University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Return to Vilna

    Return to Vilna Series


     Color of Night
    Color of Night, Oil on Canvas.
    Emblem, Oil on Canvas, 200 x 160 cm.
    For Jonas
    For Jonas, Oil on Canvas, 160 x 160 cm.
    Persistence, Oil on Canvas, 200 x 160 cm.
    Under the Trees
    Under the Trees, Oil on Canvas, 160 x 200 cm.

    Remnants, Oil on Canvas, 200 x 160 cm.

    Three Crosses
    Three Crosses, Oil on Canvas.


    Courtesy of the Artist and Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA.

    Response to Return to Vilna

    Courtesy of Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA.

    Icons of Memory: Samuel Bak's Return to Vilna Series.

    For most of us, the landscape of childhood is strewn with pleasant groves and parched pastures, early sites of happiness and chagrin that merge after many years into a hazy nostalgic sheen which often confuses what really was with how we would prefer to remember it. Because it summons us to both memory and commemoration, the landscape of Holocaust childhood finds scattered across its terrain remnants of ruin that add a special burden to those preoccupied with the remembrance of things past. When the "old neighborhood" we fondly
    recall as a place of friendship and games becomes the wrecked ghetto of Vilna and the agreeable groves of innocence are changed into the bloodstained woods at Ponar where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, including the artist's father and grandparents, then the
    act of recollection may unearth tangled roots of growth and decay that we do not ordinarily quarry from our own memories of childhood experience.

    In his search for a visual mode of expression to evoke what Jewish Vilna was and had become under Nazi rule, Samuel Bak seeks to honor a vital tradition and to mourn its demise. A seat of secular and religious learning before the war, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, Jewish Vilna was a thriving community until the Germans ravaged its intellectual and spiritual vigor. Bak's canvases portray the remains of a culture, a demolished cityscape of cracked arches and sloping facades, mountains of debris and uprooted trees that through their very disarray remind us of the order that preceded this wasteland of architectural and natural blight. As spectators, our minds dart from what we see to what we thought we knew, which in turn incites a ceaseless invitation to reconsider what we have long presumed.

    What can we presume about what another child survivor, Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld has called "the tribulations of a Holocaust childhood"? In the time immediately after the disaster, Appelfeld argues, "it was impossible to live except by silencing memory. Memory
    became your enemy. You worked constantly to blunt it, to divert it, and to numb it as one numbs pain." But such anesthetic eventually wears off and pain returns, proving that for all those years memory was only quiescent, not mute. For the writer, words slowly invade
    suppressed memory and give it voice; for the painter, images play that part, a kind of pictorial speech that requires an audience to grant eloquence to its visual silence. For a versatile artist like Samuel Bak both roles apply, since this new series of paintings was
    preceded by the publication of his autobiographical memoir, appropriately titled Painted in Words. Devotees of the art will want to consult that volume if only to learn more about the artist's emotional and historical moorings.

    The challenge to evoke a past that can be represented but not reclaimed is immense. One seeks a proper tone of reverence without awe, feeling without sentimentality, truth without dogma, distortion without anarchy, repetition without cliché. Much serious Holocaust literature and art cross the boundary into melodrama because of the very nature of the subject, an abyss that requires aesthetic equilibrium from those who would peer beyond its edge and into its depths. To wrest from this chaos a balanced creative vision is especially onerous for anyone who adheres to Appelfeld's quintessential caution: "To be faithful to what had happened was an imperative from which one was not to deviate."

    Memories of "what had happened" infiltrate the images of many of Bak's recent works. We quickly note how few of them include a human creature. They are not renditions of how things appear, but tributes to disappearance, absence rather than presence. The handful of people
    who do turn up resemble ghostly figures searching through the rubble of a vanished past. They are peripheral beings, grieving but dwarfed by the monumental matter, literal and symbolic, that vexes their afflicted spirits. As anyone who has wrestled with the issue of
    Holocaust representation knows, a very narrow rift divides portrayal from betrayal, the urge to one in constant conflict, often unwitting, with the other. How can the artist honestly depict individuals who were doomed to such a dreadful disintegration without betraying their
    natural life or their unnatural death? By training the eye to see differently Bak provokes the mind to think differently, to understand why night might change to the color of cobalt blue or why fugitives from (or entrants to) an extinguished city might take the shape of pitchers, bottles and pears. Bak's paintings are a Midrashic journey from innocence to experience, though the paradoxical twist in his visual commentary is that it leads us into clearer understanding of a disoriented world. Instead of guiding us unerringly toward redemption, the temple and the book - once the cornerstones of Jewish learning - lie abandoned before our eyes. The further we pursue our yearning for spiritual roots, the more we encounter dispossession. Whether volumes of ancient wisdom or scripture and prayer, books now lie dispersed in courtyards, piled in streets, expelled from the libraries and synagogues that once housed their sacred and secular lore. They are homeless, the people who studied them gone; they are forlorn but simultaneously rich reminders of a culture hovering between rescue and oblivion. What but our own confirmation of their former existence can keep them from perishing forever? Their burnished colors plead to be ransomed from the grim gloom to which
    amnesia would consign them. There is almost a fiery defiance in their insistence that they still exist despite their exiled destiny.

    In many ways Bak's paintings represent efforts to translate modern tensions between skepticism and belief into visual equivalents. They do not liberate us into a hopeful future but divert our attention toward a mournful past. Bak's fellow childhood survivor Aharon
    Appelfeld has declared that "A despoiled youth is a wound that remains open for many years." The details of a painful history fester in that wound, gnawing at memory until they are eased, in Appelfeld's case, into the field of literature, and in Bak's, the realm of art. In the transition from factuality to possibility the Holocaust writer and artist move beyond history into the territory of the imagination, where objects and events are not confined to single meanings subject to rational analysis but multiply plausible interpretations while casting doubt on the fixity of the world they represent. Bak's candles, for examples, are in one configuration sources of leafy illumination, fusing the natural and inanimate with a vitality not
    commonly found in their traditional waxen forbears. Elsewhere they are stone monuments, sentinels on the roofs and in the alleyways of a fallen city. But they are also subject to heat, victims of flame; they melt and disappear, like the people and dwellings of Vilna whose
    dissolution they are designed to memorialize. Candles are absorbed into the landscape, not as separate yortsayt rituals of remembrance but as part of the very substance of the past they were once intended to recall. The Hebrew names of the artist's murdered family members are not neat inscriptions on conventional tombstones but etched tokens of memory in a larger terrain of turmoil and confusion. The faith that once linked generations of Jewish families through regular lighting of memorial candles has been violently disrupted by the fate
    of the Jews at the killing grounds of Ponar.

    Because of Bak's technical skill the landscapes of specific commemoration in this series occasionally exude a paradoxical beauty to harmonize with their compositional design, but overhead hover images less reassuring to the skeptical mind. They invite us to ask how the violence behind the facades can ever be reconciled with principles of visual order. The Jews of Vilna require a more original painterly vocabulary to describe their end. "I wanted to integrate my past trauma more fully into today's reality," Bak has said of his recent work, and this helps to explain the world in fragments he offers us, struggling to achieve a stable form. If art serves a purpose beyond the granting of aesthetic pleasure, it is to reflect the nature of the civilization we inhabit. Uprooted trees and truncated stumps are signs of much more than Nazi brutality and the loss of Jewish lives. They reveal a culture of unnatural death that is one major legacy of the last hundred years. Beneath a canopy of those limbs and trunks, driven horizontally across a painting's space by some unsourced tempest, lie the unmarked sites of the mass graves at Ponar. They represent images of secular revelation, soliciting remembrance without resurrection. Scattered tombstones surge vertically from the earth amidst a rocky terrain in mute pleas to identify and honor their buried doom. Whomever else "today's reality" implies, it must include memories of the artist's murdered family, and of the other victimized Jews.

    Bak's canvases inflict on modern consciousness an obligation to remember, not through any doctrinal impulse to reform society but to encourage us to see and to apprehend honestly the precarious nature of existence that is inherent in the human condition. In a distinct echo of postmodernism, several of his canvases explicitly incorporate into the visual text the process of creation itself, repeated reminders that the reality represented is nothing more than that,
    authentic and inauthentic at the same time, authoritative and to be questioned. They enact the attitude of skeptical appreciation that is one defensible stance for the imagination in quest of some durable assurance that experience has meaning. Is history more reliable than art, or art more penetrating than history? By linking the nature of sight to the quality of insight, the artist insists that we move beyond mere scrutiny of what we behold to the more difficult (and
    often more threatening) task of sober analysis. The variety of interpretive perspectives he leaves us to untangle poses for the restless intelligence unending questions about what art contributes to our understanding of lived - and, in the present context, what we might call "unlived" - life.

    If a major impetus behind these paintings is a search for the roots of childhood trauma, one is further obliged to ask whether art can add anything to the professional conclusions of psychological inquiry. Blindfolded teddy bears in 1930s Vilna could not possibly have foreseen the damage that would be done to children in the upcoming years. Nevertheless, Bak's use of this icon of infant and pre-adolescent security raises issues of traumatic memory that few other images could awaken. By transferring the maimed status from the child to its inert object of affection, the artist raises a host of associations that no prose version of the theme could capture. He gives us visual entry to the idea of the dismembered self, of medical experimentation on children, of a massive assault not only on the youthful victims, both those who survived and those who did not, but on the concept of innocence itself. Many adult survivors describe in their testimonies the hiatus in their lives marked by the absence of
    a normal childhood. Bak's teddy bears are deprived of their roles, of the intimacy that gives meaning to human relationships. They are displaced and forlorn. They are no longer toys in a nursery, but like the children they once pleased, they have been forced by the brick
    walls and smoking chimneys that lurk in their backgrounds to forfeit their access to naïve memory, the birthright of children who grow up with their early reminiscences intact.

    When our fate and our dreams fail to merge, as in the paintings of Return to Vilna, we are left with a split vision of reality. One could hardly speak of the triumph of art over death, though here the two are in constant contact. As the leafy grove at Ponar drifts into the distance, unmasking the impersonal graves of the murdered, we realize that the roots of those trees once drew nourishment from the remains of the corpses in the earth beneath. But this is a cause for irony, not celebration. Hope for a more vital future cannot cancel memories of a bitter past. Stone, not spirit, is the recurrent material in Bak's paintings, and we should not mistake it for a symbolic rock of ages. Like memory, it endures, but it does not transfigure. The "great fragility of our present civilization," to use the artist's own words, would not allow it.

    - Lawrence L. Langer, Professor Emeriuts, Simmons College. 2006.

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