It helps if you know the background to the paintings in “Returning: The Art of Samuel Bak,” currently at the Holocaust Museum Houston. But even if you don’t, the soft-edged, vibrantly colored imagery is captivating. In 1941, Bak was nine years old and already a budding artist when Nazis forced his family from their home and into a Jewish ghetto in eastern Poland. As they were leaving, Bak ran back to his bedroom and tucked his teddy bear in for safekeeping. On the way out, Bak’s mother shoved a pillow in his arms, saying, “You don’t know where we’ll be sleeping tonight.” Marching in the rain, Bak eventually threw the wet, soggy pillow away along the side of the road. Decades later, teddy bears and pillows both became staples in Bak’s artwork as symbols of loss.
Another recurring image in Bak’s work is of a young boy standing with his arms up in surrender, fashioned after a famous World War II-era photograph. He’s seen in The Star of the Ghetto, a ghostlike figure walking through rubble. We see him again in Bak’s Self-Portrait, in which he’s standing near a young Bak, who is sitting, half hidden in a burlap sack. (Bak’s father smuggled the boy out of a concentration camp by hiding him in a burlap sack filled with firewood.)
“Returning,” which is in its final few weeks at the museum, is filled with images based on Bak’s memories from the Holocaust, yet the exhibit isn’t a study in despair. Instead it’s a celebration of resilience and survival. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through August 12. 5401 Caroline.
March 1-Aug. 12, 2012