BEVERLY – An arresting oil painting, “The Last Movement,” by renowned international artist and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak, now hangs in the lobby of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. The gift is a joint donation from the Montserrat College of Art and the Pucker family, owners of the Pucker Gallery of Boston, which has represented the artist for 50 years.
“We Jews have survived over generations,” said Temple B’nai Abraham Rabbi Alison Adler. “This painting which now has an honored place in our lobby moves us to continue to live Jewishly and bring our experience and resources to making the world a better place.
“These are unsettling times. We remember the past so that we can work to create a world free of suffering and oppression, and never give up hope.”
Kurt Steinberg, president of Montserrat, has known Samuel Bak for many years and decided to bring an exhibit of his works to the college’s Beverly campus in the spring. Steinberg watched as the sisterhood, the trustees, and congregants from Temple B’nai Abraham streamed in to the Montserrat Gallery to view 37 paintings and works on paper created between the 1990s and today in the exhibit “Samuel Bak and the Art of Remembrance.” But one painting almost always stopped visitors in their tracks.
“People seemed to land near that particular painting, ‘The Last Movement,” said Steinberg. So, when Bak and the Pucker Gallery offered to donate four paintings to the college, Steinberg thought the college in turn should donate ‘The Last Movement” to Temple B’nai Abraham.
The painting depicts a quartet playing their instruments in the midst of a chaotic, war-ravaged landscape. The musicians appear to be dead or near death. But beyond the desolation of the foreground is a distant, magnificent natural scene of sky and a river beside a mountain – all in brilliant blue hues. It is signature Bak: devastation in the foreground set against hope and beauty in the background.
Describing “The Last Movement,” Pucker Gallery owner Bernie Pucker said Bak “invites us into a space that is both flawed and hopeful. This speaks of horror into beauty and back again. Beauty in the midst of the Holocaust, where creativity took place.”
Bak, who is 88, had his first painting exhibit at age 9 when imprisoned inside the Vilna ghetto, where thousands of Jews were killed by the Nazis.
Born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna – then Poland and later Lithuania – to educated, middle-class parents, Bak was 8 years old when the Germans occupied Vilna in June 1941 and ordered Jews to wear the yellow Jewish badge. In September, the deportation of Jews to the Vilna Ghetto began. In March 1943, Bak – already known as a child prodigy – was invited to participate in an art and poetry exhibit organized within the ghetto.
“The Nazis reduced the population of the ghetto from 50,000 to 19,000 and then decided to keep it that way, just killing a few people every day,” said Bak in an interview. “There was a kind of quiet period in the ghetto. People gathered to play music, read poetry, play jazz. It became incredibly important. At age 9, I exhibited with the painters in the ghetto. This need we have for art, to communicate, to look at things with a different view – all these things came into those paintings.”
His father and four grandparents were all killed by the Nazis, while only he and his mother survived. They immigrated to the new state of Israel in 1948.
Bak, who has lived in Weston for the past 30 years, was the keynote speaker this year at Montserrat’s class of 2022 commencement. where he received an honorary doctorate of fine arts. In his speech to the aspiring class of artists, he connected “the cave paintings to the Renaissance, from the Impressionists to the Cubists, and the endless fireworks of avant-garde Modernism. How was I to find my way? How was I to distinguish mere fashion from true innovation? …Who was I? What made me think the way I thought?”
The experience of the Holocaust had sunk “into my psyche,” and he “had to know more than the history of art. I had to understand the history of my times and ask myself the questions about the complexities which determine our human condition.”
After studying in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Paris, he began to realize he had a story to tell, “an almost sacred duty to fulfill. I had to show my murdered family that in me they were forever alive … They would be remembered.”
He wanted to avoid “stories that hurt” and images that are painful. He sought to tell his story metaphorically and symbolically, creating images that ask for interpretation. The content of his paintings go beyond his experience of the Holocaust, he told the Montserrat students. His quest has continued as an exploration of our human condition.
Bak is grateful that Temple B’nai Abraham is displaying his work to the public. “A painting that isn’t being looked at doesn’t exist,” He said. “It’s meaningful to me that it’s going to a public, not a private, place.”