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This is why Samuel Bak paints: “For me, a day that I did not paint is like a day I did not exist.”
So he paints. Every day. Typically starting by 7 a.m., but not always, and often working seven hours. He begins some days without inspiration. So he prepares canvas. He cleans brushes. “Suddenly, I have an idea. I will do this. I will do that.”
Then, he paints. Sometimes making progress on several paintings in one sitting. Always having 50 to 100 unfinished works waiting for his attention. He explains that he’s not like some artists who can focus on one work, start to finish. He likens that approach to the writer who can finish a manuscript and immediately send it to the printer, rather than editing, rewriting and reworking. As he ages, he says, he finds himself needing more time to finish his work with pauses between.
But he keeps at it, every day. Occasionally, the internationally celebrated artist grants himself a reprieve. He will take one in September (25 & 26) when he travels to Omaha for a symposium and lecture on art and human rights. His visit, facilitated by UNO’s Sam & Frances Friend Holocaust & Genocide Academy, will include receptions, time with students and “Witness: The Art of Samuel Bak,” an exhibition that will feature 70 of his paintings.
Without question, the holocaust survivor’s art will get people talking.
“He loves to reflect on the relationship of man and God,” says Assistant Professor Mark Celinscak, executive director of the academy. “Basically, in the Holocaust, where was God in all this? It’s a common refrain in his work.
“I think Samuel Bak’s presence will be felt at UNO for a long, long time.”
‘You Needed 10 Miracles’
Bak was born in 1933 in what was then Vilnius, Poland. His parents and grandparents saw his artistic talent when the boy was 3. They told him he was a genius, and he believed them.
Then, a world war got in the way. On June 22, 1941, the German army invaded Vilnius, which had become part of Lithuania, and captured the city three days later. The Germans established two ghettos to contain Vilnius’ Jewish citizens – Bak’s family among them.
Samuel and his mother instead took refuge in the city’s Benedictine convent and hid in its archives. A nun provided Samuel with paper and paint. Eventually, when the Nazis suspected Jews were being hidden in the convent, mother and son fled and returned to one of the ghettos. Two Yiddish poets invited 9-year-old Samuel to display his work in a cultural exhibition they organized, in the ghetto, that also featured plays, concerts and poetry readings. This was Samuel’s first public display of his work.
Bak understands he should not have survived the war. His father didn’t. Neither did his grandparents. The Nazis gunned his best friend down and left his body in the street.
“In order to survive a situation where 95 percent of the Jewish community was murdered and 5 percent survived, you needed 10 miracles,” Bak says. “If I had nine miracles, it was not enough. It was very simple, a combination of many things. On one hand, sheer luck. On the other hand, my parents, who were doing whatever in their power, never lost hope to save me. … Some good people, Christians, who decided to help the Jews even at the cost of their own lives. It was a combination of all these factors — and here I am.”
Construction, Destruction, Reconstruction
Bak’s story continues after the Holocaust. In 1948, he and his mother immigrated to the newly established state of Israel. He studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, served in the Israel Defense Forces and continued his studies at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
When he talks about his work, he explains that construction, destruction and reconstruction are part of life. One replaces the other. “The ability to reconstruct is a theme of mine.”
This is how one writer described his work: “Bak is keenly aware of the role the Holocaust has played in his choices of subjects and themes. His imagery reveals survival and suffering, reconstruction and destruction, hope and despair. His paintings are full of bits and pieces of broken objects that have been put back together in sometimes disturbing fashion.”
Those works spring from deep introspection.
“I would say that some artists paint self-portraits by looking in the mirror,” Bak says. “I paint self-portraits by looking into my inner-self.”
He paints from his studio in Weston, Massachusetts – also home for the past 27 years for he and his wife, Josée. Bak’s journey to the United States came after stints living in Italy, Switzerland, France and Israel. A decades-long friendship and partnership with gallery owner Bernard Pucker is one reason he came to the United States, and stayed.
Pucker, whose gallery represents Bak’s work, says he and Bak first collaborated in 1968.
“We were aware of his genius,” Pucker says. “The idea of reality suffused his paintings. His personal story was at the core of his capacity to visually recount humankind's travails and challenges.”
Bak says he long ago lost count and track of his paintings. Two collectors-turned-friends are cataloging his works (Search “Samuel Bak Kunst Archiv”), which stand at 7,700, but eventually may reach 8,000. “It’s not as many as the 50,000 that Picasso painted,” Bak says.
Searching the online catalog helped him reconnect with works he’d long ago forgotten. “Paintings are never finished, yet I myself must finish with them,” he wrote in his memoir “Painted in Words.” “Sometimes when I revisit them, there are works I like and some others that ask for modification. On another visit my perceptions may well be different. Luckily, since once they are done the paintings no longer ‘belong’ to me, I never touch them.”
He corrects himself. He did buy back one painting – The Family – he had sold. The painting resides at the Pucker Gallery, which displays it on request. “It was an important painting to me in the way I have tried to speak about family.”
Three of Bak’s paintings will remain at UNO – donated by Pucker’s gallery.
UNO is fortunate to have him, Celinscak says.
“This man paints every single day. That’s why getting him here shows commitment to the university. He is so prolific. He is truly a master – and I do not use that word lightly.”
Bak is looking forward to his visit. Students, he says, are open, to new experiences and alternate ways of thinking. He hopes his paintings prompt them to think differently about topics such as acceptance and racism.
“I must say it gives me enormous pleasure to see people look at my work. They react. It is very good feedback.”
There are many ways that Samuel Bak's work is reflected in work being done by several faculty at UNO. Here are just a few:
Religious art – artistic imagery that uses religious inspiration – flourished through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, says Amy Morris, associate professor in UNO’s College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media. Churches often featured multiple well-adorned altars. Wealthy patrons bought and endowed chapels and were entombed there.
“They competed with one another,” Morris says. “These were not poor people.”
Along came Martin Luther and the Protestant movement in the 16th century. Iconoclasm, the destruction of religious arts, followed.
“Destruction occurred in pockets,” Morris says. “People would go into churches and destroy religious art.” While religious artwork in Italy was mainly spared, Morris says, experts estimate that only 2% of the religious artwork in England survived the Reformation.
“Contemporary artists are still making sacred art,” says Barbara Simcoe, professor of studio art at UNO. “The thread is still there, but is much diminished.”
While religious art transcends faiths, Bridget Sandhoff has noticed a significant difference between Christianity and Islam. While images of God and Jesus Christ are prevalent in religious art, images of Allah and Muhammad are rarely seen, says Sandhoff, associate professor of art and art history.
“It goes back to the 10 Commandments,” she says. “Do not have graven images.”
Instead of images of Allah and Muhammad, Sandhoff says, Islamic art – on buildings and incorporated into rugs – features designs, patterns and foliage. Calligraphy is prominent. “You don’t need imagery. The power is in the words,” she says, “and the way we write words becomes art.”
The Hindu gods are widely represented in sculpture and paintings, Simcoe says. “Then we have Buddhism, which is a different ballgame.”
Back to the sixth century, she says, the Buddha, as an image, was not worshipped. Over time, the Buddha became more recognizable and deified. As with the Christian saints, Buddhist saints, called bodhisattvas, are routinely represented in religious art.
Body iconography – for example images of mudras, or hand symbols — is prevalent in Buddhism, as it is in Christianity.
“Think portrayals of Jesus praying or teaching,” Simcoe says.
A Pearl of a Lecture Series
It started as a way to bring students across multiple disciplines together to hear an expert discuss a topic related to religion in art.
The Pearl Blizek Lecture on Religion and Art has evolved and since has featured poets, archeologists and calligraphers.
“Religion permeates the arts. My favorite is religion and film,” says William Blizek, professor of philosophy and religion at UNO. The lecture series is named for Blizek’s mother, Pearl, and is a collaborative effort between UNO’s Religious Studies program and the Department of Art and Art History.
Blizek says the inspiration for the series, which often features lectures given by UNO faculty members, came from a series of prints created by UNO professor Barbara Simcoe for an exhibition in Israel. Upon her return, Simcoe displayed her prints at the Jewish Community Center in Omaha.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t our students like to find out what she was thinking about religion when she created these works?’” Blizek says. “So we asked her to give a lecture.”
A small endowment, Blizek says, allows for a stipend for presenters. Lectures are scheduled each fall and spring semester and are open to the public.
Most recently, Michele Desmarais, associate professor of religious studies, presented “owlmouth,” an evening of poetry, music and art. Desmarais presented her poetry, which bears a Native American influence, with accompaniment by the Patti Howes Orkistra.
“Michele’s performance delighted the audience,” Blizek says, “but it also demonstrated the power of religion and the power of art in our daily lives.”
The stained-glass windows found in cathedrals from the Middle Ages did more than allow light into what often were dark places of worship.
“Light is not just beautiful,” says Martina Saltamacchia. “For medieval people, light was a metaphor for Christ.”
Stained-glass windows also presented the stories of the Bible, says Saltamacchia, director of Medieval/Renaissance Studies and associate professor of history at UNO. “People were mostly illiterate in this time. They could learn the stories of the Bible by looking at the windows and following along with the preaching.”
Saltamacchia has spent much of the past two decades studying cathedrals. Her favorite has been the focus of her study for the past 18 years: the Milan Cathedral, called Duomo di Milano in Italian. The Gothic-style cathedral, located in the heart of Milan, is 515 feet long, 302 feet wide and can hold up to 40,000 people at a time.
Yes, the cathedral is beautiful, but the attraction for Saltamacchia is its story. She discovered unpublished records of the patrons behind the cathedral – “the widow, the merchant, the soldier, the prostitute, the farmer.” Most accounts credit the Prince of Milan as the cathedral’s benefactor. Not so, she says. “The people paid for it.”
Saltamaccia says she’s also intrigued by the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a modern cathedral that remains unfinished after nearly 150 years. “First, it’s beautiful,” she says, “but it’s also being paid for by the people. That’s what makes it so fascinating to me.”
Cathedrals carry two common themes:
Their beauty. “Their creators believe people who enter them should have a transcendental experience.”
Their perfection. “This is the house of God. It must be perfect.” For example, hundreds of spires at Milan’s cathedral are adorned with animals, flowers and fruit. Look closely, if you could, at the backs of the monkeys on one particular spire — and notice their detailed vertebrae. “These spires are so high that no one can see them.”
Saltamacchia says she has noticed that cathedrals are resilient. Cathedrals in the Middle Ages often burned or were destroyed. The people of that day came together, raised the needed funds, and saw their cathedral rebuilt.
This practice remains today, she says. While tragic, the recent partial destruction by fire of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral is drawing people together to see that it is restored.
“These things happen and we always respond.”
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