Samuel Bak: surreal but real

Yad Vashem's spacious art exhibitions pavilion is handsomely filled with six decades of paintings and drawings by Samuel Bak, an Israeli who left for Paris in 1984 and eventually settled in Boston.

bak art 88 298 (photo credit: )
bak art 88 298
(photo credit: )
Yad Vashem's spacious art exhibitions pavilion is handsomely filled with six decades of paintings and drawings by Samuel Bak (b. Poland 1933), an Israeli who left for Paris in 1984 and eventually settled in Boston. Most of the 116 paintings and drawings on view relate to the Holocaust. Bak had his first exhibition in the foyer of the Vilna Ghetto theater in 1943, when he was just nine. His mother took him by the hand to lead him through a transport of hundreds of starving Jews, all of whom were shot two days later in a forest near Ponary. Bak survived a subsequent roundup of children when, after being hidden by his mother, his father, a slave laborer, smuggled him out of the ghetto in a sack of woodshavings and sawdust. His father, like all his co-slave workers, was shot by the Germans just before the arrival of the Red Army. The near-miraculous escapes of young Samek and his mother are too numerous to mention here. His story is well told by several hands in the splendid catalog of this show (edited by curator Yehudit Shendar). At war's end Samek and his mother arrived at the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp, where the young boy mounted an exhibition that was visited by David Ben-Gurion in 1947. By then his mother had found him several teachers and took him to museums in Berlin. Samek arrived in Israel in the summer of 1948 aboard the fabled Pan York, his new stepfather carrying a suitcase full of his work. In 1952, prior to his military service, he spent a year at Bezalel, then not yet an academy (as the catalog incorrectly has it). He also designed theater backdrops for Peter Frye and others. The ever mobile Bak moved to Paris in 1956 to enroll at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Three years later he was in Rome, where had a sellout show. After a decade in which Bak became famous in Israel as a surrealist-cum-symbolist relating to the Holocaust and perhaps recognizing that he was out of step with the new generation of post-New Horizons Israeli artists, Bak suddenly went abstract. His abstractions were so successful that I recall advising him to continue with them instead of pressing on with his surrealist dramatizations. Bak's abstract-expressionism is not well represented in this show. Those on view are from his own collection - gloomy, monochromatic and uninterestingly composed oils that are rooted in the forests of death. Perhaps that was why they were selected for this retrospective. The abstract period of the early '60s did not last long. Bak soon returned to his theatrical sagas. They rarely depicted human beings. Many are superbly imaginative, like the Tablets of the Law growing out of the rocky outcrop atop Mt. Sinai, or the buried ghetto houses and streets just visible beneath broken paving stones sundered in the form of a Star of David (as a small boy, Bak had fashioned the first yellow stars worn by his family). But many Israelis saw all these as Holocaust kitsch. Lacking a sympathetic audience here, Bak returned to Paris in 1984, then moved to Lausanne and finally settled in Boston. Bak's earliest watercolors are dramatic evidence of his early talent. Look for the wonderful still life of fruit on a plate dated 1947. Or the dramatic minimalist landscape of Yad Eliahu of the early '50s painted in freehand gouache. The catalog's cover painting is evidently a recreation of his father, bound in mourning to his chair and seemingly crossed out by black slats (palings from the Pale?). In contrast, a portrait of a lovely young woman wearing a yellow star is pure romanticism. Bak begins somewhere around Memling and then passes by Magritte, who was a master of floating objects of weight. But Bak gives Magritte the entertainer ominous point. Look at the quite marvelous Dark Rumors, 2002, in which massive rocks descend on the rooftops of old Europe. I'm not trying to be funny when I say that Bak and Yad Vashem were made for each other. In the context of this national memorial to modern Jewish suffering, Bak's works resonate as never before. They culminate in his recent series Under the Trees, in which copses of trees severed at their lower trunks are blown helter-skelter across a landscape of pitted or broken gravestones. This symbolism of the brutal severance of the Jews from their long and historic sojourn in Europe is particularly moving because of the successful composition and the depth of focus employed. Best of this series is the horizontal one from 2001. It shows that Bak is better than ever, at the height of his illustrative yet painterly powers, his vivid imagination undimmed. It is the story of the Jewish people and also the artist's own story, one of being uprooted since childhood. Samuel Bak has a unique position; he is the sole surrealist history painter. His Dark Rumors and Under the Trees should win an honored place in Yad Vashem's permanent collection.