" 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.
permanent exhibition of paintings and drawings by Samuel Bak may
be viewed at the Pucker Gallery, 171 Newbury Street, Boston, MA.
Hobart and William Smith College, 8-21 May, 2000
Snite Museum, Notre Dame University, 5-30 November, 2000
Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA. In a Different Light: Genesis in
the Art of Samuel Bak, November 31-December, 2000
the collections of Samuel Bak's paintings that have been published
in recent years are Landscapes of Jewish Experience and
The Game Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak. To order
these books, as well as posters and exhibition catalogs, please
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.