The artistic talent of Samuel Bak was noticed at an exhibition in the Vilnius ghetto in June 1942. He and his family had been forced to live in the ghetto since the Nazis occupied Lithuania. Samuel was just nine years old at the time. Only he and his mother survived the ghetto; his father and all four grandparents were killed. He left Lithuania after the war, studied in Munich, and in 1948 he moved to the newly established State of Israel, where he became a student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. He has changed his country of residence often, living in France (1956–1959, 1980–1984), Italy (1959–1966), Israel (1966–1974, 1977–1980), Switzerland (1984–1993), and the USA (1974–1977, and since 1993).
In his consistent pursuit of his own style, Bak has probed various trends in painting, and since the mid-1960s he has settled on Symbolic Surrealism. His metaphysical compositions of figures tell intricate stories and raise existential questions. The viewer is immersed in the painter’s world, and is condemned to processes of intense speculation and interpretation. Although Bak is first and foremost concerned with the content of the picture, he has developed clear rules of composition and proportion, based on the sights of his home town. ‘I have been painting Vilnius, in one way or another, for my whole life. I saw Vilnius when I was a child, and the impressions, and the proportions between walls and windows, and between buildings and streets, guide me in my work to this day’ (S. Bak, 2001, Lietuvos rytas, 224:8).
Bak likes to interpret and change the meaning of things in his own way: iron wings do not bestow freedom on angels, and the wisdom in books does not necessarily help us to make the right decisions. The motif of a pear in his still-lifes frequently serves as a metaphor for forbidden fruit. ‘In my childhood, I thought that the fruit that enabled a person to distinguish good from bad, and for which Adam was expelled from paradise, had to be a pear. I did not choose an apple, because in my childhood memories they are always sour’ (S. Bak, 2009, Nutapyta žodžiais, 407). The pears of Samuel Bak express a longing for paradise lost, a childhood paradise destroyed by the Holocaust.
Bak marks himself and his paintings with a yellow Star of David. ‘I am a real wandering Jew. I have a small suitcase, in which I pack all my roots. Wherever I go, I always take them with me’ (S. Bak, 2001, Lietuvos rytas, 224:8). The shadow of death which touched him in his childhood has revisited his canvases throughout his lifetime. Cracked chess pieces made of stone, broken dishes, split pears, people with the top of their head cut open, wooden boards hammered on to their faces, and streets flooded with all sorts of tools and keys, are depicted against barren, natural or urban backgrounds. Everything in Bak’s canvases symbolises the triumph of death over life. However, his works are not nihilistic. In history’s decisive moments, he allows mankind to choose between right and wrong.
Most of Bak’s oeuvre still belongs to him, although some works are owned by private galleries and collectors. His drawings of the Vilnius ghetto and a large collection of paintings and lithographs donated by him are currently held by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.
Litvak Art in Private Lithuanian Collections. Compiler Gradinskaite, V. (2015). Vilnius: Lewben Art Foundation
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