Bak, Samuel

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BAK, SAMUEL (1933– ), painter. Bak was born in Vilna. A few years later the area was incorporated into the independent republic of Lithuania. He was eight when the Germans occupied the city. Bak began painting while still a child and, prompted by the well-known Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, held his first exhibition (in the Vilna ghetto) in 1942 at the age of nine. From the ghetto the family was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of the city. Bak's father managed to save his son by dropping him in a sack out of a ground floor window of the warehouse where he was working; he was met by a maid and brought to the house where his mother was hiding. His father was shot by the Germans in July 1944, a few days before Soviet troops liberated the city. His four grandparents had earlier been executed at the killing site outside Vilna called Ponary.

After the war, the young Bak continued painting at the Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany (1945–48), where he also studied painting in Munich. In 1948, he and his mother immigrated to Israel, where he studied for a year at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. After fulfilling his military service, he spent three years (1956–59) at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He then moved to Rome (1959–66), returned to Israel (1966–74), and lived for a time in New York City (1974–77). There followed further years in Israel and Paris, then a long stay in Switzerland (1984–93). From 1993 Bak lived and worked outside Boston, in Weston, Massachusetts. In 2001 he published a detailed autobiography, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Indiana University Press).

Bak's paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries and hang in public collections in England, the United States, Israel, Germany, and Switzerland. Many later works may be viewed at the Pucker Gallery (171 Newbury Street) in Boston. The editors of Between Worlds: The Paintings and Drawings of Samuel Bak from 1946 to 2001 (Pucker Art Publications, 2002), a survey of more than a half-century of his work, summarize the sources of his vision as follows:

Bak's life has inevitably influenced his choice of images and themes. The particulars of Vilna and the Holocaust, of surviving and being a wandering Jew, are part of his individual biography; but all are also aspects of our shared human condition. Bak has always sought to find the universal in the specific. His ongoing dialogues with the long-dead members of his family, with his early teachers, with the great masters of all epochs, with contemporary culture, and with the Bible and the diverse host of Jewish traditions – all come from his desire to represent the universality of loss and the endurance of man's hope for a tikkun.

The fragile balance between ruin and repair remained a central theme of his efforts to create for modern consciousness challenging visual images of our contemporary world.


A. Kaufman and P.T. Nagano, Samuel Bak: Paintings of the Last Decade (1974); R. Kallenbach, Samuel Bak: Monuments to Our Dreams (1977); S. Bak and P.T. Nagano, Samuel Bak: The Past Continues (1988); J.L. Kornuz, Chess as Metaphor in the Art of Samuel Bak (1991); S. Bak, Ewiges Licht (Landsberg: A Memoir 19441948) (1996); L.L. Langer, Landscapes of Jewish Experience (1997); Samuel Bak Retrospektive 19461997, Panorama Museum: Bad Frankenhausen (1998); L.L. Langer, The Game Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak. (2000); idem, In a Different Light: The Book of Genesis in the Art of Samuel Bak (2001); R. Cooper, The Art of Speaking about the Unspeakable (tv documentary about Samuel Bak; Pucker Art Publications, 2001); S, Bak, Painted in Words: A Memoir (2002); I. Tayler (ed.), Samuel Bak: Between WorldsPaintings and Drawings 19462001 (2002); C. Singer, Samuel Bak: Painter of Questions (tv documentary, Toronto, Canada) (2003); L.L. Langer, New Perceptions of Old Appearances in the Art of Samuel Bak (2005).

[Lawrence L. Langer (2nd ed.)]