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Finding the Universal in the Specific  The Art and Life of Samuel Bak

A remarkable story of survival and of a life spent making art speaking of the unspeakable.

Samuel Bak was born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna, Poland.  A few years later the area was incorporated into the independent republic of Lithuania. He was eight when the Germans invaded in 1941 and established a ghetto for the Jewish population. At first he and his parents hid in a local monastery; when the Germans grew suspicious, they escaped to the ghetto. Bak began painting while still a child, and had his first exhibition (in the Vilna ghetto) in 1942 at the age of nine. From the ghetto the family was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of the city. His mother escaped and took refuge with a distant relative who had converted to Christianity and was living undetected in Vilna.

The Family, oil on canvas, 1974

Then Bak’s father managed to save his son by dropping him in a sack out of a ground floor window of the warehouse where he was working; he was met by a maid and brought to the house where his mother was hiding. His father was shot by the Germans in July 1944, a few days before Soviet troops liberated the city. His four grandparents had earlier been executed at the killing site in the Vilna suburb called Ponary.

After the war, the young Bak continued painting at the Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany (1945-1948) and also studied painting in Munich. In 1948, he and his mother emigrated to Israel, where he studied for a year at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. After fulfilling his military service, he spent three years (1956-59) at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He then moved to Rome (1959-66), returned to Israel (1966-74), and lived for a time (1974-77) in New York City. There followed further years in Israel and Paris, then a long stay (1984-93) in Switzerland. Since 1993 Bak has lived and worked outside Boston, in Weston, Massachusetts. In 2001 he published a detailed autobiography, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Indiana University Press).

Portrait with a Star, 1973, oil on canvas

Samuel Bak’s paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries and hang in public collections in England, the United States, Israel, Germany and Switzerland. Between Worlds: The Paintings and Drawings of Samuel Bak from 1946 to 2001 (Boston: Pucker Art Publications, 2002), a survey of more than a half-century of his work, summarizes the sources of his vision as follows:

Bak’s life has inevitably influenced his choice of images and themes. The particulars of Vilna and the Holocaust, of surviving and being a wandering Jew, are part of his individual biography; but all are also aspects of our shared human condition. Bak has always sought to find the universal in the specific. His ongoing dialogues with the long-dead members of his family, with his early teachers, with the great masters of all epochs, with contemporary culture, and with the Bible and the diverse host of Jewish traditions—all come from his desire to represent the universality of loss and the endurance of man’s hope for a tikkun.

 

This biography is taken from the Florida Holocaust Museum’s website, which can be found at: http://www.flholocaustmuseum.org/

AUDIO EMBEDDED.   Click on links below. 

Copyright Story Preservation Initiative.  All rights reserved.

Adam and Eve, What Goes Up Must Come Down, oil on canvas

   

 

TRACK 01 INTRO TO RECORDING


TRACK 02 VILNA

TRACK 03 THIS THING CALLED WAR 

TRACK 04 THE CONVENT 

TRACK 05 THE CHILDREN’S ACTION

TRACK 06 THE ESCAPE

TRACK 07 THE RUSSIAN ARMY

TRACK 08 ISRAEL

TRACK 09 SPEAKING THE UNSPEAKABLE

TRACK 10 RETURN TO GERMANY

To view the video The Art of Speaking About the Unspeakable, copy the following link to your browser. 

http://vimeo.com/10801402

One Response to “Finding the Universal in the Specific  The Art and Life of Samuel Bak”

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