About Samuel Bak

Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak

Samuel Bak explains his life growing up in Vilna, and explores his art as it relates to Facing History

Samuel Bak: The Art of Speaking about the Unspeakable

This film explores Samuel Bak’s life and the experiences that helped shape his art.

The following essay is from Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak. Collection at Facing History and Ourselves. Facing History and Ourselves, Brookline, Massachusetts. 2010, pp. 2-4.

Samuel Bak: Facing my own history and my story with Facing History and Ourselves

“Do you still paint?” a journalist asked me. “Do you still breathe?” I angrily retorted. What a silly question! I felt assailed, perhaps humiliated. I have been painting paintings all my life, and now, after more than seven decades, I still assiduously do so. And as the saying goes: for reasons of the heart that the heart does not know. For me, being a painter means being possessed by a world of ghosts; and making the best of it. I believe that throughout my relatively long life I have created an oeuvre that at first sight might seem hardly decipherable, but in the long run reveals most of its hidden content.

In the fifties and early sixties, at the period of my artistic formation, contemporary criteria of art did not allow storytelling. However, I felt compelled to shatter this taboo and “paint” my stories. Why? No doubt the traumatic events of my childhood and their miraculous shifts and turns were at the core of my compulsion. Another word for compulsion would be inspiration. My use of symbols, icons and metaphors managed to keep the underlying horror of my world at bay; it protected me, and protected the future audience of my paintings. Since I was determined to connect with people, I knew that I had to create a space that evoked the ancient beauty of the old Masters. It would attract most viewers and make them respond to my uncomfortable visions. I was lucky; my plan worked. And I connected with many, and on many levels. My work has reached people of many different backgrounds, in various countries, of various ages. 

The concerns and the needs of the young public are close to my soul; and so are those of the teachers of Facing History and Ourselves, whose educational activity could not be more humane and more edifying. This organization has my unlimited admiration. Its leaders and I share similar visions of the world; a world plagued by racism, intolerance and discrimination—yet a world packed with millions of young minds that can be nurtured and shaped. In short, we live in a world that cries out for repair. Since 1976, the year of my show at the Rose Museum in Waltham, my art has been added to the curriculum of the founders of Facing History. Indeed, the journey we share is quite a long one! 

How did this journey begin? Let me go back to the year when the Nazis seized power—1933. I was born in Vilna, lovingly embraced by a large and happy family. We lived, so it later became apparent, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, because the community to which we belonged was destined for annihilation. I experienced the Ghetto, the labor camp and a hiding place in a Catholic convent. Mother and I survived, and so did my passion for creating images, and not mere images of colors and shapes, but images of the dangerous and troubling realities in which we lived. Realities that my imagination could transform, in accordance with the surging needs of my soul, and thus nourish my art. When I was 12, in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, Mother made me read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, a terrifying book on the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey. According to my mother, every Jewish child had to understand the meaning of the innumerable bloodstains of genocides that blemished the pages of our History books. Unknowingly she prepared me to empathize with the present concerns of Facing History. Little by little, the lost world of European Jewry, the world of murdered children, worlds that we humans perpetually struggled to repair with whatever we could save from the rubble, in short: the world of the “inhuman” human condition, turned out to be the ongoing subject of my paintings. 

Since 1959, the year of my first show in Rome, I have exhibited in many countries and worked with a good number of art dealers. But the major catalyst and sustainer of my art became Bernie Pucker of Boston. Bernie is a dear friend. For over four decades he exhibited my canvases in his gallery, devotedly labored to bring them to audiences of museums and public galleries, and in particular to the audiences of American students. He also facilitated access to my art through a variety of excellent art publications. 

In order to help him with these challenges it was necessary that I leave Europe and settle in Boston. Eighteen years ago, my wife Josée convinced me that she was ready to abandon her work in Switzerland, leave her language, culture, friends and close family, and like Ruth the Moabite, follow me to this chosen land. Her support was and still is critical to what I have been able to accomplish. We became American citizens. 

Larry Langer, the outstanding Holocaust scholar and critic, penetrating my images to their deepest layers of meaning, enthusiastically responded to my art and brought to it his unique talent of interpreter. I love the style of his lucid and powerful writing. Whenever I feel the approaching shadow of self doubt, I think of Larry’s inspiring texts and find in them instant solace. 

And then there are my friends at Facing History—Margot, Marc, and all the dedicated and wonderful people who surround them, and who with time have created this indelible link between my art and their organization. This bond is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

“Tfu, tfu, tfu,” Mother would say—whenever good things happened to her—“we must hide all this from the Evil-Eye.” She was a perfectly rational person, pretended to reject all superstitions, and all notions of “it was meant-to-be.” However “in case, in case, since one never knows” she believed that in order to remain on the safe side one had to renounce some sacrosanct principles—surrendering was worthwhile.

It is to celebrate the memory of her existence, the memory of my stepfather Nathan, and the truncated lives of my father and my dear grandparents, victims of the Holocaust, that my artworks are being donated to Facing History. 

Today these paintings need no “tfu, tfu, tfu.” I am sure that where they are they feel safe. And meanwhile I shall go on painting more and more. As long as I keep on breathing.

Samuel Bak,
Weston, Massachusetts
January 2010


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