University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Samuel Bak - Gallery 2

    Samuel Bak - Gallery 2


    From a city that is afloat to a ship made of stones. Here the sky is more luminous. The war may be over; the massive ocean-liner-fortress seems ready for departure, perhaps a departure to a Promised Land. Who inhabits this structure?

    Who inhabits this structure? On its deck are objects that suggest the plight of having survived. A few unearthly tablets, a reminder of God's broken covenant with His people. Two smoking stacks emerge from the ship. I know that they emerge from what lies buried in many a soul.

    Before arriving at this kind of visual statement, I had to "travel" a long way. Let me explain. When I was young, most artists discarded traditional techniques and repudiated the age-old concept of painting as a vehicle for narrative content. Inevitably this Zeitgeist influenced my own work. In the late fifties I had settled for a non-objective, evocative, but rather hermetic mode of painting. Yet most of my paintings, even the most abstract, echoed my past trauma.

    They always suggested destruction, erosion and annihilation. I couldn't help it; whatever I painted seemed to arise from the tragic sediments of the Shoah. Yet -- did the world need more images of pain? The authentic documentation of the Holocaust provided us with images so shattering that no art could rival their power. I felt that my own images, answering to my need for letting them surface, nonetheless asked for a certain transfiguration.

    Eternal Return, diptych 1997, oil on linen (side panel)


    In the mid-sixties, American Pop Art re-legitimized figuration. (Many saw Magritte as one of its forerunners.) I found myself greatly impressed by a number of installations of conceptual art. Recognizing the latent power in icons, metaphors, and symbols, I embarked on a search for a personal style—something that would allow me to shape the poetic potential of figurative images to fit my own needs. In order to establish distance I chose to give my paintings an aspect of timelessness. Distance permits one to overcome misgivings, to touch what a reluctant viewer's soul considers untouchable, to speak about the unspeakable. The mid- sixties viewed my style of classical inspiration as anachronistic. Now it is labeled Post-Modern. I have no problem with this label, either.

    Smoke, a painting that belongs to the National Museum of Canada. Cemeteries float in the sky. Europe's skies carry the ashes of an assassinated people. Gravestones recall shapes of the tablets of the law. Strangely, these stacks painted a decade ago evoke 9/11. I am not suggesting comparisons; the magnitude of the Holocaust's tragedy is unique.

    The Summit. Here the subject is the breaking God's covenant with Israel. It raises the "question of questions." Where was He? Of course, no art could pretend to give an answer to a question of this kind. It is for the viewer to ponder. The number six stands for the sixth commandment—"Thou shall not murder"—and for the six millions. Hebrew letters that spell SHEMA ISRAEL, a proclamation that religious Jews are supposed to cry out at the moment of their death, lie crumbled at the base of a huge heap of tablets. On the peak, the summit, a tablet displays two Hebrew Yods, the age-old symbol of God's name.


    Again two Yods; this time they are part of a broken key. A key is a tool that opens what is locked, an instrument of interrogation. Metaphorically, it continues to expose the enigma of God's presence, or of His absence. In this diptych, entitled the Hidden Question, two panels are bathed in two separate lights. On the right, a house is being protected, or crushed by a heavy load.

    In the second panel the Hebrew Shin of Shadday, God's feminine attribute, re-proposes the same query. Here, where the light is brighter, the broken key forms the shape of a "zero" that might suggest emptiness or abandonment.

    But the same circle can be read as the letter Samekh of Sod – Secret. I tried to suggest that all this questioning might well be beyond the sphere of our human understanding. I come now to a different series of images.

    warsaw boy

    All are based on a much-published photograph, the Shoah's most famous icon. To me the boy from Warsaw is the Jewish Crucifixion. In the Vilna Ghetto I was his age and I looked exactly like him.

    For a long time I studied this sacred image, lived in its presence, but was afraid to make it part of my pictorial world. I dared not challenge the terrible power of the photograph's authenticity. The passing of time made me reconsider, and he became the subject of many of my works. Was I trying to redeem the banalization of his image?

    The western world is erecting monuments to the Holocaust. Many such projects are still in the making. A few are impressive, but others puzzle me. The magnitude of the subject often defeats our creativity and we come up with responses that are painfully inadequate. Moreover, monuments that speak specifically to a given generation usually become dated.

    Sometimes I feel, and here the irony lies, that memorials should be temporary, or at least transportable and safeguarded in a secluded setting.

    I painted these impossible memorials, monuments that could never exist, as a reflection on these complex issues. All call up the ghostlike presence of the Warsaw boy.

    Gallery I | Gallery III

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