HIDDEN PEAR, color etching, signed in pencil, numbered 7/50, Jerusalem Print workshop blind stamp, image 7 ½ x 5 ½”, sheet 15 x 10 ¼”.
Samuel Bak (born 12 August 1933) is a Polish- American painter and writer who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel in 1948. Since 1993, he has lived in the United States.
Samuel Bak was born in Wilno, Poland, Bak was recognized from an early age as having an artistic talent. He describes his family as secular, but proud of their Jewish identity.
By 1939 when Bak was six years old, the war began and Wilno was transferred from Poland to Lithuania. When Wilno was occupied by the Germans on June 24, 1941, Bak and his family were forced to move into the ghetto. At the age of nine, he held his first exhibition inside the Ghetto. Bak and his mother sought refuge in a Benedictine convent where a Catholic nun named Maria Mikulska tried to help them. After returning to the ghetto, they were deported to a forced labour camp, but took shelter again in the convent where they remained in hiding until the end of the war.
By the end of the war, Samuel and his mother were the only members of his extensive family to survive. His father, Jonas, was shot by the Germans in July 1944, only a few days before Samuel's own liberation. As Bak described the situation, "when in 1944 the Soviets liberated us, we were two among two hundred of Vilna's survivors--from a community that had counted 70 or 80 thousand." Bak and his mother as pre-war Polish citizens were allowed to leave Soviet-occupied Wilno and travel to central Poland, at first settling briefly in Lodz. They soon left Poland and traveled into the American occupied zone of Germany. From 1945 to 1948, he and his mother lived in Displaced Persons camps in Germany. He spent most of this period at the Landsberg am Lech DP camp in Germany. It was there he painted a self-portrait shortly before repudiating his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Bak also studied painting in Munich during this period, and painted "A Mother and Son", 1947, which evokes some of his dark memories of the Holocaust and escape from Soviet-occupied Poland. In 1948, Bak and his mother immigrated to Israel. In 1952, he studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he continued his studies in Paris (from 1956 at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts) and spent various periods of time in Rome, Paris, Switzerland and Israel before settling permanently in the United States. In 2001, Bak returned to Vilnius for the first time and has since visited his hometown several times. Samuel Bak is a conceptual artist with elements of post-modernism as he employs different styles and visual vernaculars, i.e. surrealism (Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte), analytical cubism (Picasso), pop art (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) and quotations from the old masters. The artist never paints direct scenes of mass death. Instead, he employs allegory, metaphor and certain artistic devices such as substitution: toys instead of the murdered children who played with them, books, instead of the people who read them. Further devices are quotations of iconographical prototypes, i.e. Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" on the Sistine Ceiling or Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving entitled "Melencholia" . In the late 1980s Bak opened up about his paintings, stating they convey “a sense of a world that was shattered.” He turns these prototypes into ironical statements. Irony in the art of Samuel Bak does not mean parody or derision, but rather disenchantment, and the attempt to achieve distance from pain. Recurring symbols are: the Warsaw Ghetto Child, Crematorium Chimneys or vast backgrounds of Renaissance landscape that symbolize the indifference of the outside world. These form a disturbing contrast with the broken and damaged images in the foreground. Samuel Bak's paintings cause discomfort, they are a warning against complacency, a bulwark against collective amnesia with reference to all acts of barbarism, worldwide and throughout the ages, through his personal experience of genocide.
In Bak's piece entitled Trains Bak creates a vast grey landscape with large mounts creating the structure of a train. Massive taper candles burn in the distance further down the train tracks, surrounding an eruption. The smoke from the candles and volcano pour into a sky of dark ominous clouds that lurk over the landscape. Here Bak has created a whole new meaning for “trains.” Many of Bak’s pieces incorporate aspects of Jewish culture and the holocaust with a dark and creative twist, such as Shema Israel, Alone, and Ghetto. Chess as a theme of life has always fascinated Bak. In the DP camps and in Israel, he often played chess with his stepfather Markusha. Underground II, 1997, portrays chess pieces in a sunken, subterranean evocation of the Vilna ghetto.
Select Group Exhibitions
Graphic Works by Contemporary Israeli artists - Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Avraham Ofek, Igael Tumarkin, Shmuel Bak, Avigdor Arikha,Jakob Steinhardt, Anna Ticho
Artist and Society in Israeli Art, Tel Aviv Museum, Tel Aviv Moshe Gat, Marcel Janco, Yohanan Simon, Ruth Schloss, Menashe Kadishman, Samuel Bak, Yosl Bergner.
Selected museum exhibitions
Bezalel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel – 1963
Tel Aviv Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel – 1963
Rose Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA – 1976
Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany – 1977
Heidelberg Museum, Heidelberg, Germany – 1977
Haifa University, Haifa, Israel – 1978
Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, Germany – 1978
Jüdisches Museum, Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Germany – 1993
Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, NY – 1994
South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. 2013-2014.
B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, Washington, DC – 1997
Holocaust Museum Houston, Houston, TX – 1997
National Museum of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania – 2001
Felix Nussbaum Haus, Osnabrück, Germany – 2006
Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem, Israel – 2006