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Against evil, art

Samuel Bak's canvases evoke a world rebuilt after the horror of the Holocaust.

By BRANDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


Samuel Bak's art merges fantastic images with the ordinary to create a powerful statement about the effects of the Holocaust experience upon the world of one man.

Bak, 67, is a Holocaust survivor. As a 9-year-old, he displayed his own art in Poland's Vilna ghetto. At the age of 10, he was smuggled out of a labor camp by hiding in an old burlap sack carried by his father. Later, his father and grandparents were murdered in mass shootings near Vilna. He and his mother were among the few survivors of that episode.

These experiences have found expression in Bak's art, currently on display at the Florida Holocaust Museum. The content of the exhibit, "Working Through the Past: Paintings 1946-2000," is described by the artist as representing "a destroyed world, rebuilt from shards in bits and pieces."

Bak uses a remarkable amount of symbolism in his paintings. Chess pieces and game boards are featured in Art of Self Sacrifice, Points of View, Formation and Reflected Messenger. The artist describes chess as "the embodiment of clarity, logic and intelligence." Yet, the games are placed against a background of ruin, chaos and destruction. Often, the chess sets are decayed, cracked or broken, perhaps embodying the mind's darker side of illogic, rage and destruction. Pawns serve as central figures in the works, relaying the importance of every piece to the overall game.

Spiritual themes also run through many of his works. The Sounds of Silence captures three male figures seated with their musical instruments. Their faces are obscured with masks or blindfolds. Each man has a pair of wings made of junk. Typically, wings are supposed to be symbols of freedom. Yet, Bak's figures have wings that are large, uncomfortable and heavy. Instead of giving freedom, they steal it away.

Despite his dramatic Dali-esque style, Bak distinguishes his art from surrealism.

"It is metaphorical and symbolic. It is not far from the domain of surrealism, but it is different because it does not speak of the world of dreams, but of our own reflections. This has been no intellectual journey. Rather, I was responding to something that was pushing out from the inside, something visceral, something that takes a long time for the mind to comprehend," Bak said.

As a young man Bak continued training in art as he traveled throughout Europe. He felt his works still lacked the inspirational quality he desired. He struck upon using his childhood memories of the Vilna ghetto for support. From there, his art took on new meaning.

"I think it is extremely important to remember that at a point in time, man was able to exercise evil against other men. Young people today can prevent such an event from happening again by preserving the memory of their deeds," Bak said.

REVIEW

"Working Through the Past: 1946-2000, The Art of Samuel Bak" is at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg, through Aug. 19. Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors and college students, $2 children 18 and under, museum members free. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (727) 820-0100.

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