"My paintings," Bak admitted more than a decade ago, "convey
a sense of a world that was shattered, of a world that was broken, of a world
that exists again through an enormous effort to put everything together, when
it is absolutely impossible to put it together because the broken things can
never be made whole again. But we still can make something that looks as if
it was whole and live with it. And more or less, this is the subject of my
painting, whether I paint still lives, or people, or landscapes, there is
always something of that moment of destruction there. Even if I do it with
very happy and gay colors, it has always gone through some catastrophe."
What is "that moment of destruction?" Bak grew up in Vilna, the
Jerusalem of Lithuania, a center of Yiddish learning that rivaled any in Europe.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, he city was transferred from Poland to Lithuania.
The Soviet Union occupied Vilna in June 1940, when Bak was a child of seven,
and the Germans invaded a year later; from that point, the dismantling of
Jewish culture and the destruction of Jewish Life in Vilna began. When Russian
trops re-entered the city in July 1944, only a few thousand of the 57,000
Vilna Jews who had been subject to Nazi rule were still alive. Among them
were Bak and his mother. His father had been shot a few days before the liberators
arrived. The two ghettos, sole remnants of a once thriving Jewish community,
lay in shambles.
This is the kind of personal legacy that stalks the Landscapes
of Jewish Experience. Bak's paintings comprise a visual testimony to the
disaster, a profusion of images that admit us to an event many consider unimaginable.
His canvases present relics of ruin and vestiges of order, a wasteland of
Jewish tradition struggling out of its disarray, leaving his viewers to determine
from this turmoil how much of a chance for renewal remains. A major strength
of his vision is its refusal to commit to hope or despair. It reflects an
art oscillating between expectation and dismay.
The masses in the foreground, the colossal boulders and
huge blocks of granite, the graves and tombstones and crumbling Tablets of
the Law, weight heavily on the imagination, discouraging an easy flight into
an unfettered tomorrow.
The fate of the Vilna Ghetto and its inhabitants is a model for the doom of
all European Jewry. The familiar emblems of Jewish continuity
the Shabbat candles, the Star of David, the Ten Commandments
have not been vanquished, since they assert their presence even in the midst
of a fretful gloom, but they declare themselves with a diminished vigor. Bak
concedes the price the murderous Germans have wrested from the once sturdy
symbols of Jewish existence, while declining to grant final victory to the
assailants. If he can be said to celebrate anything in this series, it is
the stamina of the spirit of Jewish memory, affected and even afflicted by
the powers of darkness, but never entirely annulled.
Bak, Samuel, Landscapes of Jewish Experience; essay and commentary
by Lawrence Langer. Copyright © 1997 by Pucker Gallery in association
with Brandeis University Press. By permission of the Pucker
A permanent exhibition of paintings and drawings by Samuel
Bak may be viewed at the Pucker Gallery, 171 Newbury Street, Boston,