Ever Present: Candles and Chance in the Art of Samuel Bak
On view January 22, 2022 – January 2, 2023 in the Janet Kohn and Larry Wasser Galleries on the Second Floor
The exhibition focuses on two recent series Ner Ot and the Art of Chance, produced by Holocaust survivor and artist Samuel Bak. The title of the former, Ner Ot, is presented as two words. In Hebrew the word ner means candle and nerot means candles (plural). When divided into two words, ot alone means symbol. In this series, Bak uses the candle as a symbol to examine the memory of the Holocaust. Dice is used as an icon of chance in the other series featured in this exhibition. Bak repeats the form of dice throughout these works to question the idea of chance in relationship to the Holocaust and his survival as well as to the human condition.
Samuel Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna, Poland at a crucial moment in modern history. From 1940 to 1944, Vilna was under Soviet and then German occupation. Bak’s artistic talent was first recognized during an exhibition of his work in the Ghetto of Vilna when he was nine years old. While he and his mother survived, his father and four grandparents all perished at the hands of the Nazis. At the end of World War II, Bak fled with his mother to the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp, where he enrolled in painting lessons at the Blocherer School in Munich. In 1948, they immigrated to the newly established state of Israel.
In his artwork, Samuel Bak has explored and reworked a set of metaphors, a visual grammar and vocabulary that ultimately raises questions. His art depicts a world destroyed, and yet provisionally pieced back together, and preserves memory of the twentieth-century ruination of Jewish life and culture by way of an artistic passion and precision that stubbornly announces the creativity of the human spirit. Since 1959, the artist has had numerous exhibitions in major museums, galleries, and universities throughout Europe, Israel, and the United States including retrospectives at Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, and the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. Bak has been the subject of numerous articles, scholarly works, and fifteen books; most notably a 400-page monograph entitled Between Worlds. In 2001 he published his touching memoir, Painted in Words, which has been translated into several languages. He has also been the subject of two documentary films and was the recipient of the 2002 German Herkomer Cultural Prize. Samuel Bak has received honorary doctorate degrees from: the University of New Hampshire in Durham; Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania; Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; and the University of Nebraska Omaha.
In 2017, The Samuel Bak Museum opened in the city of the artist’s birth, on the first two floors of the Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. In addition to the more than 50 works already donated by the artist, the Museum will accept more than 100 works in the coming years, and ultimately build a collection that spans the artist’s career. Also in 2017, Samuel Bak was nominated by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, and subsequently named by the city’s mayor as an Honorary Citizen of Vilnius.