University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Samuel Bak

    Samuel Bak

    Speaking About the Unspeakable: A Lecture by Samuel Bak

    International Colloquy about the Holocaust and the Arts, which took place at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, October 2002. The Images in the gallery were works that Bak used in his presentation.

    Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Samuel Bak, I am a painter. "Speaking About the Unspeakable" is the title of a documentary film on my art that was recently produced in the US. I have rightly given today's talk the same name. It will concern a number of paintings that I have selected from a large body of my work. All are a response to the miracle of my survival. More precisely, these paintings are a visual statement born of an ever-growing need to deal with my experience of having come through the horrors of the Holocaust, and of having done it by age eleven. The images that you will see have matured over a long span of time. Was this indelible experience the sole inspiration for these canvases? I can't say. The creative process is a matter of such complexity that conscious intentions often eclipse subconscious needs. This question must remain open.

    I was born in Vilna in 1933, in a city that then belonged to Poland. It is now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. A place so famous for its institutions of learning that it was called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. The members of my family were mostly secular, but were proud of their Jewish identity. The year 1939 shattered what had been for me a child's happy paradise. Irrevocably, I was marked by traumatizing experiences -- brutal changes of regime, Nazi occupation, ghetto, murderous "aktionen," labor camps, moments of great despair, escapes, and periods of hiding in unthinkable places. I lost many of my beloved ones, but my mother and I pulled through. She provided me with a shield of so much love and care that it must have saved my psyche. When in 1944 the Soviets liberated us, we were two among two hundred of Vilna's survivors -- from a community that had counted 70 or 80 thousand. This was not the end of our personal struggle, for there followed a dangerous escape from the Soviets and a long period of waiting in the DP camps in Germany. I was fifteen when we arrived to the newly established state of Israel in 1948, which was then battling for its independence. On and off, I spent there some fifteen years of my life.

    Gallery I

    Detail: The Family

    The Family (1974 oil on canvas) is a painting that I have dedicated to the memory of the perished members of my family. An explanation of this work would be beyond the limit of my present time, so let me go on with the outline of my biography.

    During most of my last four decades, I have been indeed a wandering Jew. I have lived and worked in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome, and Lausanne, and I presently reside in the US, in Boston. I have become a man who is at home everywhere and nowhere, an artist whose real roots are in the ground of his art. As I said earlier, and it may sound trite, I know that what I have been painting comes from a compulsive need to give meaning to the miraculous fact of my survival. It tries to appease a sad sense of bewilderment. It comes from the fear that in a world of unparalleled upheavals, things are never what they seem. My work reveals a reality observed through the eyes of a child who had suddenly aged. Some might call it elaboration of Trauma; I hope that my art is more than that.

    To conclude, it is not "Bak" who chose the Holocaust -- it is rather the Holocaust that was put on "Bak's" shoulders a very distinct,almost inescapable need to give testimony.

    I feel that we live in a world polluted by triviality. The Holocaust is a portentous subject. Artists who have chosen to deal with matters of importance, who are questioning the existential dimensions of life, death, good and evil, turn to the experience of the Shoah and believe that their images will stir emotions and stimulate reflection. Visual statements can be stronger than words. But the rhetoric of painting has its limitations. Visual Arts are mostly physical, they require places and spaces, and they can bear only so much moral weight. Besides, certain experiences demand verbal expression.

    For that reason I decided to complement my painterly output with a verbal one. The result is a memoir entitled "Painted in Words." Enthusiastically prefaced by Amos Oz it was published in 2001 by Indiana University Press. My book is now part of a tuition program that trains American teachers to bring to their students the lesson of the Holocaust. Its vast array of implications is analyzed via a careful examination of literature, films, and the visual arts. As you can see, the aim of my writing, the desire to bring a decimated world back to life, at times with pain, sometimes with irony, and unmistakably with humor, was very close to what I try to achieve through my paintings.

    So let me return to the paintings on the screen.










    The recently published monograph on my art, which covers over fifty years of painting, has this image (Close Up, 2003 oil on canvas )on its jacket. If I had to define my art's language or style, I would situate it in a realm of allegory and metaphor. I tackle a vast array of subjects.

    Devastated landscapes of ancient cities and urban constructions seem to have been made of a child's building blocks.

    Figures are half-alive and half-contrived of bizarre prostheses. Abused angels stand helpless.

    Chess pieces are involved in games without rules.

    A revolution has wiped out kings, knights and bishops. It has installed an equality of imperfections.

    Huge fruit, mostly pears in various stages of reinvention, pears made of stone, pears in the form of hovering planets, pears giving birth to other pears represent a shattered and bewildering world, a universe that offers no explanations. At times one can see in many of these paintings the traces of a human effort to repair.

    But have these efforts managed to transform the world's wreckage into a viable reality? Colors, mostly serene and bright, might hint at an element of hope. I hope they do. Finally, I should mention that my style is often said to border on the surreal. I have no problem with that, though you will surely recognize how deeply my vision is rooted in the facts of modern history.

    I wish now to focus on works that concern the Jewish experience of the 20th century.









    The Ghetto of Jewish History, 1976 oil on canvas.

    The ghetto. Here is an inclined surface with no horizon and no possibility of escape. Indeed, when we were thrown into the ghetto like human garbage, it felt like being in a deep hole. This hole is in the shape of the Star of David, the emblem of the ghetto. Near it lies our badge of identification.

    The texture of the painting tries to evoke the stony indifference of the outer world. After the liberation, when I revisited the ghetto, it stood in ruins similar to the ones in the painting.

    Here the title is Alone. It is another structure in the form of a Jewish star, an island surrounded by a menacing sea. The painting's sky sheds an ominous light.

    I have returned to the Star of David over and over again, attracted by the simplicity of its shape and by the clarity of its meaning – an icon of humiliation that has acquired the status of proud identity. At times I depicted it as if it were made of metal, wood, fabric or stone. Here are some examples.

    Gallery II | Gallery III


    1. Gallery I
    2. Gallery II
    3. Gallery III
    4. Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak
    5. Return to Vilna Series
    6. Melancholia: Remembering Angels


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