Icon of Loss: The Haunting Child of Samuel Bak
Danna Nolan Fewell and Gary A. Phillips
“There is no known vocabulary that can describe what Samuel Bak has created here. It is almost beyond mere metaphor to say that his hand is driven by some divine force. Never before has pity been so twinned with outrage, or visionary image-making with unforgiving historical fact. The boy in flames. The boy and the wooden cross-pieces. Every image another tribunal, another judgment. I wish these paintings could hang in every classroom and on every government wall. In Bak’s work there is absolute knowledge; I think he must understand that his eye and his hand are anointed.”
“As I was working on my last series of paintings based on the well-known photo of the Jewish boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, I could not help reflecting on the countless millions of children that perish in man’s senseless conflicts, wars, and genocides – past and present. I thought, ‘What an unspeakable abuse of our young innocents, our little just ones!’”
In this examination of Samuel Bak’s collection of paintings inspired by the little boy from the famous Stroop photo taken in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943, Phillips and Fewell consider the historical and visual implications of this iconic image and its contemporary evocations. The art of Samuel Bak entrances. It also disquiets. The subject matter of Bak’s painting is anything but easy. His still lives, people, and landscapes depict a world destroyed, and yet provisionally pieced back together. A survivor of the Vilna liquidation and a child prodigy whose first exhibition was held in the Ghetto at age nine, Bak weaves together personal history and Jewish history to articulate an iconography of his Holocaust experience. Across nearly seven decades of artistic production Samuel Bak has explored and reworked a set of metaphors, a visual grammar, and vocabulary that ultimately privileges questions. In the face of such massive and meaningless suffering how do traditional religious and cultural symbols, stories, and ceremonies retain past vitality and validity? How does one authentically preserve memory of personal loss and suffering? Samuel Bak’s art preserves memory of the twentieth century ruination of Jewish life and culture by way of an artistic passion and precision that stubbornly announces the creativity of the human spirit.
2009, Pucker Art Publications and Syracuse University Press
Slip cased hardcover measuring 8 x 10”
100 pages with full color images