Samuel Bak, who paints the past so we will never forget it, to be on display in Beverly

Samuel Bak in his Weston studio. Photo: Pucker Gallery, Boston

by Shelley A. Sackett

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.

Persistence of Memory by Samuel Bak

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.

Under the trees of Ponari by Samuel Bak

“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.

Persistence by Samuel Bak

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.

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.”