Artist Samuel Bak’s first exhibition took place when he was 9 years old in his native city of Vilna, Poland. But it was not exactly a pleasant experience.
It occurred in 1943, after the country had fallen to Nazi occupation. Two poets had invited the young artist to reveal his already formidable talent at an exhibition organized in a Jewish ghetto in Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania).
“We went through a courtyard where there were a few hundred other people from another ghetto,” Bak says. “I was clinging to my mother and father. I felt so scared looking at these people who in about two days would be taken to Ponary, which was the big killing field of Vilna. The memory is still with me at every opening of an exhibition.”
The 81-year-old Holocaust survivor has had an unparalleled career presenting his artwork — and all the accompanying emotional memories that go into it — ever since.
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His latest exhibition, “Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak,” opens Friday at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. Eight large paintings by Bak anchor the showing, which runs through April.
“I very much cherish occasions where there is a meeting of my paintings with the public,” he says. “It’s much more important than my meeting with the public.”
Bak says he hopes to attend the opening but has been sidetracked by damage his house sustained during the recent Boston blizzard.
“What I enjoy is when people bring something from their own life or experience to my work,” he says. “My paintings evoke that in people. My most extraordinary encounters of reaction to my work come from groups of teenagers. They seem to have a much more independent mind and possibility for imagination.”
Bak’s style offers a conceptual collage of classical, surrealism and pop art. His vivid pieces often employ the Holocaust imagery of his childhood, such as crematorium chimneys or Warsaw street scenes. He frequently incorporates provocative metaphors ranging from biblical imagery to the game of chess to the masterworks of Michelangelo.
He says the title “Illuminations,” which was chosen by biographer Lawrence L. Langer, perfectly encapsulates his latest showing.
“How can we illuminate the experience? What is there behind that image that looks sometimes troubling or intriguing?” he asks. “I think it’s a beautiful title. To be illuminated means to get some light and to find your way.”
Given the circumstances of his upbringing, it’s remarkable Bak ever found his way out of Poland.
When he was 10, the labor camp he’d been sent to was purged of children by the Nazis, but his parents managed to smuggle him away in a sack of sawdust. He and his mother found tenuous safety by hiding in a Benedictine convent for nearly a year. However, his father was shot to death a mere 10 days before Vilna was liberated by the Soviets.
Bak was first sent to study in Munich, where the young prodigy’s work began to draw international attention. At 15, he relocated to Israel. He eventually spent years at a time living and working in different art scenes: New York, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1993, he permanently settled in Boston.
Wherever he goes, the artist continues to be shaped by his harrowing wartime experience.
“This is a subject that is extremely difficult to understand and grasp,” he says. “In order to protect themselves, people have a tendency to sentimentalize things. The Holocaust is very frightening when you realize if you are born in a certain place at a certain date, and you have been educated like this or that, you can be a carrier of lots of dangerous ideas. In terms of the possibilities of human behavior, this is the most extraordinary laboratory that has shown the best and worst in people, whether they are the perpetrators or the victims.”
Does Bak agree with Anne Frank’s most famous assertion: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”?
“This is sentimental rubbish,” he says. “Anne Frank’s book is a very sweet book for teenagers. It’s a sweetened version of the Holocaust. She writes of a certain situation that is palpable: being hidden in a house, falling in love with a boyfriend. The real story of Anne Frank is that poor woman who is dying later in a concentration camp. But this is not part of the book.”
While Bak wrote a 2001 memoir about his life titled “Painted in Words” and is the subject of several documentaries, his core outlet is always art. Always painting.
“I work seven days for about eight hours, like somebody who goes to the office. I’m a very demanding boss,” he says.
Bak is quick to name the signature work that best captures his style and themes.
“It’s always the next one,” he says, “the painting that I haven’t yet painted.”
“Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak” opens Friday and runs through April 30 at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore St. The exhibit is free. For more information, go to Leedy-Voulkos.com.