Rachel Levitt writer
I met Samuel Bak in a heavy rain in early May. His first words to me as I dripped over his tile entrance were, “You don’t have luck with the weather.” From this petite man with large glasses and neat grey beard, it sounded more like prophecy than observation.
Samuel Bak is a world-renowned painter. He lives in Weston because he fell in love with a house. Bernie Pucker, owner of the Pucker Gallery, had shown Bak’s work on Newbury Street since 1968, and over time had fostered an intense relationship with the artist. Four years ago, Bak and his wife, who were living in Switzerland, decided “to live in the United States for a while” and began looking at houses in the Boston area. Bak never imagined himself suburban. “No pool!” he declared, “I want to walk everywhere so we must live in the city!” But it was here in Weston that they found their perfect home.
We walked together from the foyer into Bak’s studio, home, and temple. From within, the house revealed its precious bones: a previous owner had freed the one hundred year- old timber frame of walls and ceilings, creating a soaring atrium that opened to an outdoor pool. At the foot of the pool was a single magnificent pine tree.
Any story about Bak is also a story about the best and worst of the past century. He is a Holocaust survivor from the city of Vilna, Lithuania, which in 1938 was home to 106,000 Jews. By the war’s end, 100,000 had perished. Bak emigrated to Munich, then Israel, Paris, Rome, New York City, and finally, Switzerland. As a result, he is an articulate man, fluent in multiple languages, and a citizen of three countries. He has a cutting intellect and is a connoisseur of fine things, a man of the world.
He spoke slowly so that I could not misunderstand him, emphasizing occasionally for clarity, not drama. “All of my paintings are memorials,” he explained, “but the real memorials are stories. War and Peace, for example, was a memorial to the Napoleonic wars in Russia, and it lives over and over in our imagination. Physical monuments are problematic because they tend to speak to a specific generation. When I was in Paris in the fifties, I saw many monuments to the First World War. Some were beautiful. All were emotional, noble, and costly sculptures, often of a dying soldier in the bosom of an angel. These were symbols of glory but they all looked funny to me. The most poignant memorial was the Monument Against Fascism, [by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, placed in Harburg, Germany in 1986]—an obelisk in lead, 36 feet high that slowly sank into the ground, eventually disappearing. The only thing that remains of this monument is its memory.”
We stood up and he led me across the flat woven Afghani rugs, past a skull, a bowl, and a disarming life-sized statue of a 1920s dandy. We walked past shelves of books and a collection of African masks. An opera played from somewhere deeper in the house. On the walls were paintings, framed and hung with magnificent care. When you see his work and stand within arm’s reach, you can examine the surface carefully. It is perfect. Bak paints with an angel’s wing, leaving no trace of origin on the canvas, and creates mystical worlds with great depth.
Outwardly, all of his work is a visual testament to the horror of the Holocaust. He approaches the subject directly, working themes over and over—the boy, burning, loss, Jewish symbols - with tremendous discipline. It is hard to discern animate from inanimate, figure from landscape. A succulent pear, upon further investigation, is made of marble. Its form wavers between positive and negative; it is an elaborate optical illusion. How much exists and how much is merely implied? The figures are broken, disconnected, and frozen, and though they are fixed, there is blood pulsing just beneath the skin. These themes suggest an explorer of modern displacement, as such, Bak joins the ranks of the great existential artists such as Otto Dix and Francis Bacon.
Pucker explains that Bak’s art is “rooted in European traditions. It is not easy. I wouldn’t get a call for a ‘red Bak,’ for example. Sam’s paintings plumb the depths. They have a moral and ethical dimension not found in contemporary work. He depicts how human beings behave.” Those who buy his work are also citizens of the world, predominantly European, who “choose to participate.” In the United States, Pucker has observed, it is more difficult to find people who are interested in “living with” the work, because of its honest and confrontational nature. Pucker tells the story of one couple from Montreal who decided to purchase one of Bak’s painful images of “the boy.” When they showed the work to their daughter, who was soon to graduate from Brandeis, she began to cry. She could not sleep. This is the kind of impact Bak’s art has on some people.
While the images haunt, the timelessness and perfection of Bak’s technique virtually stun. Like his careful speech, he wants his images to be clearly understood. To this artist, their value as memorials requires that the symbols are apparent, but their meaning is open for discussion. Like a parable, the torah, or the bible, Bak’s paintings live as long as people mine them for meaning. Here a man sits inside a pear. The pear can be a symbol for knowledge. Is the man emerging from the pear or being consumed by it?
There are Dali-esque still lifes, part memory, part dream. And one is reminded of another surrealist: Hieronymous Bosch, the fifteenth-century artist of meticulous nightmares, who imagined earthly delights—sex, torture, and gluttony, as the downfall of mankind. Bosch is here, and through Bak, he is made modern.
The Holocaust is almost three generations in the past, but Bak has spent his time working to keep the memory of it open. He believes that teaching through his images is his life’s work, which is perhaps why the paintings come one after the next, purposefully. Unlike many artists, the images come to him as soon as he sets his brush to a new canvas. As a result, he is a prolific painter.
I spoke to him four days before he set off for Europe—to Germany for a show of his work, to Switzerland to see his mother-in-law, to Paris to be with his daughter. He admitted that he hated to travel, and couldn’t wait to return. I was clearly puzzled, so he explained, “I don’t enjoy trips because all the best trips are in my head.”
He still finds it remarkable that the Germans were the first to come to terms with what the Nazis had wrought, and admires their tenacity in confronting the truth. “One young man met me in Berlin when I had a show there, and I would not have been treated better had he been my own son. He picked me up, drove me places, took me to dinner.” One particular woman is eager to meet Bak when he returns to Germany this time. Her father was a prison guard where Bak and thousands of others were deliberately starved. The man is still alive and has never spoken of this, so his daughter reaches out to one who survived.