Samuel Bak

Collection of texts

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)

Samuel Bak and Evelina Kolchinsky
a group dialog (2021)

Published with kind permission of Samuel Bak and Evelina Kolchinsky, 2021
>>> more: Click here for the article - Download

Samuel Bak

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.

Thank You

(c) Samuel Bak Houston/Weston, June 2019
Published with kind permission of the author.

Ayala Tamir

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.

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.

Samuel Bak

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.

Thank You.

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.

Samuel Bak
Vilnius Nov 15 2017.

Ruth Debel and Samuel Bak
DIALOGUE No. 15 - Debel Gallery (1978)

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 [1], 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4]? 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 [5]. 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 [6], 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 [7]. 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 [8] 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 [9]. 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“ [10], 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“ [11] 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 [12] –

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 [13].

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


[1] The gallery of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem

[2] 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 [, 21. Sept. 2019]

[3] 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.

[4] The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem

[5] 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. [, 21. Sept. 2019]

[6] 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:]

[7] 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. [, 21. Sept. 2019]

[8] 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. [, 21. Sept. 2019]

[9] 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]

[10] 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 (; 15 Sept. 2019)

[11] 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. (, 15 Sept. 2019)

[12] 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. [, 21. Sept. 2019]

[13] 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.
[, 21. Sept. 2019]

Samuel Bak
Appearance of Ghetto, Yellow Star and Tablets as Symbols (1978)

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

close Login now
To be able to use the complete range of our website, we kindly ask you to register.
  • Forgot password
  • No account yet?
    Register now