Bak interview title

Samuel Bak possesses a deep regard for the past, for the unalterable evils of the Holocaust and the pain it has bequeathed. Asked the provocative question of why he constructs his paintings from Jewish symbols that have been violated and nearly destroyed instead of trying to create new ones, he chuckles and comes back with a provocative answer: "You are asking me why I do not adopt the American technique of positive thinking." Then he grows serious, "I think I share with many people a more complex idea of what life is. Besides, destroying and then rebuilding is a common technique in art. It is what the Cubists did. But," he objects, "you cannot ever start from zero. You must build on something that you have already received."

Bak's last name originates from a Polish transliteration of the Hebrew letters, bet and kuf, which is an acronym for the Hebrew words bnei kedoshim, meaning "Children of Martyrs." The name probably originated during the Galician pogroms of 1648. Members of the Bak family lived in and around Vilna and in Sefad and Jerusalem.

Born just as Hitler came to power, Bak was already painting at three years of age. He was seven when the Jews were rounded up into the ghetto, and at nine was proclaimed the child prodigy of the Vilna ghetto. He credits his mother for preventing him from taking himself too seriously and preserving him from arrogance (he hopes). He survived the early part of the war in a Benedictine monastery where his mother encouraged him to learn Christian prayer in hope that this would help him to pass as a Christian and remain safe from the Nazis.

Bak refers to his work as an "assembling of broken shards," using the Kabbalistic concept of the broken vessel that must be repaired, Tikkun Olam (reparing the world). Describing the paintings collected in Landscapes of Jewish Experience, he explains that the scenes are painted in a manner of 17th or 18th century landscapes. The catastrophe implied in a scene is something that manifestly belongs to the past. He says that his paintings contain "ruins, shards and restorations, things that resemble survivors," adding, "survivors are like broken pieces glued together. Many of them function like that."

As for the vessel of his own life, Bak is grateful for what he has managed to reassemble after the horrors he saw and lived during childhood. Among the things he lists that give him great pleasure are his human relationships, his career, and his love of good books, food and music. He attributes this ability to enjoy the present to his art, which he sees as a requisite part of his life, "I was chosen by the subjects of my art and projected into this world that was falling apart. Such experiences don't pass you by. They are a part of you, and you try and give meaning to them." As for the day-to-day process of making art, Bak calls it "a constant struggle, like that of the biblical Jacob wrestling with a stranger whose identity is unknown to him."

Bak successfully painted abstract art until the early 60s, when his work underwent a momentous change to the form of his current work. "I felt at a certain point that my art was not sufficiently explicit, that I was being too careful, doing what people expect of a young artist." He abandoned the 'stylish and politically correct art language,' the form of which he says seemed to change every two years. "Something in me rebelled against the current fashions, and told me that I had a specific story worth telling." Making changes in his art was risky for him, because he had to terminate a contract with a gallery that wanted him to continue working in the same vein. But the risk ended up being worth it. "I found another public, one that was quite sensitive to what I was doing."

A Jewish symbol that Bak uses frequently is the stone tablet of the ten commandments, in particular, the sixth, the commandment not to murder. "The lesson of the Holocaust should have served almost as a guarantee for mankind not to repeat the horror. Instead it seems to be constantly forgotten," says Bak, many of whose paintings do not touch specifically upon the Holocaust's genocide alone, but in a more general fashion confront war, murder, and what he calls "the general malaise of the human condition."

Another important symbol is light. "In the most difficult and dire circumstances, hope is a very important element, even if it manifests itself on the verge of total denial of reality. Yet hope is something that keeps human nature together and makes the mind and the body function. Light in my paintings is there because hope is a crucial component of the human psyche," he explains.

The tree to Bak means many things: the family tree; the self that is torn out with its roots; the dangerous tree of knowledge. The rings in the wood of the tree's trunk represent memory of things that have happened, the passing of time.

Talking about the way he uses symbolism in his paintings, Bak explains, "Posters try to give clear messages and sum up everything by creating slogans. My paintings are just the opposite. I am not providing answers. What I am trying to do is make people reflect and come up with questions."


BAK Introduction



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend