochs and all geographies. Of how—despite the innumerable obstacles of centuries, of cultures, and of styles—artworks interconnected, spoke to each other, and inspired us. Of how they touched our souls.
Souverbie opened my eyes to the existence of an intellectual pluralism that wasn’t very fashionable. Less then, than now. It wasn’t in the spirit of the French fifties. In modern art, the essence of that time was Avant-Garde. Everything had to be reinvented. The past belonged to the caves. “Go ahead, young man, you must progress and reveal your power! Throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Or so it seemed to me.
More of that time’s fashionable spirit was exposed in Paris’s innumerable museums and public art galleries. My real learning in the Parisian years was a continuous process of inner growth, as an adult in personal relationships, and as an artist in a potential that was still unproven and waited for its moment.
It wasn’t a matter of learning a craft. Craft alone, even when very refined and sophisticated, wasn’t art. What a mystery! The realm of words seemed to be beyond the definition of art. The main thing was to practice it. I became a sponge that sought to absorb as much as possible. I became an experimenter and spent many days looking at paintings, then other days pouring out what I took from what I saw. I hardly understood what it was that I was able to produce. Having a perspective for the evaluation of one’s own accomplishments asks for time. Today, my catalogue raisonné helps me to travel in the dimension of time and enlightens me on this very enriching period of my Parisian life. A true meandering in a labyrinth of my own making.
Painting paintings took a lot of my time, but so did theater. These were the golden years of the International Theater Sarah Bernard in Paris, which hosted productions from all over the world. In parallel, having received the prestigious Sharett Award of the America-Israel Foundation for Theater Design in 1957 made me a holder of the ITI (International Theater Institute) card, and opened to me the doors to all the operas and theaters of Paris and London.
I saw hundreds of productions, saw theaters viewed from their auditoriums, and spent time exploring them behind the stage. It developed and cemented in me a knowledge that gave me a breadwinning profession, which I loved.
Between 1956 and 1980 I designed over a dozen productions. Of some of them I do not possess a single image. Other drawings and sketches that never reached the stage remained hidden in forgotten folders. The Bak catalogue holds a good number of such designs, sceneries, and costumes.
In 1980 while residing in Paris, at the end of a very successful but very demanding production “The King of Marocco” in the National Theater of the Habimah in Tel Aviv, I decided that enough was enough. My canvases were wonderful stages, and I was going to enjoy being their sole dramaturge, actor, and director.
I sometimes imagine how happy Makoyinik would have been, hearing me speak of all that.
(c) Samuel Bak, Weston, July 2021
Published with kind permission of the author.
Published with kind permission of Samuel Bak and Evelina Kolchinsky, 2021
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Speech of Samuel Bak on the occasion of the opening of the "Samuel Bak Gallery and Learning Center, In Loving Memory of Hope Silber Kaplan", at the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas, June 15, 2019:
Dear Friends, What a joy, to be here!
To be part of this so much awaited event. To be here, at his major, major station in the journey of my life -- a rather long one ...
The gratitude I feel is beyond words.
How could I introduce myself? Age wise, I am a great-grandfather, a parent, husband, citizen, a writer of a published and much translated memoir, and above all a painter. A painter who paints the images that appear in his inner eye. I am also a survivor of the Shoah; a wandering and wondering Jew. A rare product of a good deal of unbelievable luck.
The gallery, which in this museum is dedicated to my art is an extraordinary accomplishment. It exists thanks to the ongoing devotion of many exceptional people, affectionate, dedicated, courageous, risk –taking. Every one of them, an indispensable link in my life’s magical chain of events. A multicultural chain, whose anchor is affixed in the ground of a bygone Jerusalem of Lithuania, my beloved Vilna, today called Vilnius.
The purpose of the SAMUEL BAK GALLERY & LEARNING CENTER is to educate young people. To reach openminded adults. To suggestively use the visual language of my paintings. To employ them as signposts on a road to a deeper knowledge and a better understanding of mankind’s lot. Since my art speaks to the mind, and also to the heart, it could make a difference. . .
My biography tells you that I was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power.
Soon after, in 1939, my paradisiacal childhood became invaded by the darkest and most brutal of times, ever witnessed by man. My personal story, and the miraculous story of my survival inhabit the paintings and writings that I have produced in the past seven decades. Inevitably, at the center of my art is the murder of the six million. But there is also the story of the survivors, their inconsolable loss, their challenging lives.
My art tries to encompass a multitude of themes.
It is about, as said, loss, uprooting and displacement.
It is about the nature of resilience, repair and restoration. And the limitations of these understandings.
It attempts to reveal the universal that is contained in the specific;
the light that the Holocaust sheds on multitudes of genocides.
It tries to direct the beholders of my paintings to the lessons of History, lessons that cannot, that should not be ignored. Indispensable lessons that tell us the following: tyranny, fanatism, intolerance, and racism carry with them an awful price -- indifference extracts a heavy toll.
How did humanity get there in the past? How does humanity get there now, again and again? People will forever struggle with this question.
Allow me a short detour. Let me bring you along to my birth-town. We are in the midst of WW2.
I am in the Ghetto of Vilna with my parents. I am nine years old.
My grandparents have already been murdered.
We are in the spring of 1942.
The Nazis slave labor machine needs the remaining Jews of Vilna.
Therefore, the Mass killings have temporarily stopped.
19.000 of us are squeezed into the seven narrow streets of the ghetto. Its Jewish Administration tries to make the best of this unexpected pause. It judiciously rations the food that is barely available, it cares for hygiene, education and medical assistance. Miraculously the suspension of the mass-killings triggers a sudden burst of cultural activities. Theater, music, poetry attract crowds of listeners. These undertakings do not happen without a lot of controversy. But people’s souls are hungry for art.
A foyer of a small theater, which is in the area of our imprisonment is to host an exhibition of the ghetto’s painters. Two known poets, Sutzkever and Katcherginski discover my drawings. They consider me a consummate artist. They choose about 20 of my artworks for the exhibition and ask me to attend the opening.
I walk with my parents to the show. The evening is dark. My heart pounds in my throat. The theater can be accessed from the large courtyard of the ghetto’s administration. We enter the gate of Rudnicka Street 6.
There is a bad smell. Its ground of cobblestones is covered by piles of garbage, filthy kitchen utensils, old and dirty clothing. It is hard to get to the beleaguered door.
Murmurs, moans, sobs hang in the air.
The trash, sheltered by the darkness, begins to move and turns into human shapes.
People lie on the ground, some sit.
Skinny, devastated, faces.
A woman tries to breastfeed a baby. The baby cries.
An old man attempts to rise -- and gives up.
The eyes of a child look at me, and at my parents, and follow our steps.
I lower my eyes and see an obscure chasm with traces of flickering yellow stars, scattered on women, men, old, young, children -- Jews from a recently liquidated small-town ghetto.
In a day or two they will be marched to the mass graves of Ponari and machinegunned.
I am nine -- and already perplexed.
What a haunting mix: a show of art, and the sight of Humans destined for assassination. In the years to come I will discover more and more about the incomparable horror of the Holocaust, and my perplexity will keep on growing.
My first professional exhibition: sixty years ago, takes place in Rome. I am 26. Wearing a dark suit and tie, I am smiling and shaking hands with innumerable Signore and Signori, a crowd of exquisite elegance.
Suddenly I feel like being elsewhere.
I am in the ghetto, on the evening of my very first opening and I speak Yiddish. But in Rome I shall keep on smiling in Italian.
The scene of the courtyard covered by humans that look like waste will keep on revisiting me. It is always with me, at every opening, of every exhibition of my art, a most dependable heirloom.
Today – I have shared this story with you.
Don’t feel sorry for me. It is OK.
I am welcoming this reminiscence.
It helps me to acknowledge who I am.
It protects me from a blockage of memory, which would have been bad for the soul and quite dangerous for the mind.
Furthermore, there is a deep connection between my recollection of the condemned Jews, and the essential content of the art that I create.
Could I have ever painted these victims the way they live in me ? The answer is yes. I did it when I was very young. Not so later.
People shy away from images that are called “graphic.”
Most of my artworks contain an underlying layer of pain, but it is hidden by metaphors, symbols, and icons. I allow these emblems to be as comprehensible as possible.
In my work I focus on the creation of painterly beauty. It is meant to attract the viewers to my canvases, to pull them into my imaginary spaces. That is why I propose to my public open vistas, joyful colors, light on the horizons -- and the comfort of plausibility, a reality that is almost familiar and therefore -- appeasing. My art tries, as gently as possible, to lead its beholders to the acceptance of the unavoidable discomfort of the human condition.
Only my memoir, “Painted in Words,” which I wrote in 2001, dared to evoke the “unspeakable.”
Speaking of it:
of Vilna’s 80.000 Jewish souls only 2.000 survived.
I was lucky to be among the later, one left alive for every forty that were murdered.
Indeed, in the summer of 1944, when the Red Army entered my town, I was permitted to remain alive. Since I practiced survival-- I escaped Stalin’s Paradise.
At present, seventy years after the Holocaust, more and more books analyze this shattering catastrophe. It is a subject that doesn’t cease to engage us. We are perpetually overwhelmed by added findings in fiction and non-fiction, and their ever-growing spectrum of polarized aspects. Documents that relentlessly describe innumerable acts of senseless brutality, exploits of vile greed and manipulations, in which horror intermingles with an unexpected awakening of a moral stance, with deeds of sheer generosity, with acts of unbelievable self-sacrifice.
It tells us what a rational mind can hardly encompass -- man’s capacity for good and for evil.
The Holocaust is a unique laboratory of human behavior.
And then we ask ourselves: What could have prevented the circumstances that produced the Shoah? What does the oncoming future hold for us? Could it ever happen again?
What have we learned about a world in which the sight of a Mediterranean beach and the image of a drowned Syrian child, blends with the image of the Jewish boy from the Ghetto of Warsaw, the child that questioningly raises his arms? Will the dumping of people like mere garbage ever end?
The only possible answer is YES. It must end!
Fortunately, HOPE is an indispensable part of the human existence. Fortunately, many good people believe that a vigorous and lucid effort in this direction is possible. And they aren’t naïve. Today, in this magnificent event, we are brought to see the outcome of their beliefs and hopes.
As said before, I owe infinite thanks to all the human links of my long and magical chain of accomplishments.
Regrettably, the time allocated to my presentation prevents me from mentioning most of them by name. Firstly, my infinite thanks go to all the incredibly dedicated people of this museum, donors, directors, docents and its wonderful staff. They have jointly created a source of never-ending pride.
But how not to mention by name my old friend and art dealer Bernie Pucker, a major partner of all my artistic doings.
Or Professor Larry Langer the major interpreter of my work.
Or Ayala Tamir who so patiently interviewed me for the collection’s catalogue.
Or Cecilia and Siggi Schaefer, the creators of my complete Catalogue Raisonné on the internet. I hardly know of living artists to whom such a consecration has happened in their lifetime.
I owe you all so much!
My wonderful friends from around the globe, whose profound care and affection accompanies and sustains me throughout my life. Many of them are here.
And my loving wife Josee, who bears with me, and my daily ongoing obsession of hours upon hours of painting.
I am so lucky to have you.
(c) Samuel Bak Houston/Weston, June 2019
Published with kind permission of the author.
Samuel Bak - Artistic Process
Samuel Bak has been painting for over seven decades. From his first exhibition in the Vilna Ghetto (at the age of 9), to his most recent show entitled Just Is (at the age of 84), Bak’s art weaves together personal, cultural and Jewish history to articulate an iconography that disrupts and stirs us. His work is an invitation to learn to see and to observe what lies behind each image and to think critically about the nature of the human condition and the choices we make as individuals and as communities in a post-Holocaust and modern world.
The following pages will examine Samuel Bak’s artistic process, the formation of this imagery; its pictorial, thematic and technical developments over the course of his life. In this journey consider looking through two different lenses. The first focuses on Bak’s process in the studio, over the course of a day. The second captures events over the course of a lifetime. Juxtaposed, these vantage points reveal continuity and an evolution among a system of relationships that continues to expand to this day. Each canvas can at once take us through a moment and a lifetime as it invites us to explore the nature of humanity: the consequences of war, failings of systems of justice and the processes of reconstruction. Bak’s experience and experimentation turns our attention to the personal and to the universal, illuminating our minds through imagery that guides us to examine human behavior and the search for morality and hope.
An invitation: artist and spectator
The creative process is a solitary process. The artist, the creator of things, places himself in the studio and works, thinks, feels and creates. It is a personal journey, though not necessarily a hermetic one. For Samuel Bak, the act of painting is simultaneously a journey inwards, into his own psyche, and outwards, towards the public realm. Generating questions through his work creates a platform for analysis and communication. This has been true since his early childhood days and continues to resonate at each moment in his artistic journey.
It was no coincidence, therefore, that when he stumbled upon and worked in theater design in his early years as a painter, in Israel and in Paris, Bak found this art form deeply meaningful, and transferable, from its three dimensional arena that is the stage, to his two dimensional surface, that is the canvas. It was Brechtian theatre and particularly the “verfremdungseffekt“ (alienation effect), that continue to echo within his work to this day. Brechtian theatre embodies the belief that an audience is not to remain complacent, but instead, adopt a critical perspective in order to recognize social injustice and thus move to effect change in the world. The source of the word, theater, is derived from ancient Greek, “theatron” , a place for viewing: a place to see, to watch, to observe. At its core, it is a communicative and at times collaborative art. It demands an audience in order to exist. It entertains, educates and unquestionably has the ability to influence one’s perspective.
For Brecht, seeing, watching and observing was key in becoming a critical thinker, thus allowing the audience to objectively judge his work. He termed the role of the spectator as an art form in and of itself. That is, his theater required one to learn a new language through seeing.
In a similar manner, Bak’s work invites us to learn to see, to watch and to notice each image, and to think critically about his visual language while reflecting on the choices we make as individuals and as communities.
In the studio
For Bak, art is a discipline, a craft to be learned much like classical art has been taught to the old masters who cultivated their skill through practice and preparation. Titian, for example, would make numerous adjustments in the course of one painting, continually returning to his canvases, changing, repainting and reviewing until arriving at a point of satisfaction. Putting a painting away, out of sight, was a way for Titian to return to it with fresh eyes, thus allowing him to see errors that he would otherwise overlook.
In Bak’s studio, during a day’s work, one would find at least 20 paintings actively in progress. Bak’s process is indeed akin to that of Titian, as he paints and repaints, puts a canvas away, moves to another piece, then returns to the first or the third or the twentieth, and revises, continually, until the work is ready to enter the public realm. This has always been part of his process, and with time the number of paintings seems to multiply (earlier in his career, there was an average of 40 canvases in progress. At present, Bak works on approximately 150 paintings). “Painting becomes a kind of Tikkun” Bak shared with me, revising each work offers an opportunity for repair. Perhaps, the kind not found in the real world.
Should a painting’s cross-section become visible to the eye, Bak’s process would reveal an artist experimenting with a plethora of approaches. From preparing the canvas, to selecting materials, to working out color harmonies and outlines of objects, Bak uses techniques employed by the old masters. Self-taught in the classical methods, Bak shows mastery in chiaroscuro, imprimatura and alla prima, as he continues to experiment with each without settling into any one approach. This exploration and continual revising of his work allows Bak to achieve new levels of depth in the composition and theme of each piece, and inspire the creation of new works.
While his current technique pays homage to the classics, Bak has been experimenting with multiple approaches over the span of his artistic production. From the abstract to the expressionistic, the figurative to the cubist, each method served to clarify and perfect his current work. To further understand this, one must journey back to the beginnings, in Bak’s home town of Vilna, presently Vilnius.
Image: perspective and circumstance
Samuel Bak was born in Vilna in 1933. “I was very lucky” he told me, “I had a mother who went to art school and was sensitive about art” . Bak also had a great uncle, Arno Nadel, who was a renowned artist, dramaturge and composer who lived in Berlin. Both figures recognized Bak as an artist at the young age of three. From his obsession with the phenomenon of perspective to the representation of an illusion, Bak was consumed with images and their meaning in societies. In the early years of the war, when hiding in the Benedictine convent, he recalls the nuns teaching him their religion and prayers and his fascination with the images that accompanied those teachings. In fact, so much so that he could not sleep in a room where there were any paintings hanging because he was afraid of their power to captivate and seduce. Bak was similarly left at awe during his walks with Xenia, the family cook, as he observed the statuary on the roofs of churches and in various niches within. Etchings hanging on the walls of his grandparents’ home drew him close to look and to observe undulations of line and the illusions they created depending on one’s vantage point. Images were all around and within him, as they are for all of us. For Bak, however, they had a physicality and an enhanced presence that made them, and the messages they carried, fuel his curiosity and nourish his artistic eye.
In 1944, within weeks of liberation, intent to feed Bak “art, art and art” (“kunst, kunst and kunst”, as his great uncle ordered) his mother found a teacher. Interestingly, this was a teacher of theatre and decor. Mr. Makoynik was well respected in Vilna and taught Bak about the dimensions of time and space and Greek theatre. Bak’s apprenticeship with Mr. Makoynik was brief as he longed to learn formal techniques of painting, and did not realize then that these elements will accompany him in the coming decades. For now, time and space will remain backstage. Sofia Serafinovicz came to the foreground and, as a teacher of the Academy of Fine Arts, taught Bak about the realistic rendering of things. Recovering fragments of classical sculpture from the debris of the bombed academy, Serafinovicz used these as models to teach Bak how to draw in the classical technique. Fractured heads and torsos, broken bodies and remnants of pottery were all rendered by Bak, and continue to populate his canvases to this day.
In 1945, due to external circumstances, Bak and his mother needed to escape Vilna and thus left Professor Serafinovicz to arrive in Lodz. There, at twelve years of age, he met Professor Richtarski, who introduced him to an altogether different approach: expressionistic, where flow of form and expression of emotion were the guiding principles.
Bak’s artistic journey continued this way for the next few years, changing teachers often and being exposed to diverse approaches. At the end of 1945, a few months after leaving Lodz, Bak and his mother arrived in the American displaced persons camp in Landsberg, where they stayed for three years before emigrating to Israel, then Palestine. In Landsberg, Bak was introduced to Professor Karl Blocherer and was mostly influenced by the school’s students as he closely observed their techniques. When arriving in Israel, Bak received a scholarship to study in the Bezalel Academy of Art, where he met its director, Jacob Steinhardt, whose technique and woodcuts he greatly admired. Finally, Jean Souverbie’s neoclassical style, fused with cubist tendencies, was Bak’s introduction to Paris upon his arrival in 1956.
“These learnings” Bak reflected, “allowed me to learn in extraordinary circumstances…and to understand that there is no one right way of doing art” . From classical to expressionistic, to neoclassic, cubist and to the abstract, Bak experimented with a wide gamut of styles and welcomed each apprenticeship as it assisted him in perfecting his craft and developing his technique.
As a maturing artist, Bak began to see the connectedness between each style. “I remember,” he shared with me as we talked about his time in Paris, “in our atelier, on the Quai Voltaire across from the Louvre….we had one wall which was plastered with over one hundred postcards. Postcards of Egyptian antiquities, Assyrian wall paintings, of works by Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Botticelli, to name but a few. The entire history of art was plastered on that wall.” It came to life when Bak’s instructor, then Jean Souverbie, talked about how they relate to each other, and how one style, period or theme can transcend time and space when situated next to another work of art from a different era.
The view that art is related to civilization and humanity, rather than being a detached entity solely connected to the world of aesthetics, was relatively new at the turn of the 20th century. The French physician turned art historian, Elie Faure, was one of the first to conceptualize this idea . In his seminal survey of global art, Histoire de l’art (History of Art) composed of five volumes (published between 1909-1926), Faure wrote, objects “count only through their infinitely numerous relationships with infinitely complex surroundings” adding that art is always a system of relations . Faure theorized that, in order to appreciate an image or a work of art, one must be well acquainted with its milieu, including social, political, cultural and physical aspects within which it was created. Faure further claimed that art is an expression of civilization and thus can be studied as such. His proposal was thought provoking at a moment when the very definition of art, and its theorization, was quickly changing.
In later years, elements of his theory would become popularized, and one which particularly interests Bak is Malraux’s concept of the Imaginary Museum, published in 1947. Malraux, like Faure, recognized the significance in understanding history and context of a work of art. He also acknowledged that the breadth and scope of the world of art surpasses the capacity of being exhibited in any single museum. Thus, the Imaginary Museum is both, one’s own collection (in one’s mind) of all art works that one considers important inside and outside of museums, and a physical platform, mainly through the use of photographic reproductions, to organize and analyze works of art. Malraux was interested in the transformation of a work of art once it has been exhibited in a museum, either in new (photographic) or original format, as it opened new avenues for interpretation.
On origins: matter and memory, form and content
Perhaps Bak began to process this notion standing before that wall at his atelier. The fluidity of time and space among images has opened way for rethinking his artistic process. Images started to relate to one another in much the same way images related in Malraux’s Imaginary Museum: through photographic representations and within his imagination. As in Malraux’s museum, dialogue among them began to emerge. The neoclassic and the abstract, the cubist and the expressionistic, all were paving roads towards one another and shaping Bak’s style. While at the same time, Bak’s memory of the past, that is, his own historical context was making its way into his art as well. In those years, in Paris and in Rome, imagery of a dark and fractured world reflected Bak’s memories of the war and established its place on many canvases. Bak’s style was abstract, infused with dark tonalities, sharp and piercing lines and rough textures. Bak was well equipped artistically but not yet prepared to share his story of the war.
One could find hints into this metaphorical darkness in the titles given to each work. After the Rain, depicts a view reminiscent of an inundated terrain, perhaps the aftermath of a major flood. Alta Tensione constructs spaces Bak knew well, dark with hints of light, emerging as if through a crack in a window. These were painted from his memories of hiding while in the convent, the ghetto and the labor camp. High were the tensions of those hiding, petrified in absolute silence as soldiers and guards searched for signs of life. In From the Valley of Tears, we observe abstractions of a deformed dead child surrounded with frost, and Fire Power depicts a direct memory as Bak intended to create a sense of a faraway glow and flames over a burning boat. Here, Bak painted from memory of the death of his uncle Yasha, who was in a concentration camp in which, when liquidated by the Nazis (themselves in the throes of their debacle), prisoners were sent out to sea on boats, which were made to explode, burn down and sink. Bak holds in his mind the coming together of fire and water in a confrontation that is a frightening experience.
Indeed, the memory of the war did not loosen its grip on Bak. In 1963, while in Rome, Bak was filled with self-doubt and questioned his artistic direction realizing the need to move past a style that felt increasingly hermetic. He began to search for a visual language that was more communicative to the public. Over time, memories of the past were given space to rise from their subconscious dwellings into his conscious mind, allowing Bak to move past the darkness that overshadowed his present. “Memory is a thing of re-creation,” Bak shared with me, “it serves not only the purpose of recalling something from the past, but also of bringing it back the way that it suits us” . Bak was in his early thirties when he summoned the courage to tell his story. Control Center and In the Realm of Childhood speak to this moment of transition as Bak began to paint in a more representational style and allowed narrative and technique to merge anew. This was the beginning of the development of his current style and in the coming decades -- in Rome, Israel, New York, Switzerland and finally in Boston -- Bak’s work will unfold before us and reveal objects and people set within imaginary and distant landscapes that become all too familiar in a moment’s gaze.
An example is found in Above and Beyond. Here, we observe a silhouette of the Tablets of the Law that seem to have been transformed into gravestones amidst an arid landscape. Above, a cemetery of tombstones floats in the sky. It is lifeless. Two smokestacks, reminiscent of the crematoria chimney, remind us of a familiar story, and the iconic number 6 confirms the reference to the Holocaust and the 6 million Jews murdered during that time. Bak’s language portrays a familiar element, and much like Brecht intended the “verfremdungseffekt” in his theatre, Bak painted the familiar to appear estranged on this canvas. How does the viewer reconcile this disturbing image? How does one interpret the Torah after the Holocaust? Has its wisdom taught us anything in the end about evil and its aftermath? Balance is tipped, inviting us to analyze and understand this new language.
Art historian Martin Kemp provides a useful definition of the term, icon, as an image that has achieved “wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations for very large numbers of people across time and cultures, such that it has, to a greater or lesser degree transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context and meaning.” The Tablets of the Law carry varied religious meaning across time and culture. When situated within Bak’s imaginary landscape, we are immediately drawn to our familiar frames of reference as we try to make meaning of the context in front of us. Bak knows this. Accordingly, he paints that which will challenge our thinking about the Tablets of the Law, which typically symbolize the covenant with God. We are invited to confront the role of religion and faith in the aftermath of catastrophe.
In Votre Dame, another example, Bak paints the Arc de Triomphe, France’s iconic symbol, as a decaying monument. A familiar mark, mythic in its historical content and yet, here it is corroding before our eyes. We are once again drawn into a world filled with familiar symbols in unfamiliar settings, bringing forth questions about the resiliency of a civilization. How does an entire culture collapse, metaphorically or perhaps literally? What does the present teach us about its ruins? In Study for Alone we observe the Magen David, Jewish Star of David, a graphic sign that came to symbolize Judaism. The sign is transformed into myth as its ghetto-like construction is embedded within a desolate landscape with no horizon in sight. The Jewish Star of David inhabits many of Bak’s paintings. Appearing whole, fragmented, consumed by flames, anchored in the ground or floating in the sky, it continually evokes questions such as, how does one preserve an identity in the aftermath of the Holocaust? To what extent is faith in a God related to identity, and what happens to identity when such faith is lost? The link between religion and identity is an ancient one and is not solely a Jewish question.
Each of Bak’s paintings incorporate history, tradition and religion in multiple representations set in alternate universes that disrupt and confuse, leaving its viewer uncomfortable and concerned for the characters at play. In the process of making meaning and communicating with the viewer, Bak seeks to present the complex reality of the human condition. It is through his diverse use and appropriation of cultural forms (i.e. Biblical and mythological characters, graphic symbols, objects such as dice or candles and architectural monuments), that we are able to access multiple frames of reference and open up multiple avenues for interpretation.
It is Bak’s endless curiosity to excavate and explore that motivates him to create images and imagine stories. Through his memories Bak shares his story and reminds us that his art does not begin and end with the Holocaust. His art serves to provoke and stir us, and ultimately teach us about the complexity that is life. Human suffering is part of the human condition and evil will at times tip the scale of justice. Good does not always prevail but, there is hope that following a destructive event, there will be reconstruction. Life will continue.
And, art will continue. In a world inundated with images, absorbed through screens and photography, movement and cinematography, painting remains. It remains as a way to focus and understand ourselves and others around us. Bak’s work invites us to slow down as we enter into this accelerating world, look past the paint, composition and physicality of the canvas, and immerse ourselves in the story before us as we reconcile our own realities navigating through life.
Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. 1964. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. [1st ed.]. New York: Hill and Wang.
Dunkerton, J. and Spring, M., with contributions from Billinge, R., Kalinina, K., Morrison, R., Macaro, G., Peggie, D. and Roy, A., ‘Titian’s Painting Technique to c.1540’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol. 34, 2013, pp. 4–31. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/technical-bulletin/vol-34-essay-1-2013
Faure, Élie, and Walter Pach. 1937. History of Art. De luxe ed. 5 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Pub. Co.
Kemp, Martin. 2012. From Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Malraux, André. 1949. The Psychology of Art. Essays on the psychology of art. London: A. Zwemmer
Peirce, Charles Sanders, and James Hoopes. 1991. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Peirce, Charles Sanders, Charles S. Hardwick, Victoria Alexandrina Maria Louisa Stuart-Wortley Welby-Gregory, and James Cook. 1994. Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between Charles S. Peirce and Lady Victoria Welby. Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms International.
Stier, Oren Baruch. 2015. Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Ayala Tamir is an educator and curator focusing on the intersection between trauma, social justice and the arts within cultural, educational and civic institutions. She holds masters degrees in history and theory of architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design and in art therapy from Lesley University. Ayala resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children.
Copyright: Ayala Tamir and Pucker Gallery, 2018
Published here with kind permission of the author.
Speech of Samuel Bak in the Town Hall of Vilnius, November 15, 2017
after having been awarded Honorary Citizen in the town of his birth:
I was born in Vilnius 84 years ago. 84 years ago, in Germany, Hitler seized power.
I was my parents’ first-born child, and the first grandson of four dotting grandparents. We were members of a well-established Jewish Community, which had been part of this city’s story since the 15th century. My Parents, my loving family, and their friends, made me believe that the world in which I lived was enshrined in a state of imperishable security. Comfort was self-evident, happiness — ongoing. Menacing clouds, darkening skies, and sounds of ominous thunder — were for adults only.
However, little by little, my Garden of Eden began to disintegrate. When I was four I received my first lesson in the then abounding Anti-Semitism. On what was “Ulica Wilenska”, a hooligan spat in my face and yelled: ZID. I left my Polish kindergarten and learned Yiddish. I had to know who I was.
The Soviets arrived, then the Nazis. Father was sent to a forced labor camp. Mother and I were expelled from our home. On a rainy day we joined the line of Jews that marched into the newly created ghetto. We fled, searched for help, and hid in a convent. Then forced back to the ghetto. Later — in September 1943, at its final liquidation -- they transported us to the HKP labor camp in Subotch. Undeniably, the Shoah – the final solution -- was in full implementation. Miraculously, when the Soviets returned to Vilnius, almost a year before war’s end, Mother and I emerged from our last hiding place — alive. We were among the 5% of of Vilnius’ Jews that counted among the living. Jerusalem of Lithuania was no more. Life under the Soviets was hard, but we coped. I celebrated my 11th birthday and began to study art. My unusual talent triggered a plan to transfer me to a Moscow school for “so-called-geniuses.” It meant being separated from my mother. It changed everything: we had to flee Stalin’s paradise. We ended up in Poland by the skin of our teeth. A refugee camp in Bavaria awaited us. Finally in 1948 we found shelter in the Jerusalem of Israel.
When I arrived to Israel I was a boy of fifteen. By then my Litvak roots were fully formed. I lived among survivors. Intellectuals. My Hebrew, newly acquired, kept its Yiddish tone. We considered ourselves the world’s most enlightened Litvaks, and treasured a belief in universal humanism. We were the true keepers of a precious world, which the Nazis and their collaborators destined to annihilation. Our culture, shaken, licking its wounds, mourning its irreparable loss, lived on in us. It lived on in the Yiddish we spoke, in the books we read, and in the values we shared. Especially with the ones, who were from our galaxy. We weren’t the best material for a new and heroic land.
A young painter, I began to seek the artistic form that I would give to my inner truth. Soon I realized how deeply Vilnius was etched into my soul. It had a unique aura. At first I searched for it in the old and narrow streets of Paris. Then — in the back alleys of Rome. In the end I found my magical Vilnius in my own paintings. Paintings packed with what the eyes of a boy of Vilnius had perceived when he discovered his world’s realities. And since most of the authentic images of the Shoah were chilling, dehumanizing, and foreboding — I chose to evoke them metaphorically. So were created my personal representations of destruction and its partial mending. And so were born my symbols of survival and resilience. All rendered in a painting technique that seems remote and timeless. They do not exude menace. Let the ones who do understand, understand.
For many years I thought that I would never return to the city of my birth. But that wasn’t to be. Something important happened. Around the year 2000 Rimantas Stankevicius came to the U.S. and we met. He had been researching life-stories of Righteous Christians, who against all odds saved Jews. He knew that I owed my miraculous survival to their heroic courage. Rimantas’s visit was a turning point in my life. A brotherly friendship was born. My old reluctance disintegrated. Consequently, 56 years after a dramatic escape from a Soviet city I returned to my birth-town, Vilnius, the Lithuanian Capital. My visit was followed by an important exhibition of my art. Then came other visits, often with close members of my family.
Wonderful visits, and each one very special. But the emotion created by the present one is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Let me explain. I am at an age in which most of my future is behind my back. And I can happily smile — I have been very lucky. My art is appreciated. It provides me with a decent living. It allows me to create in full liberty. My paintings have granted me innumerable prizes, awards, and honorary doctorates, wonderful recognitions of achievement. But whenever such events happened, whenever I had to acknowledge my elation and as expected — announce my utter humility . . . I felt alone. Not so today. Today, while accepting this Honorary Citizenship, I have a keen feeling that a whole crowd surrounds me. I am not so humble. Here at my side are my father, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and a huge multitude of faceless Jews of old, old Vilnius, a third of the city’s population, whose lives were cut short, and now rest in the woods of Ponary.
And all are proud of their boy; all are delighted with the exceptionality of this event.
It is for their sake that I have donated to the Lithuanian state a large collection of my artistic output. It is to their memory that I dedicate the Bak Museum. I am infinitely grateful to all the ones who have tirelessly labored to make it happen. It wasn’t an easy ride, and it took time – but the result is a dream-come-true.
Mr. Bak's entry in the Golden Book of the city of Vilnius, Lithuania:
With Vilnius deep in my heart.
With roots in the darkest of times
And the most extraordinary honor.
And above all with limitless HOPE for the future.
Vilnius Nov 15 2017.
Conversation between gallery owner Ruth Debel and Samuel Bak, during the artist's exhibition at the Debel Gallery, Ein-Kerem (Jerusalem), May 1978
Ruth Debel: Personally I am quite moved by the fact that your last show in Jerusalem took place in 1963, at the Bezalel Museum , and that you had no exhibition in Jerusalem since then. I did not see that exhibition; I only have the catalogue you gave me –
Samuel Bak: The works I showed then were works I brought from Italy. As many as could be put into a car that had to board a ship. They were works of 1959-1963. Actually, I could not bring the bigger, more important works, but I think the exhibition was quite good. It also went to the Tel-Aviv Museum.
Ruth Debel: I read what Gamzu  said in the Tel-Aviv catalogue and I think some of his words could still apply to your work to-day, I think he speaks of the feeling of anxiety combined with a sense of beauty –
Samuel Bak: Those works were abstract. I think it would be true to say that up to 1963, what I wanted to convey to others, I said to myself. I was still very much afraid of the figurative. I still lived with all the taboos of art. I was very impressed with academic attitudes that divide things into categories: „This is right and this is wrong“.
In 1964 I encountered Pop-Art. This encounter was very intensive. Rauschenberg was awarded the important prize of the Venice Biennale that year and there was a gigantic exhibition of American Pop-Art all over Venice. This suddenly opened up the field of communication with the public as a legitimate thing… The wish to communicate with people, to try to create a bridge to the spectator.
Pop made it legitimate for me to relate to reality, to the fact that an artist is permitted to do things that had been done before, but with a new spirit. Suddenly I saw a way out. It led to my first attempt with the figurative. Quite soon, I must admit, like someone lost between mountains who suddenly finds a path which quickly puts him on the right way, very soon I got onto the path that brought me to these things. The contents remained the same, I believe it just became more conscious. I also think that in some ways it is hard to discuss my work without using the term of Surrealism.
Ruth Debel: Although this disturbs me very much…
Samuel Bak: This term disturbs me, too, mainly because it is used in the wrong context. But this is precisely why I would like to elaborate at this point.
My abstract works, were actually more surrealistic than these, because technically, they referred much more to automatic things, to subconscious things, to those things that somehow emerge, because one works like in a trance. I think that some aspects of surrealism like that of Matta  can be detected in my work of that period.
Ruth Debel: This is quite apparent even from the black and white reproduction in the catalogue.
Samuel Bak: My encounter with Pop was a turning point.
Ruth Debel: You said you were trapped in an academic apporach to art. Was it because oft he methods then used at Bezalel ? After all you are a Bezalel graduate?
Samuel Bak: No no. I don’t think Bezalel had anything to do with it. I actually studied only one year at Bezalel and I do not consider myself to be a Bezalel graduate. First of all, there is a group of artists who had the privilege of studying with Ardon . All of them recognize him to be a teacher of particular inspiration. I did not study with Ardon. I only listened to some of his conversations on art, very few of them. The teachers I had were more technical, and they realized that I had sufficient technical training and advised me to leave Bezalel.
But I would say that what I had of Romanticism in my painting I brought from Paris. Not from the Beaux-Arts. There I had an excellent teacher, Jean Souverbie , a minor cubist, who taught me to look at things. It was mainly what went on in the Paris galleries at that time. The mid-fifties. Tachism. The moment of glory of De-Stael, Vieira da Silva, Manessier . To me this kind of art is really romantic. The classical view sees art as something greater than the individual artist. He really serves an idea which, if embodied, is so great that there can be no perfection. Each artist can only add that amount of perfection which he can attain. The romantic view, on the other hand, puts the artist above all, not only his creation, but himself. The Romantics invented the Prince-Artist, center of the Salon, who can be reached only by climbing up a ladder… And the artists, too, I think, began to take themselves very seriously…
To come back to our days. Abstract Expressionism, this thing which can only be explained by the artist in referring to his very act of painting, where his own personality plays such a dominant role, is really such a bath of egocentrism… I do not deny all the many very beautiful things created by it, but…
So for me, Pop was a kind of return towards a certain classicism. A return to an idea external to the private person of the artist. The use of existing popular art, the various advertisements, in a way, the denial of personality, the Media as a certain ideal.
I returned to the original sources of my inspiration. The terrible oppression, the sense of danger, of helplessness in the past, memories of the Holocaust. Not because the Holocaust is of specific interest as a historical fact, but because of the particular pressure of my personal experience, which serves me as a touchstone to human destiny in general. This has become a kind of Leitmotiv in my work –
Ruth Debel: It’s contents really.
Samuel Bak: Indeed. A very unpopular word in some circles… But to me, if you take away contents, all the rest is secondary.
Ruth Debel: I thought quite a lot of this attitude of yours, which, if heard by someone who does not see your work, could perhaps mean that you are dealing with Political Art, Conceptual Art. I was preoccupied by the language you choose. Reading what you wrote in our catalogue, listening to you in this dialogue of ours, knowing that you obviously have no technical limitations in the execution of any medium, I thought you could really build a Star of David and the Tablets out of any material, write a sophisticated text, and express yourself in a more contemporary language. So I came to the conclusion, but this is really a question, that there must be a physical factor, in holding a brush in your hand, opening the tube, smelling the paint and putting it on canvas or on paper. Would you agree that this art of painting is a human need?
Samuel Bak: Something you cannot give up! I would say, the pleasure –
Ruth Debel: That’s the word!
Samuel Bak: The pleasure to deal with this mixture of spices is so great, that to give it up seems absurd! I also think that there is something that people understand only with time. The complexity of art. It is the young who are after absolute answers. They try to concentrate a certain idea in a limited terrain. But art can be, at one and the same time, layer upon layer, conceptual, gestural, even trompe-l’oeil, and all of these endless possibilities can only, possibly, be appreciated after a certain time of satiety. I don’t think I could give up the pleasure, the physical pleasure, of working with color, and all the other means. What I do try to do is to divide the pleasures.
I try to achieve a certain maximum with a minimum of means. I may not always be successful with this, because I sometimes get drunk with the possibilities. But this is true also of others. Take Christo, for example. He covers up houses and mountains, but his real art appears when you look at his so-called „plans“ for those demonstrative works. These plans are marvellously painted, with very delicate colors, with sophisticated drawing, like Aroch  here in Israel, for example.
Each artist has is own masquerade, but we all land at the same point.
As for me, I do not consider the past in art to be some thing liable to pass. There are no problems that art has tried to solve, has solved and we can go onwards. First of all you cannot solve problems. Second – there is no such thing as „problems of art“. No! Each artist invents problems in order to have a challenge. From this challenge, with the problems of his own invention, he makes art. If we try to think with fresh eyes – think with the eyes, important! – we realize it can be done. And I am happy that young artists today think so too. You may return to any point of art in the past, and continue from there.
Ruth Debel: Examples?
Samuel Bak: Take Poliakoff for instance.
Ruth Debel: Completely forgotten! and what an artist…
Samuel Bak: That’s the price of fashion! Poliakoff saw some Egyptian sarcophagi and watched how their color faded, become more and more transparent, began to peel, make all kinds of patterns, and this is what he dealt with, completely irrelevant…
In my case, there is a kind of very concious return to a certain concept of realism. Not the existing realism, but an interior realism. Not a realism of dreams, by no means…
Ruth Debel: More a world of symbols –
Samuel Bak: Yes, but not private symbols. I know that I cannot travel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, pass by the Nesher factory and not think of Dachau. I think there are many people like me. Chimneys and smoke are not what they were before Dachau. My obsession with the subject of the Holocaust is an obsession shared by many. I think that whoever escaped that hell is imprisoned in so many feelings and thoughts, that he cannot free himself unless he deals with them. This has a liberating effect, and in this liberation one really seeks partners.
All this is very far from the surrealism of the thirties…
Ruth Debel: Where is Freud and where are you… By the way, in Hebrew you sign: בק
Samuel Bak: This is the correct way to spell my name in Hebrew. It dates back to the Progroms of Chmelnitzki . It stands for the children of those who died as martyrs. When I think that I was born BAK before my father was killed, and all the family, during the Holocaust, it is quite frightening… This is a name worthy of all those who were rescued. What a word…
Ruth Debel: I really did not mean to bring up any biographical points in this conversation. So much has already been written about this, and still will be. Maybe we could talk of the composition of your exhibition.
We have early subjects, with which, I think, everybody identifies you by now, the pears, the ancient industry and others, and then we have the new unit, which you began in New York in 1975, the Yellow-Star/Star of David and the Tablets of the Decalogue. I think you have completed this unit just now, for our exhibition.
Samuel Bak: That’s right.
Ruth Debel: I would like our visitors to go through the exhibition, in your company, without imposing on you, so let us discuss some works.
Samuel Bak: Actually what I had to say about the Landscapes of Jewish History I have already written for the catalogue of the exhibition. What I have probably not emphasized sufficiently is the fact that I definitely found a challenge in dealing with the most used of the symbols – the Star of David and the form of the Tablets. They have become real „schmaltz“ , but once again, I was greatly indebted to Pop.
The Yellow Star is linked with biographical memories, let us say, very very very meaningful. Because I began to paint, and decided on becoming a painter, when I was three years old. It sounds like a joke, but it is a fact. So when we had to procure ourselves with the Yellow Star to go out into the streets, I painted one for my aunts, and grandmothers, and my parents etc.
Ruth Debel: You were the „painter of the Yellow-Stars“?
Samuel Bak: I was the „painter of the Yellow-Stars“.
Ruth Debel: How old were you?
Samuel Bak: I was seven.
The thought of having stamped, like in a passport, all those people, who then went to the „Ponar“  and there they had to undress and they were shot. This is part of the mechanism of absurd guilt-feelings of every survivor.
It was also important for me, then, to come back to this thing, once more. It was buried somewhere very very deep inside. […] [But] I did not do it. - I knew the day will come. - I did do it! [In 1963 in Israel] I painted a picture and gave it as a present [… to] the Israel Museum [Jerusalem]. It is a large abstract, kind of abstract, with, in center a certain shape of a Yellow Star of David [To My Hometown, 1963].
Back to our exhibition – I made many of the works in it especially for this exhibition. There was a challenge in repeating subjects in a different way, especially Chapters in History (No. 1). You find all the associative and plastic links in it. To start with there is the „NO“ of the Decalogue, „Thou shalt not kill“ and the „NO“ of the man who refuses to receive the bullet till the last minute and who received it in the end. And the smoke. In fact, all that world of accepted allegories and symbols.
Ruth Debel: And there is that wonderful work, of smaller dimensions, Ancient Grove –
Samuel Bak: That is, perhaps, the side of my faith, after all, in man, to grow again, anew, even out of that thing which is the Tablets like walls of a cemetery, growing trees.
Ruth Debel: Much has been said about mysticism in your work, Kabbala, I do not see any of it -
Samuel Bak: I know nothing whatsoever about Kabbala…
Ruth Debel: Like every nosy person I enjoy finding the sources of your work, if they can be detected, and this adds greatly to my pleasure. You yourself have mentioned quite a few artists in our talk, most of them were not Israelis. I suppose this is due to the fact that you lived and learned abroad. Thanks to that, you saw, you were lucky enough to see, at an early stage, international art. Many Israeli artists of your generation were not that lucky…
Your points of reference are practically always with international artists.
Samuel Bak: This is perhaps one of the problems in trying to place me in the context of Israeli art, my being, in a way, a foreign plant. I owe nothing to no-one. I do not say this out of conceit, for I think that there are excellent artists here, but I arrived in Israel at fifteen, when I had already seen all there was to see at the old Pinakothek…
Ruth Debel: … in Munich?
Samuel Bak: In Munich, or from reproductions. I did begin to be interested in art at a very very early stage. And, later, in Paris, I do not think a single day went by without my visiting the Louvre. I also lived in Italy for many years and saw nearly all Italy had to offer in terms of glorious past. So it is true that when you look at the painting born here [by Israelian artists], and at what it engendered, it is hard to find a link with my work. During the Bezalel period perhaps.
Ruth Debel: Who were your teachers there?
Samuel Bak: Ascheim, Steinhardt, Eisenscher  –
Ruth Debel: And your fellow-students?
Samuel Bak: I was of the year after Bezem, Yehuda Bacon. A very good friend was Dani Reisinger, an outstanding artist in his field – Design .
Ruth Debel: Very shortly after the Holocaust, and very shortly after the War of Independence, people began to ask „where is art about the Holocaust and where is art about the War of Independence“, and in fact, it probably begins only now, a generation later. Is it possible that your being away, in foreign surroundings, gave you the necessary distance to deal with the subject more easily?
Samuel Bak: Definitely, definitely. In retrospect you can philosophize, but I think it contributed. Exile is sometimes absolutely necessary.
Ruth Debel: Let us come back to the exhibition - The subject of breaking is very obvious here. In Study in Breaking (No. 15), there is a kind of paradox between dynamic and static. The Tablets are breaking, they are up in the air, but they are not scattered about, although formally they are dislocated.
Samuel Bak: Ah! These are the secrets of the making… But true, I could have painted them flying about and exploding. I did not.
Ruth Debel: This is precisely what interests me.
Samuel Bak: Although I think of the human race what I think, I still believe there is an aspiration, at least in our own culture, to safeguard certain ethics without which our society cannot persist as a body. This means that the code of laws ruling this society is still some kind of element that is greater than society itself. The power to survive, notwithstanding the breakage, is something that I believe to be above the breaking of a Jewish symbol, it could serve as a motto of more universal significance.
From the Jewish point of view, the tragedy was that of the victim. But to the non-Jew, to a person, believing, let us say, in a certain humanism in the world, it was tragic to see a civilization at the peak of culture and refinement, commit one of the most abdominable crimes of history. This too was a tragedy. The Jewish experience is part of the overall experience of the world, which must not be forgotten, or made to be forgotten.
This, also, is why, with all the unpleasantness involved for me, personally, I go to Germany, to participate in ceremonies around my exhibitions, because I think it is important, in particular in Germany, to show my work, because it so directly relates to what people wish to obliterate.
Ruth Debel: Let us come back to Study in Breaking, which is oil on paper. Do you like to work with oil on paper?
Samuel Bak: Very much. Canvas usually rejects color. There are stages where the canvas remains a canvas. This is beautiful in some contexts but to me – unpleasant. Paper, on the other hand, has no resistance. It is like a Tabula Rasa and to me more agreeable. In fact, today there are many artists who work by sticking paper onto canvas, as was the custom with many works of Holbein or Rubens. The Italians, too, did it. There are materials today which, technically make it possible to isolate the oil from the paper so that is does not damage the paper with time. This is very important.
I work with oil on paper nearly like with water-colors, and I can even better control the transparency, during the time of execution.
Ruth Debel: This is particularly striking to me in (No. 5), Thou shalt not kill. It is hard to believe this is oil. As for (No. 18), Ancient Industry, which is pencil and water-color – I was asked about the „health“ of the paper. I know it is not faulty, but –
Samuel Bak: Of course not! It is such hard work to put each stain where I want it to be… I was looking for old paper, but you cannot always find it. And if you find it there is danger of deterioration later. There is something in old paper that is special, that gives a certain timelessness to things.
Ruth Debel: You must love old books –
Samuel Bak: I love old books.
Conversation between gallery owner Ruth Debel and Samuel Bak, around his exhibition at the Debel Gallery, May 1978. The conversation was held on May 1, 1978, after the works were hung in the gallery.
Copyright: Debel Gallery, Ein-Kerem.
Published here with kind permissions by Ruth Debel and Samuel Bak, 2019
 The gallery of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem
 GAMZU, ḤAYYIM (1910–1982), Israel drama and art critic. Born in Chernigov, Russia, he went to Palestine with his parents in 1923, and later left to study art and philosophy at the Sorbonne and the University of Vienna. The director of the Tel Aviv Museum, from 1962 he taught at the Ramat Gan School of Drama, and wrote regularly on painting, sculpture, and the theater, mainly for the daily Haaretz. His criticism was erudite and often harsh and could make or break an exhibition or production. Insisting that Hebrew drama must maintain European standards, he often expressed dissatisfaction with its achievements [https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hayyim-gamzu, 21. Sept. 2019]
 Roberto Matta (Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren, 1911 – 2002), one of Chile's best-known painters and a seminal figure in 20th century abstract expressionist and surrealist art.
 The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem
 Mordecai Ardon (born Max Bronstein, 1896 – 1992) Israeli painter, emigrated in 1933 to Jerusalem. As a teacher and director of the "New Bezalel", Ardon conveyed his sense of social involvement, his tendency towards Jewish mysticism and local mythology, and the combination of personal national symbols with reality-always stressing masterful technique. Pupils such as Avigdor Arikha, Yehuda Bacon, Naftali Bezem, Shraga Weil and Shmuel Boneh absorbed these influences and integrated them into their later work. Ardon was seen as the father of the regional approach in Israeli art. [https://en.wikipedia.org, 21. Sept. 2019]
 Jean Souverbie (1891-1981) French figurative painter of the French school, enrolled at the Académie Ranson in 1916, became a teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1945, his monumental figures, his taste for allegorical subject matter, and simplicity of composition reveal his interest in the great French classical painter, Nicolas Poussin. With André Lhote, Albert Gleizes, Pablo Picasso, Louis Marcoussis, member of the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s. [Source: www.artnet.com]
 De-Stael, Vieira da Silva, Manessier:
Nicolas de Staël (1914 – 1955), French painter of Russian origin known for his use of a thick impasto and his highly abstract landscape painting. He also worked with collage, illustration and textiles.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908 – 1992), Portuguese abstract painter. She was considered a leading member of the European abstract expressionism movement known as Art Informel. Her works feature complex interiors and city views using lines that explore space and perspective.
Alfred Manessier (1911-1993), French non-figurative painter of the new Paris School and the Salon de Mai. [https://en.wikipedia.org, 21. Sept. 2019]
 Arie Aroch (1908–1974), Israeli painter and diplomat, in his work he mixes Pop Art and abstract art. Scholars of the history of Israeli art have pointed out his pioneering use of Jewish themes in his works. His painting style includes unstructured scribbling and drawing, and it influenced a broad range of artists. In 1971, Aroch was awarded the Israel Prize in Painting for his work. [https://en.wikipedia.org, 21. Sept. 2019]
 The Progroms of Chmelnitzki, the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648-1657) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commenwealth was a rebellion of Ukranian Cossacks, who committed mass atrocities against civilians, Roman Catholic clergy and Jews in paticular. Entire Jewish villages were destroyed. “Some of the children”, Bak writes in his memoir Painted in Words (2001, p. 128), “remained miraculously alive in the rubble of their burned families and houses.” In 1949, after his arrival in Israel, Samuel Bak was told by an historian that these young survivors were known as Beney-Kedoshim, meaning Children of Martyrs. In the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky Uprising, the children who survived the violence, along with their descendants, adopted the abbreviation form of Bney-Kedoshim: Bak (in Hebrew written without an alef).
“Inscribed on each painting he produces, the artist signs his surname, BAK – he, one of the surviving children found in the rubble. It stands as a marker for those destoyed. It is a memorial to the dead. It also recognizes those who endured the devastation. It is an expression of the ongoing trauma survivors face in the aftermath.” [ Mark Celinscak “Surviving Children – Found in the Rubble” University of Nebrasky at Omaha, 2019]
 The English term "schmaltz" is derived from Yiddish, and is cognate with the German term Schmalz, meaning "rendered animal fat", regardless of source: both tallow and lard are considered forms of Schmalz in German, as is clarified butter. English usage tends to follow Yiddish, where it means poultry fat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schmaltz; 15 Sept. 2019)
 Ponar: The Ponary forest was a very popular destination for families nearby Vilna, before SS-troups and their stooges made it a killing field in 1941, more than 100,000 murdered. - Following the Soviet annexation of Lithuania and the Baltic states in June 1940, the construction of an oil storage facility began near Ponary in conjunction with the future Soviet military airfield. That project was never completed, and in June 1941 the area was overrun by the Wehrmacht in Operation Barbarossa. The Nazi killing squads decided to use the six large pits excavated for the oil storage tanks to abduct, murder, and to hide the bodies of condemned locals. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponary_massacre, 15 Sept. 2019)
 Aschheim, Steinhardt, Eisenscher:
Isidor Ascheim (1891-1968), German-born Israeli painter and printmaker, immigrated to Jerusalem, Mandate Palestine in 1940. Studied in Breslau under Otto Muelle, was influenced by Erich Heckel of the Die Brücke. Taught at the Bezalel School of Art and served as its director. His art is based on a direct impression of nature, life and the human form. His oeuvre represents a continuous connection with nature and the human figure, usually executed with a dark palette, the legacy of his German Expressionist roots.
Jacob Steinhardt (1887–1968), German-born Israeli painter and woodcut artist, studied painting with Lovis Corinth and engraving with Hermann Struck, lived in Paris (1908-1910), served in the German Army during WWI, immigrated with his wife Minni Gumpert to Palestine in 1933. He was a member of the Bezalel school group, opened a privatre art school in Jerusalem and in 1948, he became Chairman of the Graphics Department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design; he served as director of the school in 1954-1957.
Jakob Eisenscher (1896-1980), Israeli artist, was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, attended the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, was influenced by German Expressionism. In the early 1930s he immigrated to Paris and was exposed to Cubism and influenced by the work of Picasso and Braque. 1935 he immigrated to Israel, studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, later teaching there.
Since the 1950s painting Cubist-style landscapes became a major focus, he also included visions of the Jewish "shtetls" in Eastern Europe, markets, synagogues and scenes of Israel and its people. [https://en.wikipedia.org, 21. Sept. 2019]
 Bezem, Yehuda Bacon, Dani Reisinger:
Naftali Wahba Bezem (1924-2018), German born Israeli painter, muralist, and sculptor, immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1939. Studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem with Israeli painter Mordecai Ardon. He then spent three years studying in Paris. His most famous public works include a wall relief at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the ceiling mural in the main reception room at the President's Residence, Jerusalem.
Yehuda Bacon (1929) born in Ostravam at the age of 13 he was deported with his family from to the Ghetto Theresienstadt, to Auschwitz-Birkenau and was sent on camp's death march, he survived the Holocaust, his parents and sister did not. In 1946, Bacon immigrated to Palestine, Jerusalem, and studied at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. In 1959, he became a professor of graphic art and drawing at Bezalel. His Œuvre consists of a synergistic interaction: on the one hand, Bacon processes the experiences of his childhood and youth in the concentration camps, on the other he is searching for a way of understanding through his art. Bacon was early part of interfaith dialogues and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the 1950s. He lives with his wife Leah Bacon in Jerusalem.
Dan Reisinger (1934), born in Kanjiza, Serbia) is an Israeli graphic designer and artist. Holocaust surviver who lost most family members in the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel in 1949. At age 16, he was accepted as a student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. He traveled, studied, and worked in Europe, from 1957 in Brussels and then onto London where, 1964–66, studied stage design at the Central School of Art and Design. In 1966 he returned to Israel and established a studio in Tel Aviv and today in Giv'atayim. The influences on his work—itself more widely focused than solely on social and political issues—have come from colorists, Minimalists, Constructivists, and humorists. He claims one of his more significant contributions has been to stretch the visual and communicative possibilities of Hebrew letters through his symbols and logos.
[https://en.wikipedia.org, 21. Sept. 2019]
The first cycle of drawings dedicated to the ghetto was created in my New York studio in the winter of 1975. It was there – in that view over the loaden skies, the snow-clad buildings and bare black trees – that I recovered some distant images of Vilna; a Vilna far far away but forever enshrined in my memory.
I would see myself as a small boy in the icy and wind-swept city, trying to understand why there was such anguish on the nature of the events that were taking place – events that carried in them the seeds of a major catastrophe.
At one point I saw myself painting, and then cutting out in fabric, the yellow star that had to be sewn onto my parents‘ clothes and mine by order of the Nazi conqueror. So that we would be identifiable as Jews.
I do not belong to those who have grown up with the joys of and comforts of Jewish religion. My Jewish identity was pronounced to me in omnious tones, in a voice of thunder, and I was left dumbstruck, wishing to tell all about it, yet hesitant, wondering wether my statements would be believed.
Instead, I turned to painting landscapes, trying to describe in them those experiences that made me realize I was a Jew.
I am always full of memories, with images that flash into my mind, and I wonder if those were not intensified during that particular winder because of my being away from Israel to live in New York for a time.
Here in this city the question of my Jewish identity was open to re-examination – whereas, in my own country, just to LIVE and to BE there, seemed the most natural answer to that question. Strange though, that I should be reflecting on the problem of identity in this great city with its very large number of Jewish people.
All those appropriate solutions, all the logical answers that are so suited to most Jews born or educated in the States, left me in an unsettled frame of mind…
At those times of inward reflection, the memories of the yellow star and all it meant were reawakened.
It was the star that generated the form of the ghetto:
The Ghetto as a separate entity, defined by its surroudings, recognised by the commonly known symbol.
The Ghetto as an underground city, confined in a small claustrophobic space by a hostile or indifferent neighbourhood.
Homes torn up by the roots: heaps of rubble, stretching forth in an infinite wave.
Memorials for those souls who had left their homes forever…
Imaginary, pathetic, virtually impossible projects for their commemoration.
Landscapes of Jewish History, filled with pain and destruction.
Those were the drawings I brought home from New York.
When a year later I returned to this subject I was probably being carried away by the local landscape: the Negev, the mountains of Sinai, those vast deserts that still carry in themselves the echoes of the dawn of our history.
The Tablets of the Decalogue appeared in the new drawings as if directed by their own power, guided in by the force of their own spirit.
I am not afraid of common symbols. On the contrary, their power lies in their ability to create a strong and immediate contact. Yet there were certain doubts to be overcome concerning the use of the symbol of the Tablets. For it is difficult to imagine any other with such a weight of significance. They are the quintessence of the Revelation of Sinai and the acceptance of the fundamental set of laws implicit in them.
The Tablets of the Decalogue mark the identity of the people chosen to be a „Light Unto The Nations“ – a people struggling with their commitment to God in the face of persecution by the Gentiles.
They represent a difficult and uncompromising act of laws that were meant to protect life – like the walls of a fortress. They symbolise values that are eternal; at the same time one is aware of their fragility.
The first set of Tablets were smashed in an act of rage.
Rage and hatred have continued to be the cause of their destruction, together with all that the laws signify, down through the ages.
The desecration of the laws has created a mass grave; it has hammered out its inscription and turned them into gravestones.
Throughout the long history of their abuse and desecration, the Tablets have maintained their eternal power to re-emerge as a guide for those who choose to accept their covenant.
The power of the Tablets could not be totally annihilated: from out of their fragments new Tablets were being created.
The act of breaking things down into their various components is one of the basic laws of creation. We destroy something that exists so as to bring about a new set of forms. The plastic aspect of breaking down existing forms, with the aim of arriving at new ones, has been of major concern to artists since the earliest times. The Cubists carried this out in a lucid, almost scientific way; though Hieronymus Bosch, Vermeer, and Cézanne, were already conscious of the secrets of taking forms apart. Therefore, in addition to the symbolic meanings and the substance of these new works, I was simply fascinated by the procedure of reassembling the forms I have described.
Unlike the former group of my paintings in which human figures appeared, I was unable, this time, to introduce them into these different landscapes. Possibly I was daunted by the spirit of ancient taboo that would not have granted a welcome to the human likeness appearing here in these settings.
The figures that dwell in my imagination, trying to find their way out into a painted reality, have had to make way for the vast deserts and stones.
They will probably wait patiently at the tip of the brush for another occasion to make their appearance.
Samuel Bak, 1978
This text is the English version of the Hebrew text, published in the Debel Gallery catalogue for the Samuel Bak exhibition, May 1978, translated into English in winter 1978.
Copyright: Samuel Bak and Debel Gallery, Ein-Kerem
Published here with kind permissions by Ruth Debel and Samuel Bak, 2019