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Beauty amid the ruins

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, an apt time to examine the haunting art of a survivor.

Published April 15, 2007

[Images from the Florida Holocaust Museum]
Samuel Bak, Where It Ends II, 2002-2004, oil on canvas.

Small Memorial II, 2002-2006, oil on canvas.

Under the Trees II, 2002-2006, oil on canvas.


Nostalgia, that evocative word full of warm-and-fuzzy sentiment, takes on its bleaker association with survival in Samuel Bak's world of debris-laden currents flowing through nihilist landscapes. Dark and despairing for sure from Bak the survivor. But Bak the painter can't deny beauty, even in the complete wreckage of a life. So whether you're interested in his personal story or not, you will appreciate the 60 paintings at the Florida Holocaust for their virtuosity. And, yes, loveliness.

"Return to Vilna" is less a Proustian search for lost times in the Lithuanian city now called Vilnius, where Bak was born in 1933, than it is the record of a past to which there is no return. Jews were invited to the Baltic city in the 14th century by an enlightened grand duke who wanted to establish it as an important commercial center. In Bak's childhood, Vilna's Jewish population was almost 100,000 or about 45 percent of the total. It was often called the second Jerusalem for its rich intellectual and cultural life.

The Holocaust visited Vilna beginning in 1940, when the Nazis began their occupation. By 1944, 90 percent of the Jews were dead, mostly from firing squads, the rest sent to concentration camps. The Great Synagogue and the Strashum Library, which housed the world's largest collection of Yiddish-language books, were among the dozens of institutions destroyed. Bak and his mother were among the very few who escaped and hid during the occupation. His father, grandparents and other relatives died by firing squad.

That's Bak's starting point in these paintings of the city he returned to after a 56-year absence. Stylistically, they emulate the baroque penchant for everyday objects and settings that seem random at first but are arranged with great formality. It's a method of restraint.

Instead of an alley strewn with dead bodies, there are dozens of cups, saucers, plates and bowls, piled up on shards of more broken crockery, and silver spoons, now tarnished. Along other grim cul-de-sacs are door keys and books. More detritus blights the surrounding pastoral countryside, floating by on a river or littering crumbling buildings.

You take in these obvious symbols and then notice their strangeness. Proportions are skewed, perspectives are exaggerated. Illusionist tricks are hidden everywhere. A cup towers over a bentwood chair on a raft of stones. Stones floating?

Even odder, they loom overhead in a blue sky like menacing thunderclouds, along with a light fixture. Treetops, shaved from their trunks, fly over blighted landscapes. Giant candles are trompe l'oeil creations from wood, leaves, even thin air. As are names of lost family members, their Hebrew letters formed to resemble ancient stone ruins.

These visual tricks have an affinity with the surrealism of Salvador Dali, but are used to different purpose. Bak distorts and bends visual perception to have us believe in that which we consider unbelievable. In that sense, these are metaphors for the Holocaust.

Bak's palette is mostly somber, earth tones sometimes deepening to the color of blood, soft greens yielding to nasty yellowish ones that suggest putrefaction. The sky can resemble a rising dust storm or a farewell to blue sky in the hours before sunset.

The canvases function as elegiac choruses in Greek tragedy, transported to a different time and place. The subjects are mute witnesses to the universal common denominators of human experience, love and loss. They falter in their grand ambition only when Bak introduces people into the silent scenes.

Photography of the Holocaust has given us the graphic reality of its terrible toll and continues to record other genocides. Art is not needed for that anymore; its role is as interpreter, sometimes mediator, for those who will never know what this experience was really like.

Bak narrates his work with his trees, cups and strange realms of a blighted childhood. This is not how Vilnius looks today, of course, so there's mystery and some fantasy in them, as if seen through eyes younger than those of Bak, who is 83. And back to the beauty. He honors this place and people with it, maybe the most loving memorial.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


Return to Vilna

"Return to Vilna: Paintings by Samuel Bak" is at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg, through May 13. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors and students, $4 ages 18 and younger. (727) 820-0100 or www.flholocaust Admission is free today only.

Museum events:

1 p.m. today: Commemoration of Yom HaShoah with a talk by Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism.

7 p.m. Monday: Weitzman talks about current extremism and Holocaust denial. Admission $8.

[Last modified April 12, 2007, 11:45:57]

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