Finding Hope Against Hope

Samuel Bak’s new exhibit is a stunning collection of oil paintings in which the letters “H.O.P.E.” appear in various states of prominence and entirety, sometimes hidden amid bits and pieces of broken bottles and pottery, sometimes clearly visible. Bak’s complex, vibrant paintings address, in his words, “the problem we all share in searching for Hope when it is so difficult to find.” 

“Hope — how did I get there?” the child prodigy and Holocaust survivor rhetorically asked in his preface to the show’s catalog. If there are pictures worth a thousand words, he reasoned, “aren’t there words worth thousands of pictures?”

The show at the Pucker Gallery on Boston’s Newbury Street is as rich in allegory and metaphor as it is in color and texture. Huge fruit, mostly pears, appear in bewildering forms and situations. They are made of metal, stone and wood. They are blue, orange and red. They borrow their identity from cups and vases, shifting from the familiar to the unfamiliar. And yet, each remains unmistakably identifiable.

Bak first painted pears when he was preparing for a big show in Paris during the 1960’s. “I suddenly realized that the pear can be used for all kinds of things that bring different thoughts with them,” he said. For example, the pear brings to mind the female form. It also, according to Bak, can symbolize the limitation of human knowledge. “No one really knows what was the fruit of knowledge,” chuckled Bak, who admitted that, as a child, he disliked apples and that the pear was his favorite fruit.


“I try to extract whatever I can from a single object,” he said, revealing that returning again and again to the same subject allows him to go deeper into a theme, like a composer whose improvisations create new works based on a single musical theme, such as Bach’s “30 Goldberg Variations.” “My imagination is not surreal; it is grounded in reality,” he added. 

An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, cultured middle-class family in Vilna. By age three, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. “At that age, I wanted to be a fireman or to sell candy, but little by little I got used to it,” he noted, adding he remembers loving painting and making his parents proud.

At seven years old, on the day after his first day of school, Bak and his family were deported to the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he had his first exhibition, inside the ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its two hundred survivors from a pre-war community of between 70 and 80 thousand. They spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948. His second day of school was in Israel, at age 15. “That’s how it was. My times were not normal when I was young,” Bak said, shrugging.

He lived and worked in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, before settling in Weston in 1993. The Pucker Gallery had represented him since 1967, when an Israeli art dealer showed Bernie Pucker some of Bak’s work. “It is a kind of marriage,” Bak said, pointing out that such long relationships between artist and gallery are extremely rare.


Under the Arches

Bak is keenly aware of the role the Holocaust has played in his choices of subjects and themes. His imagery reveals survival and suffering, reconstruction and destruction, hope and despair. His paintings are full of bits and pieces of broken objects that have been put back together in sometimes disturbing fashion. His choice of the theme “bits and pieces” is deliberate.

“After the Holocaust, despite the fact that each one of them was haunted by ghosts, the survivors put up an appearance of a certain normalcy, of something that was almost reconstructed but that was intrinsically broken inside,” Bak began.

He continued, “This became the very big subject of my paintings. It means to describe the reality of bringing up an old memory of something that cannot be completely repaired. My paintings are made out of bits and pieces, like the lives of these people.”

Although Bak has been compared to Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author, he identifies more with writers like Primo Levi, the Italian survivor who wrote, “If This Is A Man” and “If Not Now, When”?

“For me, the Holocaust was more of a universal kind of experience. It was a laboratory of human behaviors that showed the extremes of the destructive powers of humans harming each other…For Elie, it is a more Jewish specific drama,” Bak explained, adding, “We speak of the human condition in very different terms. I speak of the terrible with a greater degree of irony and humor. He goes at it more directly.”

Besides, noted Bak, he speaks in images and Wiesel speaks in words. “I was told, ‘You are the Elie Wiesel of painting,’ but there is no such thing.”