This outline utilizes Samuel Bak's Self Portrait in order to help students understand the emotional journeys experienced by Holocaust survivors. Professor Lawrence L. Langer, Professor of English Emeritus, Simmons College has contributed several essays to this outline based upon his extensive research into the life and work of Samuel Bak. Readings from Holocaust and Human Behavior can be used to support the interpretive activities.
Note to Teacher: Before beginning this activity, please view the full-size version of Bak's Self-Portrait.
Discuss with students how art may provide a unique avenue into studying the Holocaust. In this particular activity, students will examine a self-portrait painted by the artist Samuel Bak.
Discuss with students ways in which a self-portrait is a way to explore ideas about ones identity at a given point of time.
Help students sketch (using images or words) their own self-portrait by considering the following questions:
- How would you depict yourself in your self-portrait? A portrait? Full length? What would your expression be?
- What objects would you include in your self-portrait? Why?
- What colors would you use? Why?
- What would you omit from your self-portrait? Why?
Discuss with students the effects of various artistic choices. You might share with students additional examples of self-portraits by other artists and briefly discuss those artists' choices.
Background Information on Samuel Bak and Self-portrait
Interpreting and Analyzing Self-Portrait
Discuss Samuel Bak's experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust and as an artist. To help put Samuel Bak in context, provide students with some brief biographical background in About Samuel Bak by Professor Lawrence L. Langer, Professor of English Emeritus, Simmons College
Provide students with a copy of Self-Portrait. Either project the painting in full color, or print individual copies for students.
Introduce students to the photograph, commonly titled The Warsaw Ghetto Boy.
NOTE: Current scholarship indicates that this photo was taken during the Nazi occupation and liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in May, 1943. The photo was taken by a Nazi photographer, and was part of the Stroop Report, a comprehensive analysis of the deportation and eventual murder of Polish Jews. There are conflicting accounts of whether this boy survived the war.
In the following activity, students will begin to explore the influence this choices Bak may have made while painting "Self-Portrait". A follow-up activity exploring the relationship between these two images is included below.
- Have students read Professor Langer's essay Interpreting a Painting on the process and challenge of interpreting Samuel Bak's paintings.
Help students interpret the painting by coaching them through the following steps. The teaching methodology Think Pair Share works particularly well with each step of the following format:
Observe: During the observation step, students should simply create lists of what they see within the painting; they should refrain from passing judgment on the imagery or its meaning.
Analyze specific parts of the painting: Have students begin to analyze specific parts of the painting. One way for students to begin this process is for them to isolate one item on their list of observations and consider all the choices that Bak made in painting that item. (Some general examples: What color is the item? Why might Bak have painted it that color as opposed to other colors? Where is the item located in the picture? Why might Bak have painted it there? Why are certain items in the foreground while others are in the background?)
Remind students of the general history of the Holocaust and Sam Bak's particular experiences. Ask students to combine their impression of the specific item they are looking at with their knowledge of the Holocaust.
The following questions may be used to supplement or jumpstart student analysis of "Self-Portrait," but teachers and students are encouraged to add their own.
- How might we interpret the various objects in the painting? The shoes? The stones? The sack? The stigmata? The crucifix? The Star of David? The parchment pieces? The blank canvas?
- How might we interpret Bak's choice to include the smoke filled landscape in the background?
- What do we notice about each boy? What are the similarities and differences in the ways the two boys are depicted? Facial expressions? Clothing? What is the interaction/tension between the two boys?
- Why do you think Bak included the wooden cutouts? What relation might they have to each of the boys?
- What is the boy in the painting holding in his hand?
Interpret the whole painting: Remind students that interpreting a painting is a complicated and constantly changing process. Professor Langer cautions that, "We need not restrict ourselves to the artist's conscious intentions, but we must also be careful not to try to make a painting express anything we wish it to. The evidence for our reaction must lie within the painting itself."
Have students combine the many specific observations and descriptions they made in the prior section with their understanding of the Holocaust and Sam Bak's life. Have students write paragraphs (using specific historical references and references to the painting) supporting their main argument about the painting. The questions below may help students as they interpret "Self-Portrait":
- What ideas or feelings is Samuel Bak exploring? What is the artist suggesting about life, death and creativity?
- Looking at the timeline of Samuel Bak's life, why did Sam Bak create this piece in 1995-1996?
- Explore the relationship in the painting between the key symbols and the corresponding themes Bak is seeking to express.
- Why is this painting called Self-Portrait rather than "Selves-Portrait?"
Additional Interpretations and Resources:
Remind students that interpreting a painting is a constantly changing process. The following resources are provided to help students and teachers increase their understanding of the Holocaust and of the art of Sam Bak.