The Polk Museum of Art (Lakeland, FL) opens its latest exhibition, “Remembering Vilna: The Holocaust and the Art of Samuel Bak” on July 29, 2023, and remaining on view through January 7, 2024. Featuring nearly 30 paintings in the Museum’s Dorothy Jenkins Gallery, this powerful exhibition uses Bak’s personal history as a child of the Holocaust as a jumping off point to explore universal themes of conflict, resilience, and hope, the consequences of prejudice and persecution, and the necessity of preserving historical memory for future generations.
Samuel Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna, Poland (now Vilinus, Lithuania), entering childhood in the years immediately prior to the onset of the Holocaust. His early life was marked by the trauma of Soviet and Nazi occupation of his hometown and his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto, forced labor camps, and hiding in a convent to escape discovery by Nazis. It was during his time in the Vilna Ghetto that Bak’s artistic talents began to flourish, with his artwork featured in an exhibition organized in the ghetto when he was just age nine.
After Vilna’s liberation in 1944, Bak continued to develop his draftsmanship and painting skills through private art lessons and stints at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Today the artist, who is one of the few survivors of Vilna, lives and works in Weston, Massachusetts.
“After years of conversation and preparation, we are thrilled finally to be able to bring Bak’s moving, haunting, and hope-filled artwork to our community,” Dr. H. Alexander Rich, executive director and chief curator of the Polk Museum of Art, said. “As our visitors will quickly learn, Bak is so much more than an amazing painter: he is a living emblem of the history of Vilna, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the refusal to allow a people to be erased or history to be rewritten or forgotten. His work is timelier now than ever.”
Using symbols and pictorial metaphors, Bak’s paintings reinterpret his memories of the horrors of World War II and his miraculous survival. His paintings often combine narrative or compositional quotations from Old Master painters and the Bible with his own invented visual language; one notable element in Bak’s paintings is the use of chess pieces — often seen as symbolic of the rational — decaying to represent the terror and confusion experienced by victims of war.
Through his creation of surreal narratives, the paintings seen in “Remembering Vilna” serve as a cautionary tale on the ills of human nature and conflict as a whole.
“Bak’s art featured in the Polk Museum of Art exhibition challenges us to reflect on the horrors of the recent past as an effective stimulus for profound discussions of our responsibilities to others and the whole world,” Bernard Pucker, gallery owner and director of Pucker Gallery, with which the Museum has collaborated for the show, said.
The exhibition was organized in collaboration with Pucker Gallery in Boston. For more information, visit PolkMuseumofArt.org/RememberingVilna.