JHOM - Samuel Bak - introduction

Bak title
Landscapes of Jewish Experience  paintings by Samuel Bak
Essay and commentary: Lawrence L. Langer

"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."

Othyot (letters)
Othyot small
enlargement & commentary

Ghetto small
enlargement & commentary

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.

Self-portrait small
enlargement & commentary

Destinies small
enlargement & commentary

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.


From: 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 Gallery.

A permanent exhibition of paintings and drawings by Samuel Bak may be viewed at the Pucker Gallery, 171 Newbury Street, Boston, MA.



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