University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Samuel Bak - Gallery 3

    Samuel Bak - Gallery 3

    Tombstones of sorts, humble "reliquaries," unassuming cutouts, and perishable "bricolages." Such were the only tangible markings of memory that I could produce, and they did not diminish my sadness. After the Shoah, people wondered if art could go on existing, if it could still be produced. Obviously, as a painter who has uninterruptedly practiced it since my first exhibition at age nine in the ghetto of Vilna, my answer was clear. But the question itself was an expression of tragic dismay, and it triggered more paintings.

    Here, in Sounds of Silence a musical quartet is playing. The image carries an echo of the strings of Auschwitz. These musicians, broken survivors, will never be whole again. At best, their effort will result in silence, or produce a very faint sound.

    In order to attract his public, the musician or the artist often pretends to speak about something else, something less troubling. At times he feels that one is better heard when wearing a mask.

    They try. Art must be allowed to triumph over annihilation. Our creative endeavor is the essence of life.


    Now to a few thoughts about my "ongoing journey" through the difficult terrain of art that stems from, and relates to, the Holocaust. Years ago, when my art had reached something of its present form, I was nonetheless plagued by an incessant feeling of contradictions and shied away from admitting a direct connection with the Holocaust.

    I feared that a Holocaust-related interpretation would narrow the meaning of my work. After all, I am trying to express a universal discomfort about our human condition, and the experience of the Holocaust, which sheds such a cruel light on the entire catalogue of human behavior, is specific, despite the vastness of its lesson. Wouldn't it become a factor of limitation? Being a survivor, I was familiar with the world's reluctance to listen to our harrowing stories. People needed time to study the Shoahand to grasp all its implications.

    This reluctance to expose ancient wounds might also come from a fear of being thought to solicit commiseration. We live in a society that hungers for sentiment – worse, sentimentality. And sentimentality perverts truth. Furthermore, most of the art that I then encountered on this theme, art produced in the sixties and seventies, was to my eyes less than acceptable. Surely, some powerful works must already have existed, but I was unfamiliar with them.

    Fortunately, the situation has changed. At present, the challenge of anchoring art in meaningful themes does not scare away talented artists. And the present conference is proof of a substantial change of attitude.

    In 1978 a retrospective of my work was planned to take several years and to travel through a number of German museums. I was torn between two opposing feelings: my willingness to grant permission to show the work, and my reluctance, or rather my total unwillingness, to bring myself to revisit Germany. I never made it to Heidelberg's museum to attend my show's debut, and it took me months to decide to come to the festive opening in Nuremberg in the German National Museum. Nuremberg, a city in which the ghosts of my murdered father, grandparents and decimated family clung to me with an uncanny force. It wasn't an easy task, but this time I made it!

    The day after the opening, when revisiting my show and stumbling on a visit of high school youngsters, I learned something of value. Listening to a capable instructor and to the young people's interaction with him, I understood how important it had been to bring my art to that place. I was witness to a process of their coming to terms with a terrible past. It was a courageous course. Not too many people in other European countries have been up to it. Suddenly, letting my work be seen explicitly in the context of the Holocaust made a lot of sense. To my personal view the walls of the German National Museum transformed my paintings, and I realized that my artistic choices "worked."

    As you have seen, my work refrains from imagery that is overly explicit. Everything in it is transposed to a realm of imagination. This transposition must have echoed in the souls of the young Germans to whom—as I have described—it gave access to a past that was loaded with guilt. To a painter who creates in the solitude of his studio, such an expression of solidarity is a blessing.

    My art, an expression of pain and loss, is also the pleasurable product of an artist's desire for accomplishment, the materialevidence of a mental journey. The world I depict is clearly post-cataclysmic, but my art is also the therapeutic response to a personal search for serenity, beauty and balance. Had I not feared to sound presumptuous, I would have said that art is the vehicle of our hope for human betterment.

    During my years living in the States, I have had endless occasions to meet with students and faculty and learn that my paintings have provoked them to new excursions of thought. I believe that no profound study of man's history, sociology, or economics can circumvent the great lesson of the Shoah. The study of the Shoah, perhaps because of the unparalleled nature of the subject, questions and re-examines the implications of nationalism, bigotry, prejudice, racism and intolerance, and does it more than any other discipline. My humble contribution could be like a finger that points in this direction.


    I would like to conclude with a detail and the image of a large painting that is dedicated to a great man of Nuremberg. This city was the cradle of the Nazi Racial Laws against the Jews, and the place where the world had judged the Nazi crimes.

    He, the great master of Nuremberg, one of my artistic Rabbis, is distanced from these events by four centuries. But his melancholic angel that lingers between the middle ages and the age of enlightenment seems to warns us that history may revert its course. He is the famous Albrecht Durer, whose house in Nuremberg, today a museum, hosts several of my works.

    What an irony, and at the same time what an emblem of the extremes of human behavior –and yet also of coming to terms, of accepting change, even, if you wish, of redemption.

    The various components of this canvas are: water that hints at the universal flood, a shattered rainbow representing God's broken promise, extinguished Shabbat candles, a cross, a Jewish star, tablets of law, and in the midst of this mess a dejected angel. The angelic figure of Durer's great Melancholia, in a soldier's greatcoat. The meaning of all these components is so self evident that any additional comment or extra interpretation would be more than redundant.

    The last slide An imagined cutout of Durer's Melancholia, and a few enigmatic figures, perhaps survivors, were the image of the poster for my retrospective show in 2001, at the National Picture Gallery of Vilnius. The exhibition was called: "Homecoming". It seems that the angel was hinting at a closure of a circle. At the end, the circle preferred to remain open.

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