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)
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.
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.
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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
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