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Alfonsas Budvytis
About the Author
  • Art photographer.
  • Born 1949 in village Balsėnai, in Žemaitija region. Died 2003.
  • Member of Lithuanian Photographers Union.
  • Works owned by private collectors in Lithuania and abroad.
About the Artworks
In 1980 a “rebellious” exhibition of young photographers’ work was held which marked an important break with the principles of the Lithuanian School of Photography. Banal everyday objects symbolically countered the meaningfulness of the older generation’s social reportages. Alfonsas Budvytis (1949-2003) was the central figure in this new movement.
Budvytis never photographed important events, places or people. He conveyed his own and his generation’s experiences through a photography in which everything was steeped in an overwhelming melancholy. His attention was directed to peripheral territories, everyday and marginal characters, evocative details.
Budvytis’s attention was almost always focused on suburbs, rows of shacks in remote yards, crumbling playgrounds, neglected town squares, tangled thickets and other fringe areas of towns city or neighbourhoods. These are almost always grim, neglected, semi-vacant spaces. The hotels, student dorms and hospital wards in Budvytis’s photographs look equally neglected and miserable. Whether outdoors or indoors, everything is steeped in dusk, misty rain or dusty air. Light briefly focuses our attention on single figures or sculptures or groups of them, on isolated buildings or objects. His photographs document, remind, draw attention to details while simultaneously attempting to decipher them. The scenes he observes lose their everyday quality: that which should be simple, clear, or familiar suddenly demands a new, more ambiguous interpretation.
Budvytis titled his 1987 retrospective exhibition, held in the Vilnius Photography Salon, “Kelyje” (On the Road). Here the artist presented photographs of towns, villages and interiors, with and without people, in such a way as to suggest they were in transit. When we are travelling or even taking a walk, speed and movement erase the clarity and importance of images. For Budvytis, being on the road is also an existential state. Like his subjects, he too is on the road.
In Budvytis’s Soviet-era photographs people are doomed to inactivity and time has stopped due to outside political or social processes. Usually, the people in his photographs are not doing anything. They loiter at public transport stops or in the yards of residential buildings, sit on benches in town squares, or rest against hospital windows. States of waiting and loneliness take a multitude of forms – from brief moments of taking stock to paralysing depression.
The theme of lives doomed to paralysis and introversion, with their constant companions of alcohol and sadness, is most clearly revealed in Budvytis’s series titled Vyrų skyrius Nr. 7 (Men’s Ward No. 7, 1984). These are photographs of the Vilnius Psychiatric Hospital, where, as in other such Soviet-era hospitals, alcoholism was treated using force. Only when he himself became a patient there could Budvytis so painfully identify with his defeated, broken subjects. He did not need to exaggerate anything and shows these depressed men with great compassion, sensitively recording the parallels between the disintegration of environment, body and soul.
In many of his Soviet-era photographs Budvytis shows only fragments of people – a forehead, a torso, shoulders, a neck, legs from the knees down, hands or a palm. By zooming in or out from these bodily fragments he succeeds in altering our usual ways of seeing, while the absence of faces reinforces the images’ universality.
In most of Budvytis’s other Soviet-era photographs the focus is shifted from people to household objects: a door, a table, a chair, a radio, a mailbox, laundry hanging on a line, or, in street images, an advertising stand or a mineral water dispenser. The objects themselves convey their user’s social status or psychological state, and the photographs reproduce the atmosphere of an impoverished communal residence, a rented room, or a cheap hotel. In the triptych Gazuotas vanduo (Carbonated Water, 1980), Budvytis gives glasses of mineral water a grotesque monumentality by enlarging them and bringing them closer to the line of vision. People who experienced the goods shortages that plagued the Soviet period can easily grasp the social symbolism of these ubiquitous, unhygienic installations. It was a quiet, but biting, political critique. The German art critic Eckhart Gillen described this Budvytis work as “mineral-water-dispenser social sculpture.”
Budvytis creates a unique photographic language. One of his most important expressive tools is the ability to select and present a spatial or bodily fragment in such a way that it appears meaningful and poetic. The Polish art historian Urszula Czartorysk describes this period in Budvytis’s work as follows: “He applied a method that was like photographing a fragment of a painting from up close. His photography records the constant fragmentation of the immediate environment or traces of objects that are erased in the reality of the moment. Fragments of torsos, slices of landscape from a train window, a place that a person has just left are frozen in time.
Before choosing a photographer’s path, Budvytis trained in pharmacology, and this profession clearly fed his fascination with the alchemy of producing the ideal print. Each of his prints is unique; he experiments a great deal not only with the focus of an image, but also with tonality and colour.
During this “rebellious” period, the great Soviet-era artist Boris Michailov began to visit the Lithuanian photographers. The guest from Kharkiv, Ukraine was especially interested in Budvytis and Šeškus’s explorations. All three of these artists combined the documentary aspect of photography with conceptual art and produced reflections of Soviet reality by focusing on private life and deconstructing images. Michailov photographs life at the edge of the Soviet empire and then, like an amateur or dilettante he retouches them, adding colour or textual elements. He speaks about “introducing an idiotic subjectivity into an objective environment in order to unmask it.” In the end, reality is subjected to cruel caricature. On the other hand, even when they are transforming elements of reality, the two Lithuanians remain poetic and melancholy.
Following exhibitions by Budvytis and his circle (which included Šeškus, Pačėsa and Balčytis) the Lithuanian Photographer’s Association split into two camps. Some continued to create works in the spirit of the Lithuanian School of Photography’s socially engaged approach which placed people at its centre, while others rebelliously opposed that line. Budvytis’s conception of photography had a great impact on many younger photographers working not only in Vilnius, but in Kaunas, Klaipėda and Šiauliai.
During the transitional period of Lithuania’s break from the Soviet Union, photographers naturally became more interested in history, heritage and disappearing signs of the past. Budvytis photographs Vilnius’ architectural monuments and in 1988–1991, together with his like-minded colleague Vytautas Balčytis, travels all around Lithuania documenting architectural panoramas of small towns. As Budvytis said, “Going around Lithuania and Vilnius, we wanted to record anything that we could still find. Like I said, everything is disappearing, dissolving, breaking and changing.” The panoramas illustrate the towns’ topographical positions and how they are woven into the landscape.
In 1995, having difficulty making ends meet, Budvytis leaves Vilnius and moves to an isolated homestead in the remote village of Goniūnai, in the Jurbarkas region. But here too he was unable to devote himself solely to photography and did some teaching and farming. As difficult as life was there, Budvytis experienced one final surge of creativity.
Having a rural background, he was a consummate observer of nature. In addition to panoramic landscapes, Budvytis records small fragments of local scenery, in particular the slow processes of nature. He described the contemplative character of his nature studies especially well himself: “Wandering around, I photograph puddles and little sticks. I try to find the essence of the world in a cow’s hoof print (as it says in the folksong, ‘Don’t drink, Johnny, or you’ll turn into a lamb.’). One can find the answers to all global questions within a radius of a dozen centimetres. Others would try to connect this to Eastern philosophy, but I think that’s an over-simplification. When I think about something in more depth, I spend days, even months trying to find the right solution. I try to rise above my everyday environment, leaving only the primordial essence. And I don’t stick to the rules.” The photographs created in Goniūnai tend to have a serial principle which acquires a conceptual quality. Budvytis often used a photographic tableau form consisting of squares as well as vertical and horizontal lines. With just a few or a dozen or so arranged images he achieves a meaningful whole. The smallest changes in terms of frame and lighting – the dialectics of difference and repetition – are important. Sometimes the narratives of these series and tableaux falter, much like Budvytis himself did when speaking.
Budvytis titled one these series Tylioji gamta (Silent Nature), a title that would suit all the photographs created in Goniūnai. Here, peacefulness is deceptive. The photographer is highly attuned to the rustling of the forest, the murmuring of bulrushes and the splashing of fish in the water. He notices the marks left on the bark of a tree by a woodpeckers beak or a beaver’s teeth; he shows us how larvae, worms and snails creep; how potatoes and wheat sprout; how fruit ripens; how grass freezes and wilts; how leaves, eggshells and dead birds decay. This is not an idyllic world but one marked by death, though here the end always means the beginning of a new cycle of nature.
In Budvytis’s photographs, the world of nature seems imperturbable, mysterious and mystical. But here the boundary between observation and internal comprehension is fragile. The objects are observed from so close up that they can take on unexpected, surreal associations. Pantheistic contemplations are sometimes interwoven with irony. The latter is expressed in the paradoxical poetics of the works’ titles: Juros periodo parko restitucija Goniūnuose (Restitution of Jurassic Park in Goniūnai), Genio kalvė (The Woodpecker’s Forge), Sliekų kartografija (Worm Cartography), Paskutinis skrydis (Last Flight), Dinozauro gimimas (Birth of a Dinosaur), Bonjour la France. In all of Budvytis’s photographs of silent nature, the colour black is rich, deep, thick, or becomes an impenetrable fog. Accentuated graphic lines alternate with soft ones as though they had been made with brush and ink.
These late works created in the seclusion of nature are as melancholy as Budvytis’s Soviet-era legacy. But here, the paralysing nightmare of the Soviet period is replaced by a gentle sadness. Budvytis was entranced by memory and the mystery of images lost and preserved. At the end of his path, he tirelessly studied the impermanence of all life forms.
Raiminta Jurėnaitė
All works by this artist
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