Artists at War
View Sam Bak's painting series at
SAM BAK - Poland - America
“I’m painting something about human condition and what I know. I feel the necessity to remember and take it upon myself to bear witness to the things that happened in those times, so that human beings today and those of tomorrow, if it were only possible, are spared a similar destiny on earth."
The video interview with Samuel Bak is an excerpt from The Art of Speaking About the Unspeakable documentary produced by Rob Cooper in cooperation with Pucker Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts and graciously offered by Bernie Pucker to be part of the Artists at War project.
When I approached Sam Bak for yet another interview, he expressed in his ever eloquent manner, “It is not anymore a question of time, one hour or two hours, but the inalterable fact that there is no energy left for a challenge that your important project would require. I hope you will understand.”
Of course I did understand – and knowing that he had just suffered a minor stroke, left me with an urgency to complete the project as soon as possible.
I first met the artist in his paintings when Bernie Pucker invited me to the caverns of Pucker Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston and graciously agreed to have me select a collection of Bak’s works for the “Survival Through Creativity” exhibit I was planning for my art gallery in Kittery, Maine in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the 60th anniversary of the Jewish Holocaust.
I was not familiar with Bak’s works. As Bernie turned one painting after another, I found myself lost in the multi-layered symbols, details, and Hebrew letters that embodied the large and small paintings. Each one revealed bleak scenes of destruction, broken pieces of life reflected in shattered teapots, tea cups, toys, furniture, clothes, and more. Every painting offered allegory, metaphors of a narrative of symbolism projected a clear message from a witness whose childhood memories unfolded upon countless canvases. Each painting held time prisoner – pushing the viewer to the front seat view of man’s inhumanity to man.
When I met Sam Bak for the first time, his gracious warm handshake projected a graceful resilience. As he sat in our living room hours before the start of the opening reception of the “Survival Through Creativity” exhibit, Sam talked about how his mother – the only surviving family member – had given him Franz Werfel’s book on the Armenian Genocide – 40 Days of MusaDagh. He knew well of the Armenian history and the atrocities that paved the path to Hitler’s actions that unfolded across Europe. In his slight accent, he articulated so well the emotions of loss – comfortably switching from one language to another (fluent in seven languages), he never lost a beat and always remained humble for an artist whose works have toured the world and are included in many prestigious museum collections.
Sam was born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). His family was forced into the Vilna ghetto and later into a labor camp. He was smuggled from the camp and given refuge in a monastery – and along with his mother was the only survivor of his entire family. He has spent his entire artistic life reflecting on his childhood memories of destruction and dehumanization. Whether symbolizing pears (instead of apples) to offer the lost paradise, or wondering how our world, “can integrate the history of violence which has been our legacy,” Sam argues with those who dismiss his paintings as mere “holocaust paintings.”
“I’m painting something about the human condition and what I know. I feel the necessity to remember and take it upon myself to bear witness to the things that happened in those times, so that human beings today and those of tomorrow, if it were only possible, are spared a similar destiny on earth.”
Instead of reflecting grim images of the holocaust, Sam symbolizes dismembered objects including teddy bears, pitchers, teapots, and more. Lost and disappeared family members appear in mere shadows. It’s difficult to choose a “favorite” Bak painting, but perhaps what touched me the most are symbols of “Tikkun” – the repair of the universe. The act of turning broken elements into good deeds in a reparative effort. To repair that which cannot be repaired as it’s broken forever. Sam explained how his art is a process of repairing the broken vessel. After all, that's what survivors are: “They are in disrepair, not whole anymore.”
Tikkun is testament that you can perhaps, “repair, but can’t restore” that which is destroyed, annihilated, massacred, and abolished. The patched-up are still fragmented. In some ways, Tikkun reminds me of the 15th-century Japanese Kintsugi tradition whereby cracked pottery is restored by incorporating the damage into the aesthetic of the restored item – hence making the crack part of the object’s history. Using lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold, copper, bronze, silver, or platinum the breakage is pieced together to enhance the original look.
What I see in Bak’s Tikkun – the broken, although not fully repaired – is a masterpiece that makes audible the quiet of sufferance – giving words to the unspeakable.
Paintings of a childhood “lost, interrupted, and ended” ask, force, and provoke an analysis of reasons for man’s inhumanity against man. They don’t focus only on the Jewish Holocaust – but on the universality of wars.
In June of 1941, Sam was eight when the Germans occupied Vilna forcing the Jewish population to wear the yellow Jewish Badge. He was put in charge of preparing badges for his parents and extended family. By September the deportations of Jews to the Vilna Ghetto started and Sam’s father was sent to a labor camp, while he and his mother were able to flee to the home of Janina Rushkevich, his grandfather’s sister who had been baptized in her youth. Janina sheltered them in a Benedictine convent, where the nun Marija Mikulska took Sam under her wing providing him with paint and paper. When the Germans placed the convent under military jurisdiction, Sam and his mother had to flee once again and returned to the Vilna Ghetto. In 1943 poets Avrom Sutzkever and Szmerke Kaczerginski invited the nine-year-old Sam to participate in an exhibition organized in the Ghetto. Sensing that their end was near, the poets trusted the young Sam with the Pinkas (the official record of the Jewish community) hoping that both would survive. Paper was a precious commodity during the war, so Sam, unable to resist the white pages of the Pinkas, used the margins for his drawings – leaving no empty pages.
When in March of 1944 a children’s Aktion in the camp ended in the deaths of 250 children, Sam’s mother ran away and he hid under a bed in the living quarters of a camp building. Days later he was smuggled out of the camp by his father in a sack of sawdust to reunite with Janina Rushkevich and his mother. They returned to the Benedictine convent, where they were sheltered for 11 months, until liberation. Ten days before Vilna’s liberation, forced laborers, among them Sam’s father, were rounded up at the city’s camps and executed.
Following the liberation, Sam began formal art studies with Prof. Serafinovicz, and later in Poland with Prof. Richtarski. After a short time in Berlin, Sam and his mother moved to Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp in 1945. His mother later remarried a survivor, Natan Markowsky, a senior administrator at the Camp.
Sam continued his art studies in Munich with Prof. Blocherer and in 1947 exhibited his works during David Ben-Gurion’s visit at Bad Reichenhall. Images were also published in the Hebrew newspaper, Davar HaShavuah, and the Yiddish Forverts in New York. At age 15, Sam moved to Israel to continue his studies at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design before entering the military for his mandatory service. Interest in designing theatre backdrops and costumes brought him to Paris in 1956, where he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Moving to Rome in 1959, Sam had a solo exhibition at Robert Schneider Gallery and later exhibited at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. After intervals of living in Paris, New York, Israel, and Switzerland, he finally settled in Weston, Massachusetts where he lives with his wife, Josée.
Testimonies of creative minds affected by brutalities of our times