Survival and Memory. This is the essence behind the multi-year effort to recover, restore, and present Burlington’s “Lost Shul Mural.” But “Survival and Memory” is also the name of an important exhibition at Burlington’s Fleming Museum of the work of noted Vilna-born painter Samuel Bak, widely regarded as the greatest living survivor-artist of the Holocaust. Samuel Bak: Survival and Memory opened in February and is on view until May 22nd. This a great time to view the mural and Bak’s crafted, intellectually challenging and emotionally charged work at the Museum and the mural at Ohavi Zedek (please call ahead). The Fleming has scheduled many events associated with the Bak exhibit, including a members-only visit to the mural with project co-directors Goldberg and Potash. Check here for the entire schedule of events.
The Fleming Museum of Art exhibition is in collaboration with The Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont.
Samuel Bak was born in 1933 Vilna [Vilnius] (then Poland, now Lithuania). He and his family were confined to the Vilna Ghetto in 1941. From the Ghetto, his family was sent to a labor camp, where his father and grandparents were killed. Bak and his mother escaped, hiding in a Benedictine convent until liberation, after which, from 1945 to 1948, they lived in displaced persons camps in Germany. Bak emigrated to Israel in 1948, where he studied at the Bezalel Art School. He has since lived in many countries, and since 1993, has lived and worked in Weston, Massachusetts.
Bak’s work is highly detailed, but his representation is ambiguous and ambivalent. Much of his work features broken human, art, and architectural parts reassembled in suggestive and potentially symbolic ways. These sometimes evoke, almost nostalgically, a sudden calmness, either real of an apparition. More often, however, the works are unsettled and unsettling, combining surrealist and hyper-realist elements. Bak’s work has great public appeal since it seems to be so recognizable, so approachable. It is in fact, quite often inscrutable.
Bak’s earlier work mostly confronted his own experience, and the Holocaust in Lithuania. More recently his work has mixed this imagery with adaptation of well-known elements from the canon of Western art history. But in all Bak’s work he deals in fragments and distortions; often of appropriated Hebrew letters, Jewish symbols and iconic Holocaust-related photos. His works struggle to make sense – or at least to extract some bit of knowledge – of the irreversible warping of a young boy’s life, and the destruction of entire Jewish civilization.
With the mural we deal in fragments, too. And the survival of this Lithuanian-Jewish art links us to the Holocaust – the destruction and lose of the Eastern European artistic Jewish community and centuries of their works. The late Joel Elkes, son of the leader-hero of the Kovno [Kaunus] Ghetto Dr. Elkanan Elkes, called our mural a “Visual Kaddish” for the way it evoked in him and others a clear memory of personal and communal loss.
The mural and Bak’s paintings create an important before and after circuit. Looking at Bak’s painting is also a way for us (the mural team) to consider new ways to view and interpret the mural. Just imagine the natural (reversible) damage to the Chai Adam mural during the years it was walled up seen under the mind, eye, and and brush of a Holocaust survivor and contemporary artist like Samuel Bak. Perhaps for Bak (and we will try to ask him) the mural might mean more in its fragmentary state than it ever can as a restored whole. [SDG]