BEVERLY – Samuel Bak, the renowned international artist, speaks in a language of images, dreamscapes, and colors. A child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, Bak tells his life’s stories through canvases rich in symbol, metaphor and reorientation. Recognizable objects and figures appear shattered and reglued; a pear sports a smoke stack, broken teacups become surrealist landscapes, and a ruined house sits atop a mound of books.
Bak’s rich, thought-provoking works will soon be on view in Beverly. “Samuel Bak and the Art of Remembrance,“ an exhibition at Montserrat College of Art Gallery presented in cooperation with Pucker Gallery of Boston, brings together 37 paintings and works on paper created between the 1990s and today. The show runs Jan. 18 to March 4, with an opening reception to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.
His canvases tell the story of a world destroyed, a destruction he witnessed and survived. His work references Jewish and Holocaust history, challenging historical amnesia with difficult images of those times.
Yet, he does not consider himself a “Holocaust painter,” as he is often described, and despite the fact that what he witnessed during those times is the subject of many of his paintings. “I felt I have a story to tell and I wanted to touch other people. I refer to the Holocaust because it is something I know, but it goes beyond that,” he said over Zoom from his Weston home.
His paintings are meant to make the viewer wonder what happens when the world rejects equality and focuses on dehumanizing “the Other.” “My paintings ask questions. They don’t necessarily give answers because I personally don’t have any,” he said.
Despite scenes of anguish and despair, Bak also paints survivors, imbuing them with glimmers of muted hope and resilience. Rivers still run; painters still paint. The teddy bears and tea cups and humans are put back together again, but they can never be the same as our first memories of them.
“I wanted to speak about the survivors, who are people who try to rebuild something that is similar to the reality that existed once, but cannot be totally reconstructed,” he said. “Somehow it is out of the bits and pieces of the horrors of the past that we can construct the sense of our being here and learn to prevent such horrors from happening again as much as it is possible.”
An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, middle-class family in Wilno, Poland. At age 3, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. At age 7, on the day after his first day of school, he and his family were deported to the old Jewish quarter of the city now called Vilna. At 9, he had his first exhibition, inside the Vilna ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its 200 survivors from a pre-war community of between 70,000 and 80,000 Jews.
“The major subject of my paintings is: How was it possible such events happened? How is it I am still alive?” he said.
He and his mother spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948 when Bak was 15. After working and living in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, he came to America and settled in Weston in 1993.
During his 85-year career, Bak has produced over 9,000 items. Since the 1960s, remembrance and its nuances has been a major theme.
“Memory is not a folder that is downloaded onto your computer and when you want to look at it, you give a click and the folder reopens exactly as it was before,” the 88-year-old said.
Unlike a computer folder, Bak sees the human memory as unique and individual because it also contends with our failure to remember. “We are blessed that we have the possibility to forget. This is what keeps us alive,” Bak said. It is also why, when we want to remember, we must recreate that memory.
In his paintings, Bak is “recreating the image that I have of the world in which people live today. Images that somehow seem to belong to another world attract viewers and enable me or others who speak about my work to speak of the times they represent,” he said.
His paintings have been used to educate thousands of teachers and students about the Holocaust since 1978. That year, he exhibited in a national museum in Germany that drew large groups of teachers and young students. “It suddenly opened my eyes. I thought, ‘My goodness. My paintings can do that. That’s absolutely wonderful,’” he said.
Since then, the PBS show “Facing History” has used his art for over 40 years to teach about the Holocaust, reaching millions of students in thousands of classrooms. In 2022, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg will mount a yearlong exhibit of his paintings to commemorate its 30th anniversary.
Montserrat will sponsor a virtual artist talk with Bak and – COVID permitting – other school groups plan to visit the exhibit. “What is happening with this exhibition at Montserrat College is not something new, but it is something I know works,” Bak said.