Photo Archives of the Šalkauskis Family
Obverses and Reverses
Vaidotas Žukas / Curator
These rarities were preserved thanks to Ritonė Šalkauskienė, Stasys Šalkauskis’s daughter-in-law, who was born in Dapkūniškiai, near Alanta. The other part of the archive was received from the relatives of Šalkauskis – the Witort family, whose descendants in Vilnius are still in possession of other very valuable nineteenth and twentieth century photography collections. The exhibition consists of enlarged prints, actual original albums, and photographs. A death mask of S. Šalkauskis, cast in plaster right after he passed away in Šiauliai, in 1941, is also exhibited for the first time.
The archive reveals not only the history of the Šalkauskis family and their friends, but also, regardless of all the constraints and suppressions of Tsarist Russia, a very rich photographic culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century. This exhibition is distinct because of the decision to exhibit not only the obverses, but the reverses as well. Vignettes and logos of photo ateliers are where the beauty of this150 year old photographic culture is to be found.
Another important aspect of the collection is its geography. Photographs were made across Tsarist Lithuania, including studios in Vilnius (The Czyž Brothers / Frères Czyž, S. Fleury, A. Strauss); Kaunas (Strauss & Sourevitsch, Šusteris, Jasvoinas, Bžozovski Brothers); Šiauliai (Arnsonas, Šmuilovas, V. Zatorskis); Panevėžys (Trakmanas, Navlickis, Puhačevskis); Telšiai (Romaškevičius, Lapinskis); Klaipėda (Carl Dreyer); Joniškis (Jankelis Fišeris); Šeduva (Cyganas), etc. During the times of Tsarist Lithuania, information and other studio markings on the reverse of photographs were printed in French.
There are a few photographs that are very important because of the personalities portrayed and their general quality, but not related to the Šalkauskis family. Among these photographs are the portraits of the poets Motiejus Valančius and Antanas Baranauskas, also Maironis’ muse Jadvyga Stanelytė (1910).
Alongside the “Lithuanian part” of the Šalkauskis-Witort archives, there are photographs from studios and photographers in the Russian Empire. Locations include Riga, Liepaja (Libau), Mintauja (Mitau), Tartu (Dorpat), places in Germany, Switzerland, and France, and the Ukrainian cities of Vinnytsia, Yalta and Odessa. Among the many important photographs there are a few surprises. In an unknown Siberian photo studio, a young rebel, holding a handwritten inscription in Polish, dated 1864, was photographed and the print later sent to a member of the Šalkauskis family; a portrait of Aleksandras Kazimieras Gintautas-Deltuviškis (Gintowt- Dziewałtowski, 1821-1889), a Mogilevian archbishop and a relative of Stasys Šalkauskis’s sister-in-law Vanda Sirtautaitė-Šalkauskienė.
Photographic archives reveal the talents of the photographers, who were, in most cases, Jewish. A scrupulous preparation of people for the photographs is also evident. There is a sense of glowing tranquility and peace of mind, along with stylish clothing, shoes and haircuts.
The history of a few generations is portrayed in the exhibition, starting from the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Šalkauskis families were widespread in Lithuania, large and diverse: farmers and doctors were closely related to the noble women of the Goštautas, Jomantas and Opulskis families. Doctor Julijonas Šalkauskis, the father of Stasys Šalkauskis, lived in Šiauliai. He was married to Barbora Goštautaitė and had nine children. His brother Petras Šalkauskis from Kapočiai raised ten children (three of them died in the Siberian Gulag, one was killed in Rainiai, 1941). The other brother Aleksandras Šalkauskis, who was a farmer in Šakyna, had twelve children.
Several sections of the exhibition are dedicated to Stasys Šalkauskis’s brother Kazys Šalkauskis, a famous lawyer of the time, and his wife V. Sirtautaitė-Šalkauskienė. The couple lived in Vilnius where it saved many Jewish people during the Second World War.
Stasys Šalkauskis was the most distinguished from his family – a Catholic philosopher, teacher, leader of the Lithuanian Catholic Federation “Ateitis”, and head of Vytautas Magnus University. The exhibition therefore revolves around him, his wife Juliją Paltarokaitė-Šalkauskienė, his parents, B. Goštautaitė-Šalkauskienė and J. Šalkauskis, and his friends, Kazys Pakštas, Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, and Juozas Eretas. The exhibition “Photo Archives of the Šalkauskis Family – Obverses and Reverses” was financed by Molėtai District Municipality, Ritonė Šalkauskienė and Romualdas Mikliušas.
Jonas Staselis / President of Lithuanian Press Photographers Club
When we delve into these photographs, we are faced with the eternal question of the archive’s legacy. The care that the photographers of the time devoted to “painting with light” and their characters – to creating the mood, stands in sharp contrast to the tons of digital images, that can barely be called photographs, we haphazardly capture every day. What feeling of identity are we going to leave for the future generations? What will people find out about the twenty-first century two or three hundred years from now? Loads of digital imagery, where superiority and inferiority will not be distinguished even by a very clever artificial intelligence.
I would suggest looking into the intelligence in the eyes of these people in the photographs. Everything starts with material and spiritual values, which we learn at home and school, no matter the century we’re living in or the number of the industrial revolution we’re going through. The people’s devotion to the moment when these, at first sight, ordinary photographs were taken charged them with an incredible energy that will be felt for centuries to come.
Prof. Arūnas Sverdiolas / Philosopher, publisher of Stasys Šalkauskis’ writings
Both obviousness and mysteriousness lie in these photographs. What at first sight seems like an incoherent collection of random images, gradually emerges as an essential and fateful family archive. In this collection we find photographs of the husband and wife, their relatives and relatives’ relatives, friends and acquaintances. It is surprising to find a 1910 photograph of Maironis’s muse in the archive among others. There are portraits of famous people as well as a few photographs of grandparents with their grandchildren and some other people, whose identity will probably remain forever unknown to us. Thanks to these photographs, well-known locations and historical moments receive a different perspective, a different content and context. The archive includes images taken in famous big city photo ateliers as well as small town photographic studios. Middle class people, living their lives that were to be crushed by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century — you cannot see this in the photographs, but knowing what was in store for them adds a different dimension to the exhibition. These images with their manifold meanings will be a valuable source of information for historians, anthropologists, psychologists, writers, and so on. The enlarged photographs from the album have become full-fledged portraits, providing us with an opportunity to try to guess their secrets. Is it possible that the first Lithuanian philosopher, Stasys Šalkauskis, is faintly smiling at us?
Translated by Karolis Sabeckis / editor Judita Gliauberzonaitė
ELVYRA KAIRIŪKŠTYTĖ – A PASSIONATE MYSTIC OF ART
Artist Elvyra Kairiūkštytė (1950-2006) was a foundling, born in the middle of winter and found near the birth clinic of Širvintos with a note attached. The girl never knew who her parents were. Elvyra grew up in the Soviet orphanages in Žvėrynas, Vilnius and then – in Kuršėnai. It was there, at the Kuršėnai orphanage, that her artistic talent and her rebellious character began to mature.
Elvyra was short, had a stutter and wore powerful glasses. She had no family or relatives, lived in dormitories, ate in canteens, went to Kaunas Art College and studied graphics at Vilnius Art Institute (1971-1977). After graduation, she was appointed to the City Design Institute, but did not stay there even for the compulsory period of three years.
Elvyra began to live off her work. She got a wet basement in downtown Vilnius near Lukiškės Square, and during the period of freedom she had a flat with only basic amenities in the Old Town of the capital, on Skapo Street. In 1993, already a grown-up, she was baptized by priest Juozas Tunaitis with sculptor Ksenija Jaroševaitė as her godmother. Then Elvyra became a permanent visitor to the Vilnius Cathedral and other churches of the city.
On March 14, 1996 she wrote in her diary: I keep thinking about my past and future work, I pray to the good God to help me create very beautiful artworks, I must hold very beautiful exhibitions! Must do! The good God will certainly help me. Every day I ask Him many times to help and I’m thinking about my work, nothing else matters to me.
Elvyra worked without a moment’s respite, in a crazy rhythm – she worked at night and in the mornings she checked if everything was fine. She left heaps of drawings in her studio on Skapo Street with carefully marked years, months, days, and even hours. On the back side of the painting, she often wrote prayers or dedications. The exhibition displays large and small drawings by Elvyra, never exhibited before. All sheets are signed on the top or back side, all dated very carefully, indicating the most important religious holidays, the day of the week and even the time of the day – morning, night, evening. As in: Elvyra Kairiūkštytė, 1998 08 15, Friday Night and Morning, or My Name Day, February 10, 1997 Monday Night.
An attentive critic will see in Elvyra’s work links with artworks by Viktoras Petravičius, Ričardas Vatiekūnas, Algimantas Stankus, Jonas Čepas, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, will inevitably notice the influence of Assyrian glyptic art, the ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, and Mayan art, as well as biblical characters with all their rabbis, bulls, and pigeons. Christ’s Eucharistic supper, St. Mary, the Apostles and the Devil that keeps taking a different shape. Elvyra constantly confessed in her diary that she felt the actions of both God and the Devil.
During Independence Elvyra went abroad only a couple of times – to Oslo in 1990 and to Italy in 1998. Her most important route was between Vilnius and her beloved orphanage in Kuršėnai. There are at least a hundred compositions, where the Kuršėnai reference is next to the signature – on every sheet.
Elvyra’s brave brushstrokes and painting themes change spontaneously like film frames, they overlap, the plot keeps changing, the reality of life gives way to holy and not so holy visions, good and bad dreams, daydreams and myths of different eras and civilizations: naked women, prophets and the obsessed, sheep and witches, female-sphinxes, goddesses with bird bodies, animals with bird and fish heads, fish, snakes, jellyfish, beetles, stars, crosses, suns and moons, goats and oxen, apocalyptic beasts, holy and fallen angels, Adams and Eves, Sibyls, Gilgameshes, mummies, kings, and, of course, Justinas Mikutis. And hundreds of birds, hoards of birds! And recurring slogans with dedications to the saints and blessed of Lithuania: In memory of the Holy Martyrs Bishops Vincentas Borisevičius, Mečislovas Reinys, Teofilius Matulionis! For beloved Bishop Juozapas Tunaitis! For My Mother and Father – My Lord Jesus Christ! – a dedication written on almost all of Elvyra’s biggest paintings.
What about the promise she made to God to hold beautiful exhibitions? In the book about Elvyra Kairiūkštytė: Deginantis gyvenimo artumas (Elvyra Kairiūkštytė: The Burning Nearness of Life, 2010), her friends remember that when asked why she didn’t want an exhibition of her work organized at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC), Elvyra replied: I’m waiting for all the shit to float past.
Elvyra died alone in her studio on April 22, 2006. On that day she was going to visit the CAC, where her work cycle Šviesa (Light) was finally exhibited after fifteen years of solitary work.
Translated by Judita Gliauberzonaitė
A classic of modern Lithuanian painting Leopoldas Surgailis at the Alanta Estate Gallery
Dr. Laima Laučkaitė
The exhibition is dedicated to the artist’s 90th anniversary. Together with painters Antanas Gudaitis, Jonas Švažas, Vincas Kisarauskas and others in the 1960’s Leopoldas Surgailis (1928-2016) renewed Lithuanian painting with expressionism, decorative forms, and bright colors. The main source of his inspiration was Lithuanian folk art. He took his subjects from the wooden folk sculpture (Archangel Michael, St. George, Pensitive Christ, etc.), while the primitive stylistics of wooden sculpture helped him to create an individual style characterized by brave deformation, grotesque expression. The artist used to say: As African sculpture helped the Cubists and Expressionists to find their art of the 20th century, so folk art helped me to get rid of the influences of academicism and socrealism. Folk sculptures from his collection are exhibited in this exhibition. He painted landscapes of Aukštaitija region and Vilnius, also portraits of his relatives and friends, but most of all he was fond of the subject Mardi Gras, composition with traditional folk characters of devil, reaper, gendarme, etc. Surgailis pictures are not rich in themes, but are focused on strong, elemental expression of form. His art changed and evolved: in the early period he preferred the motive of a single figure and compact composition, later decorative manner increased and in the 1980’s the action painting appeared. Alongside with painting he liked to draw; using techniques of pastel and coal he created hundreds of improvisations of the same composition. In the Soviet era promoters of Social Realism censured his art, his paintings were often not accepted to the exhibitions. Most of all the artist disliked sentimentality, external beauty of art. In this exhibition for the first time completely unknown for the public branch of the artistic activity of Surgailis is presented – photography, made in 1950-1970s. His pictures have unexpected angles, lyrical interpretation. The artist created whole series of warm, subjective images of his wife, famous Lithuanian graphic artist Aspazija Surgailienė.
Surgailis was born and raised in the town of Utena. He had a great baritone and after graduating from the school he could not decide what to choose, – art or solo singing, so since 1945 he studied painting at the State Institute of Art and vocal at the Lithuanian Conservatory in parallel. Art has won, as in 1952 Surgailis graduated from the State Institute of Art. In 1960-2008 with a break he taught at the State Institute of Art (now Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts), was a professor at the Department of Painting. He had personal exhibitions in Vilnius, Kaunas, Utena, Berlin, participated in the joint exhibitions and in the exhibitions of Group 24 in Vilnius, Paris, Ture, Stockholm, Riga, etc. The works of Surgailis are kept in the Lithuanian Art Museum, the National M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (Germany), the Szczecin Museum of Art (Poland), the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and in private collections in Lithuania and abroad. The painter was a patriot of his country, a member of the Charter of Citizens of the Republic of Lithuania. He wrote: I want to stand in my art on my land, and my land is Lithuania, Europe. Like other intellectuals of his generation, Surgailis brought love to his homeland from his youth in the independent Lithuania, from the school and the pre-war environment. The exhibition displays the rare pre-war relic – the flag of the Republic of Lithuania which was hidden and preserved in the artist’s parents’ house in Utena during the entire Soviet occupation.
Stasys Aukštuolis‘ Vytis (the coat–of–arms of Lithuania) was also acquired by Victoria and Albert Museum in London
Stasys Aukštuolis’ work is particularly diverse. The graphic artist drew, created etchings, posters and optical art objects. There is not only a purified, masterly form but also a deep philosophical, meditative and somewhat pantheistic content which is typical of the artist’s compositions. In an original way, they combine reflections of the Eastern art tradition with the Lithuanian culture.
A constant, intensive and creative rhythm was the basic characteristic feature of the artist. Many a time Aukštuolis organized several solo exhibitions within one year; he also took part in group exhibitions.
Authoress and friend Danutė Kalinauskaitė: “Stasys always surprised me by his refined (of course, inborn as well) senses: smell (hated the smell of dirt but was a virtuoso in the world of spices), taste (gourmet of food feeling the most subtle sub-tastes), touch (he liked feeling the texture of the material running his fingertips over it: ruggedness, roughness, slipperiness…). He joined those textures in various ways: paper was torn, glued, bound by a string or paper thread, knotted achieving unexpected combinations and – what is most important – creating the impression of an authentic thing. Everything was performed with absolute tidiness. He was an aesthete par excellence”.
His art philosophy is close to that of another talented artist of Lithuania, painter, graphic and drawer Algimantas Švėgžda (1941–1996). They both share conceptual minimalism, subtle sense of nature and of the entire universe combined with careful, accurate and masterly implementation.
Another creative feature of Stasys Aukštuolis are his abstractions, drawn or paper cuttings, with the repeating form patterns continuing optical visions by Kazys Varnelis (1971–2010) or Victor Vasarely (1906–1997).
The exhibition in Alanta includes five authentic books by Aukštuolis by which the artist manifests his exquisite artistic taste and moderation.
Finally, one more very original field of creation by Aukštuolis is illustrated by a couple of posters displayed in the exhibition in the Alanta Manor Gallery. One of them is Vytis (the coat–of–arms of Lithuania) on the red background (dedicated to the 16th of February) which was also acquired by Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
A graphic designer and creator of art objects, Stasys Aukštuolis was born in 1957 in Darbėnai, Samogitia. In 1982, he graduated from the Tallinn Art Institute, Estonia. Aukštuolis was member of the Lithuanian Artists’ Association; he lived and worked in Vilnius.
From 1979 the artist arranged over 80 solo exhibitions in Lithuania and abroad. Works by Aukštuolis were displayed in Sweden, Germany, Belgium, India, USA, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and other countries. His works were acquired by museums, art foundations as well as by private collectors.
Stasys Aukštuolis died in 2011, buried in Balninkai, Aukštaitija.
Translated by Albina Trečiokaitė / editor Judita Gliauberzonaitė
Blessed Teofilius Matulionis in his homeland Alanta – relics, photos, letters from Soviet prisons, thousands of prayer testimonies
Small wooden eggs brought by Bishop Matulionis to his nos, ieces as souvenirs from abroad, Christmas decorations cut out by him from paper, an intricate double altar also made by the bishop, his embroidered initials on the surplices and the jacket lining.
These items will be on display in the exhibition Blessed Teofilius Matulionis in his homeland Alanta, is a continuation of the series of exhibitions dedicated to the beatification of Bishop Martyr T. Matulionis.
The exhibition also contains Bishop father’s baptism certificate, the certificate of marriage of the bishop’s parents Jurgis and Ona (nee Juočepytė), and the birth certificate of Teofilius Matulionis from the Alanta church archives. It also features 30 stands with photographs of the bishop and his numerous family members – brothers, sisters, their spouses and children.
The exhibit also features inter-war postcards sent by T. Matulionis to his relatives from Berlin, Alexandria, Rome, letters he sent from the prisons of Orsha and Vladimir (1947-1953) with many cross-outs by the prison censors, letters written in Lithuanian at the Special purpose institution – Potma Home for the Disabled in Mordovia ASSR (1953-1956), after the death of Stalin and the bishop’s amnesty. Matulionis did not write his letters in standard Lithuanian (and it is amazing!). He wrote in the Aukštaitian dialect and included many words borrowed from Latvian and Russian. Errors of a holy man are just as holy and should by no means be corrected.
The exhibition Blessed Teofilius Matulionis in his homeland Alanta features a few small but fancy exhibits, given to Bishop T. Matulionis after his return to Lithuania from imprisonment in Soviet prisons and labor camps in 1933 or brought back from his trip to America in 1934-1936.
What are those narrow rose decorated ribbons and thin prayer notes? They are documentary testimonies of prayers with intentions and spiritual sacrifice very popular in the Church environment of the time. For example, on September 22, 1934, on the eve of the bishop’s trip to the United States of America, he received a “modest prayer crown” from students of the Kaunas Metropolitan seminary: 548 of the Mass, 33 novenas of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and 167 of good deeds. He also received a similar prayer testimony from the Benedictine Sisters of Kaunas and students of the Girls Gymnasium of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Casimir. In 1937, the Benedictine Sisters of Kaunas gave Bishop. T. Matulionis a written document of their 2000 “zealous acts of love”.
Nowadays these statistics may elicit a smile, but they are proof that people cared for their beloved bishop and prayed for him during his imprisonment. Who knows if the “zealous acts of love” played any part in the legal case of the martyr bishop and the “divine bookkeeping” on the whole, but the approaching beatification is proof that they were of great value.
The exhibition in Alanta manor contains a letter from the Sisters of Jesus Crucified with “spiritual flowers” given to the bishop in 1935 during his visit in the US: Mass, Communion, Stations of the Cross, rosaries, litanies – 138 of each, as well as 138 000 short prayers. The spiritual gift from the orphans fostered by the sisters: 100 Masses, Communions, Stations of the Cross, and 1000 children’s prayers. Even during the war, on May 2, 1943, in Kaunas, participants of Eucharistic Adoration handed their spiritual greeting and a prayer testimony to Bishop Teofilius: 350 Masses, 168 adoration hours, 293 resolves and 243 days of fasting.
All these prayer notes and ribbons travelled in the bishop’s luggage around America and across the Atlantic Ocean, were brought back to Kaunas in 1937 and remained there during the first Soviet occupation. Finally, when Teofilius became bishop of the diocese, they were taken to Kaišiadorys where they stayed until his return from deportations in 1956. Not found during the KGB searches in Birštonas and Šeduva, after T. Matulionis died in 1962, they spent another 55 years in the private archive of his niece Marija Bendoraitiene. Until this year.
The photos are courtesy of Prof. Stanislovas Sajauskas and Eugenijus Peikštenis, the closest relatives of Blessed Teofilius Matulionis, and the Lithuanian Central State Archives (LCSA). For example, there is a large photograph from the LCSA, in which all the Lithuanian political and church elite of the time inspects the Eucharistic Congress parade in Kaunas on July 1, 1934 from the stairs of St. Michael the Archangel Church. Everybody with a little knowledge of the inter-war history and the ability to decode the arrangement of people in the photograph, will see how poor were the relations between President Antanas Smetona and the Lithuanian Church, between the Lithuanian State and the State of Vatican, as Nuncio Antonio Arata was seated farthest from the president and the archbishop of Kaunas – next to Bishop Matulionis who had just returned from his imprisonment in Soviet Russia.
The sponsors-benefactors of the exhibition dedicated to Blessed Bishop Martyr Teofilius Matulionis: Marija ir Vitas Bendoraičiai, Laimutė Matulionytė-Grumadienė, Asta Piktužienė, Algirdas Saudargas, Paulius Martinaitis, Vaidotas Vaičaitis, Žilvinas Petrauskas, Agnė Širinskienė, Audrius Mikitiukas, Darius Auglys, Zenius Mištautas, Evaldas Darškus, Eglė Stašienė, Vytautas Jankauskas, Caritas Lithuania, Paulius Ratė, Rimantas Jonas Dagys, and Arimantas Raškinis.
Translation by Judita Gliauberzonaitė
Lionginas Šepka and Antanas Mončys – a Union between the Lithuanian Highlands and Lowlands
The Alanta Estate Gallery is hosting an exhibition of carvings by one of the most famous Lithuanian folk artists of the 20th century, Lionginas Šepka (1907-1985), born in the Rokiškis region, and modern sculptures, ceramics, collages and drawings by Antanas Mončys (1921-1993), a native of Kretinga who after WW2 lived in Paris.
As far as is known, A. Mončys and L. Šepka never met in real life (A. Mončys may have seen the Soviet cultural press publications about L. Šepka works), but both of their lives were marked by the same creative passion. Both of them were outcasts: L. Šepka was a recluse who lived in a dugout, a hut with a stove but no chimney and was later banished for four years by the government and his relatives to the Didvyžiai Old People’s Home in Vilkaviškis. A. Mončys lived in France for a long time, but did not become a French citizen, wrote letters to his relatives who remained in Soviet Lithuania under fake names.
The work of both artists at times is amazingly related in terms of topics and forms of expression – the symbols of life, love and death. L. Šepka often portrayed Christ, Mary, angels, saints, etc., while among works by A. Mončys there are an abstract wooden “Pensive Christ”, drawing “Announcement of Birth”, “Love” etc.
There are also chains, carved from solid wood, found in traditional Lithuanian art. In the Alanta exhibition – a large chain made by Mončys from large chestnut tree rings, called “King – Idler” and L. Šepka’s wooden chain details from the monument to his brother Petras. Sticks: “Stick – Woman” by Mončys and seven sticks decorated with floral motifs and texts. Hands: A. Mončys stone relief “Hand – Moon” and the wooden “Hand”, L. Šepka’s several wooden hands for statues of saints, or a carved New Year’s greeting portraying a handshake. Birds: ten small and large birds by Šepka remaining from the composition “The Bird Ball” (1970-1972), “Bird” by Mončys, “Head of a Bird” and twenty colored bird shaped clay whistles the artist had made for his three children.
Death forms: a bone woman going up the stairs by A. Mončys, “A Skull”, a large hanging wooden skeleton and 8 crucifixes by L. Šepka.
Both artists – the self-taught L. Šepka and A. Mončys who was a professional artist – had a viable, extremely talented, almost innate sense of form; they are part of the Lithuanian art tradition, immersed in the sacred springs of Christianity, which consciously or intuitively survived the existentialism of the 20th century.
The exhibition at the Alanta Estate Gallery features works from the private collections of Karolina and Arūnas Paliulis, A. Mončys’ son Jean-Christophe, who lives in Paris, Eleonora and Vladas Žukas, as well as the funds of the Rokiškis Regional Museum and Antanas Mončys House-Museum in Palanga.
The exposition is complemented by the Parisian portraits of A. Mončys taken by photographer Algimantas Kezys (1928-2015), two documentaries about Mončys created by Henrikas Gulbinas and Ugnė Karvelis, Rimantas Šilinis’ documentary film about L. Šepka “Pasirašau – arkitektas” (“My Signature – Architect” (1972), and photo portraits of L. Šepka by Father Alfonsas Jančys (1954) and Petras Dūda (1977). The exhibition Lionginas Šepka and Antanas Mončys – a Union between the Lithuanian Highlands and Lowlands at the Alanta Estate Gallery will be open until June 30, 2017.
Translation by Judita Gliauberzonaitė
Halls in Alanta Manor
The major calamity of the Jews of Molėtai region commenced on 26 June 1941 after Nazis arrived in Molėtai. In one week after their invasion 60 Jewish young people were arrested and killed. Older Molėtians remember that only 6 Germans arrived in Molėtai. The Germans organized the units of local henchmen to watch the Jews in the ghetto established in the center of Molėtai between Vilnius and Kaunas streets as well as for their killing and parceling out of their property. The head and accountant of the mass annihilation of Jews in Lithuania was SS colonel standartenführer Karl Jäger, head of the 3rd operational unit. His reports of 1941 are peculiar account- books of the mass killings in Lithuania: ”I may state today that the 3rd operational unit reached its goal – to solve the problem of Jews in Lithuania. There are no more Jews in Lithuania…”
The major calamity of the Jews of Molėtai region commenced on 26 June 1941 after Nazis arrived in Molėtai. In one week after their invasion 60 Jewish young people were arrested and killed. Older Molėtians remember that only 6 Germans arrived in Molėtai. The Germans organized the units of local henchmen to watch the Jews in the ghetto established in the center of Molėtai as well as for their killing and parceling out of their property. It is only God himself who is aware of how many people of this marvelous lake district contributed to the rescue of their neighbours Jews or – vice versa – put the finger on them, betrayed them and killed them by shooting. It became clear that the Nazis sent only a few Germans to Molėtai. It was Lithuanian villains that arrested and killed by shooting the majority of Jews. There was however, the powerful bright side of the issue as well because there were not individual people but hundreds of Jew rescuers since the rescue of one single Jew required everyday effort and deadly risk of numerous people. Glory be to them!
Vaidotas Žukas and layers of his work
Vaidotas Žukas is like a multifaceted theatre character. I prefer not to use the word “painter” or “artist” because it would reveal but a few of the cultural layers of this personality. He would probably say he is an artist of life. Really, he makes, creates, plays, projects his very life, which intertwines with other people’s biographies and stories and forms their lives, which in turn affect Žukas’s life as a certain art form. Anyway, this isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is Žukas’s multilayered character. When trying to geologically or archaeologically uncover those layers, scraping them off one after another, we may reveal the core of the artist, or at least the constituent parts of his character. Why is it important? In his curriculum vitae, Žukas covers a broader cultural field. This should interest his biographers as well as researchers of the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of a certain age or period… The outer, upper cultural layers of Žukas’s personality are the most visually compelling because here he expresses himself as an artist, painter, author of religious art and a representative of Salon Art in the most positive sense. We can perceive this particular role specialization as fans of the artist in question, leafing through the pages of a substantial album, or as guests who have come to the hypothetical house of the character Žukas to explore the family album courteously offered by the master – like scientists flipping through the dossiers, files, and documents about V. Žukas as a mouthpiece of a certain time. In any case, being multilayered and multifaceted (like a prototype of the Renaissance’s homo universalis), Žukas faces us like an individualized kunstkamera, a personalized panopticon, a personal museum whose various exhibits and their combinations have different notional connections. To find, establish, and read them, one needs the cipher key owned or embodied by Žukas himself.
We suggest that the reader of the book and the art lover uncover at least a few of Žukas’s cultural layers and put their findings onto the shelves of their own kunstkamera. What’s important is that the above-mentioned layers are combined using the collage technique, which the artist is so fond of, combining images which, at first sight, seem impossible to combine, and creating different, very specific notions.
It seems the deepest cultural layer of Žukas’s work lies in the bluish horizons of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the Baroque churches, wooden estates and chapels of Lithuania’s landed gentry, in old parchment writings, ancient letters or little albums. But if you delve deeper, you can get to the Stone Age – to the universal petroglyphs left by ancient man all over the world. Scraping off the upper layer may reveal “the barfly’s Moscow” with futurists shrouded in the smoke of Velimir Khlebnikov’s cigarettes, with Cubo-Futurists, Rayonists, and developers of Utopian mechanisms. And stinking Francis Bacon would be sitting in a small cage (like some canary the color of a person’s skin).
Knowing Žukas’s public-spirited nature, the political layer of his work has always been evident. One’s work may be politically motivated, even if there’s no political content. An innocent still-life or a landscape can be charged with ideology. However, in the case of Žukas, the political layer is apparent like white thread stitching. For example, the painting of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo or the portrait of Egypt’s President prove that in Soviet times Žukas bought and skimmed through newspapers, sat in libraries, and listened to Western radio stations. Cramming young people’s bodies in tight spaces without any freedom of decision is also political – a more than eloquent detail in the time of totalitarianism and dictatorship. Žukas’s religious paintings are nothing more than a political stance: during the time of Soviet atheism just as during the first years of popular religious enthusiasm and conversions in independent Lithuania. Today, when a religiously expressed determination is more than just a declaration of a worldview, sacred themes in art remain a political stance.
Many religious groups might consider Žukas one of their own. Based on the mystical, pantheistic ideology of the forest and plants, representatives of harsh Siberia would recognize him as a worshiper of nature. Looking at the perfect human bodies in Žukas’s paintings, the ancient Greeks would view him as a portrayer of the Olympian gods, titans, and heroes who have descended into our banal daily life. Or vice versa – the Jews, Muslims or Byzantine iconoclasts would bless the artist for the floral ornaments, especially suggestive in certain fields of Žukas’s work. But there is no doubt that the fundamental part of the artist’s creative roots stem from Christianity – from it he draws the most essential images and the basic values.
The historical layer of his work is mixed with the cultural. History and culture are inseparable. Such eminent personalities of the cultural history of Lithuania as Juozas Keliuotis, Justinas Mikutis, and Rev. Česlovas Kavaliauskas, as well as folk heritage objects from the Baroque painted on paper with watermarks found and cleaned in Lower Lithuania, make frequent appearances in Žukas’s oeuvre. The breath of history can be felt even in a simple forest scene, an unpretentious form of a plant, or a collage with multiple layers of forms and meanings. However, history is most vividly recorded in people’s faces and collections of items covered with a thick layer of dust. History is coded in Žukas’s portraits and still-lifes. He doesn’t tell propaganda jokes about meritorious historical personalities, nor does he profess prominent, epic truths – no! He conveys simple stories of ordinary people. But facts and deeds of the past are etched in each element and wrinkle.
Žukas’s paintings and ceramics are literally mineral and mineralogical, because this means of expression uses materials of mineral origin. However, the meaning of minerals in his work is far broader and more important for: 1) Žukas’s perception of colors is mineralogical or, rather, gemological – it glitters with the kaleidoscopically changing colours of our universe, and every stone, even the smallest piece of rock (and the artist’s work) is nothing but a minimized representation of the world, 2) the surfaces of the artist’s creations have a mineralogical nature – they resemble magmatic, sedimentary rock textures, 3) his works are mineral because of their forms, natural silhouettes and surfaces polished by history, nature, and winds, and their monumental sizes as well as solid structures slightly covered with moss.
Žukas’s work is philosophical in the most basic and trite sense of the word. His philosophical work is both phenomenological and Husserlian. The spike of his work is directed at both outer and inner experience – the artist dissects the layer of empirical reality to enter the depths of what’s substantial and essential. His creative act is noetic (from the Greek noēsis/noētikos, meaning direct knowing); it crosses the sphere of the senses to reach the world of ideas and prototypes, much like a diver who looks for pearls at the bottom of the sea.
And yet, whatever Žukas does, he does using his intuition and painterly logic. Correct color matching is essential for painterly logic. He combines colors in different ways: by using achromatic black or white, and, often, gray, like cement, like a binding material for other colors, connecting contrasting colors sparkling with countless shades (blue, yellow, red), adding a noble brown or pink, or sanguine, coming from old paintings, immersing everything in Danae’s golden rain. All items created by Žukas are nothing but objects intuitively and logically arranged from colors. He uses an array of instruments – brushstrokes, glazing, dabbing paint with a knife, spray painting, spattering, or drip painting.
Is Žukas is a landscape painter? Perpetuating landscapes has never been the purpose of his work. Although if we look more closely at his paintings, we shall see that many of the compositions are constructed using the principle of a landscape. It is related to the Italian (terraced, geometric) setting of the Renaissance Park – looking at such a picture the viewer can easily distinguish the first and second planes, see the curtain and the stage. On the other hand, even the still-life genre, so unrelated to the landscape, also obeys a macrocosmic logic – items (characters of different eras) arranged on a horizontal plane (a kind of ancient world) are enveloped by a limited space of the interior – like an antique crystal vault, looked at by the author as well as viewer through the eyes of a demiurge.
It would seem that there is nothing more boring than daily life. But Žukas rejects the idea and uses art to romanticize daily life, adding bright colors to it. Even the simplest arrangement of things or the way a person sits, an incident or anecdote takes on features of a fairy tale, a subtle allegory, an existential parable or a political joke. And vice versa, all most magical and exciting stories gain a down-to-earth side – such are the saints, and other prominent characters. Even plants, being non-routine and unusual – epiphanies of another world – become tangible, realistic and routine.
In Žukas’s creative ground, the layer of daily life is mixed with that of the landscape. As mentioned before, simple still-lifes obey the logic of the landscape. All other genres are still-life-like. This perception of the environment is embodied in the actual still-life and people’s portraits. The objects in still-lifes are displayed like exhibits in a small museum – so that by looking at them one would see their most typical and noblest traits. Žukas’s ceramic objects are especially still-life-like – they resemble bodies that have been immersed in clay or glaze like in formalin. Anthropomorphic characters of the paintings are turned into some sort of inanimate objects, which are looked at by the viewer from a respectful and safe distance as if covered by a bell jar (a literary critic has explained that this is an existentialist’s way of looking at people).
One of the profoundest layers of Žukas’s creative work is the ornamental layer. You could even describe the artist as panornamental. Ornaments are everywhere – in the air, on the ground, in plants, beasts and human figures, as well as in objects. Most of the things portrayed are similar to ornaments. Some of them are pure Renaissance grotesques, others – Baroque arabesques, Rococo rocailles and chinoiseries, lashes of a Secessionist whip; gestures and touches of Modernism, and semantic postmodernist compounds and structures.
All of these layers are organized in a completely random order. They may overlap, mix or connect in any way possible. In terms of motifs, themes, or even inner intentions, we may apply a different interpretation; for example, one based on the inner intentions, which have been given a visual sense by the figures and silhouettes of naked boys, political leaders, ordinary people, people in culture, Christian icons, landscape-shrines, animals and monsters, household items, ornaments and jewelry, sculptures and glazes, and all kinds of other objects. The viewer can select and arrange them in any way he or she likes, and draw their own conclusions…
<…> Canvases hidden in basements were brought to light, still in their authentic state. Unframed paintings that had never been exhibited, included a rebellious spirit and the dust of time; they did not deny the past, but neither did they stiff. These vital, tacky paintings had, perhaps, an even stronger effect than they had back in the eighties. At that time, Mr Žukas’ work was foreshadowed by a convulsive existentialist art, which intoxicated most of the more flexible painters. Today his art emerges as a lonely pillar of fire in the torn apart landscape of contemporary painting. Žukas’ painting fits under the expressionist formula: it creates a vision of the “suffering world”. However, the author does it with dignity, not chasing after the typical stimulants of Expressionism. He paints the issues of the Far or Middle East, and chooses biblical scenes, i.e. stories which should make one excited or tearful. The same can be said about the plasticity: it’s complicated, multi-layered process lacks obvious signs of depression, but it gets on your nerves as something that’s about to burst. Not only does the exhibition, provide a rare opportunity to see quality painting, it also has a moment of intrigue. Knowing the metamorphoses of V. Žukas’ life and his current journalistic and educational activities, many will be interested to explore the “pre-Christian” face of the author. A conversation with the artist should also clarify the circumstances of creating art in the past.
‘Why weren’t these paintings “displayed”?’ ‘For various reasons. Some paintings are leftovers which did not fit in the larger cycles, others I hid because of their “non-commercial” appearance. Some of them I used to carry to the Exhibition Palace, believing that they weren’t inferior to works brought by others. But then they ignored me. I’ve heard there was a sanction: not to accept Žukas’ work in exhibitions for ten years. I remember a case when a portrait of J. Keliuotis painted by me got accepted. Unfortunately, just before the opening of the exhibition, it was visited by K. Bogdanas and L. Šepetys who upon seeing my name ordered that it be removed.’
‘What does the intriguing phrase “the basement period” mean? You used it many times when preparing for the exhibition.’ ‘For me the basement was the beginning of my creative career, a stage of my life. For a couple years I worked in the basement. Clearly, this was harmful to my health. There was a lack of light (sometimes I painted in candle light), a lack of air, and the smell of paint made me choke. Later, Father saw that something might come out of his son and allowed me to bring my canvases home. Here it was better, but what was painted during the day I had to breathe during the night – I worked and I slept in the same room… Works piled up, and then they were again taken to the basement. Many of them were destroyed when the sewer pipes broke.’
‘You call works that are displayed in the exhibition your “existentialist period”. How much is the suffering purely philosophical, and how much of it is real?’ ‘All was real, a true experience, nothing was done on purpose. I’ve always been very much aware of the occupation – for me it was a very heavy burden. I survived it through my creative process. For example, I sometimes would paint a nice and neat picture. And then I’d take the broadest brush, dip it in black paint and go over the faces and bodies a few times. Of course, I tried to do this in a way that was logical and aesthetic. Such is the semantics of my work. For example, who were those naked children? They weren’t stripped and put on display for morally wrong reasons. Someone looks at them as guinea pigs – maybe the doctors or the military experts. After all, the stripping of a young man is known from ancient times – the Christian martyrs were stripped down for ridicule. A girl protecting her chastity would be displayed in the middle of town. Of course, there are beautiful legends about how her hair would grow long all of a sudden, but if you imagine the actual condition of this person, I think it’s similar to the human state during Soviet times. For me, the creative process was excruciating. At that time I thought that everyone who wanted to seriously pursue artistic quality could achieve it. I sought art with brutality. For ten years, day after day, I would stand in front of the easel for ten straight hours. My friends Josifas Josadė and Rolandas Rastauskas would come every weekend only to find a dozen new pieces. But I destroyed many of them. Especially when my friends harshly criticized my art.’
‘What made you stop?’ ‘My life and work had reached such a degree of tension that it seemed easy to end everything. Those sick kids were my authentic experience. I myself lay on a deathbed several times. Everything I painted was connected to my personal life. In addition, my arrogance as an artist had reached its peak. There came a time when I felt that I could do everything, everything was in my hands. But what was next? Was this enough? I realized that something had to change.
‘Looking from the side, this period seems not unlike a session of exorcism.’ ‘Could be. Although I did not consciously formulate these things. I just worked and searched. I’m not very fond of the word “to search.” I have never done art “just for the hell of it”, so even my earliest work cannot be called “searching.” But, on the other hand, after all, a good artist is always looking for something – even if he is ninety years old. I think it’s funny that some of my older colleagues even wear beards the way they grew them thirty years ago. Don’t they get bored? The same can be said about painting: how long can you use the same strokes, the same colors? I have learned to create hard, coarse, even screaming art: work that makes you want to run away, and attracts you at the same time. But the time came when I felt that it might hurt others, and I felt I couldn’t go on like this myself.’
‘Can good pictures, however, be harmful?’ ‘Kęstas Antanėlis had bought a few rather strange paintings from me – I warned him that he had better hide them. I do not want to mystify those things and think that the tragedy that took place in his home happened due to the paintings, but I sometimes feel that it isn’t good to be with them all the time and keep them in the environment where you come to rest. They suck your energy, they breathe, they require attention and are emotive. That’s what I want, but I’m not sure if it’s good for others. Yet many in Vilnius have my paintings – I’d say, there is about a hundred of them in different homes.’
‘Everything, you say, is very personal. Didn’t you experience any influence from the development of Lithuanian art and its topical issues of the time?’ ‘I came to a Lithuanian identity through a different door than everyone else. And much later – when I did not have a workshop and was allowed to work in the folk art repository of the All Saints Church, and when I started to travel throughout Lithuania. Only then did the Lithuanian identity become natural to me. In the beginning, I deliberately wanted to move away from what is known as the “Lithuanian tradition.” I really like the words of an Estonian painter and a good friend of mine Peter Mudist: “There is no need to look for your face.” If you look for the creative product conscientiously and long enough, if you are not afraid of changes (and changing is very typical of me), the face appears automatically.’ (Nijolė Adomonytė “Lietuvos Rytas”, January, 2000).