Renowned Artist Samuel Bak Will Receive Doctor of Humane Letters at UNH Commencement
Samuel Bak’s paintings render the visible and invisible worlds of the Holocaust both for viewers today and for generations to come.
In a recent essay, Samuel Bak wrote about his own work:
“…I have been painting all my life, and now, after more than seven decades, I still assiduously do so. And as the saying goes: for reasons of the heart that the heart does not know. For me, being a painter means being possessed by a world of ghosts; and making the best of it. I believe that throughout my relatively long life I have created an oeuvre that at first sight might seem hardly decipherable, but in the long run reveals most of its hidden content.”
Born in Vilna, Poland, in 1933, Bak was from a middle-class Jewish family. As Vilna came under first Soviet and then German occupation in the early 1940s, Bak and his family, along with other Jews, were moved into the Vilna ghetto. It was there, at the age of nine, that Bak had his first exhibition of drawings. His prodigious talent was clearly evident even then. Then the family was sent to a labor camp, from which he was smuggled and given refuge in a convent.
Prior to the war, Vilna was a city of around 195,000, of which around 55,000 were Jews. When the Red Army captured Vilna in 1944, Bak and his mother were among the some 2,500 Jewish survivors. The city was in ruins and the community the Baks had known was gone. Bak and his mother were the only members of their extended family to survive.
He and his mother made their way to a large camp for displaced persons in Landsberg, Bavaria. In 1948, they emigrated to Israel.
While in Israel, Bak, continued his education, studying at the Belzalel Art School in Jerusalem. Later he served in the army. In 1956, he moved to Paris and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. Subsequently, he lived in Rome, Israel, New York City, Paris, and Switzerland. By the 1970s, Bak was developing his distinctive artistic vocabulary, reworking various themes and symbols, and using a particular range of colors that he continues to use today.
Jeffry Diefendorf, the Pamela Shulman Professor of European and Holocaust Studies, writes about Bak’s work:
“Bak does not attempt to represent directly in his art the worst dimensions of the Holocaust…at least not directly. Instead his paintings mix biographical references…with references to both Jewish civilization and Western civilization more broadly, since he clearly views the Holocaust as a profound rupture in both civilizations as well as in his own life. Often he transforms and manipulates well known images from the Renaissance…and he uses a Renaissance palette in his oil paintings and in many drawings as a strategy for confronting this challenge to civilization.”
Bak’s work has been shown at more than a hundred solo museum and gallery exhibitions in Europe, America, and Israel, one at the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück and a major retrospective at the museum of Holocaust art at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and study center in Jerusalem. Several of Bak’s paintings are in Yad Vashem’s permanent collection. Bak is particularly proud of an exhibition at the German National Museum in Nuremburg. That museum has added one of his paintings to its permanent collection. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Museum of Art hosted a major exhibition of Bak’s work entitled The Art of Samuel Bak: Memory and Metaphor.
Since 1993, Bak and his wife Josée have lived in Weston, Massachusetts. Bak is represented by the Pucker Gallery in Boston.
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Bak, Samuel. Facing my own history and my story with Facing History and Ourselves. pp. 2-4. Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak. Brookline, Mass.: Facing History and Ourselves, 2010. Also available at http://www.facinghistory.org/print/3375.
Diefendorf, Jeffry. Encounters with a Master: the Visual World of Samuel Bak. Booklet. Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire (2012).
---. From Berlin to Vilna: The Assault on Europe's Jews. The Art of Samuel Bak: Memory and Metaphor. Catalogue. Durham, N.H.: The Art Gallery, University of New Hampshire (2006)