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Ceramics and Textiles
Lijana Natalevičienė
The greatest number of politically motivated carpets, ceramic panels and stained glass works were created during the period of strictest censorship, at the juncture of the 1940s and 1950s.
Ceramics dominated the other applied art fields in the initial post-war period. What new developments were there in this field when compared to the advances of the pre-war years? Firstly, more attention was paid to representative works. Alongside the predominant modest, moderately decorated vases, small vases, candle holders and animal style pieces, there now appeared new creations, previously unseen in Lithuania, such as enormous commemorative vessels, reminiscent of ancient Greek amphoras, decorated with ideological scenes and Soviet symbols. These were created by Birutė Zygmantaitė (a vase entitled Šešiolika respublikų [Sixteen Republics], 1949), Julija Kačinskaitė-Vyšniauskienė (Pionieriai [Pioneers], 1950), Albinas Pivoriūnas (Derliaus atidavimas valstybei [Presenting the Harvest to the State], 1950). Artists that began their creative journeys in those days explain that they and their colleagues tried to avoid "ideological" works (they felt ashamed to undertake them), but they nevertheless presented opportunities to earn a living and perhaps even prove one's loyalty to the Soviet government. Untrustworthy artists were viewed with particular suspicion by the authorities.
The emergence of a new artistic genre, ceramic panel work, was encouraged by the construction of the Lithuanian SSR pavilion at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow (later merged into the overall campus of the All-Union People's Agricultural Exhibition, known by the Russian acronym VDNKh). From 1952 to 1953, the most prominent Lithuanian ceramists—Liudvikas Strolis, Jonas Mikėnas, Mykolas Vriublauskas and Teodora Slyvauskaitė-Miknevičienė—assisted by sculptors Juozas Kėdainis, Jadvyga Mozūraitė-Klemkienė, Bronius Vyšniauskas, and Napoleonas Petrulis, decorated the façade and interior of the Stalinist architecture with realistic figures, agriculturally themed panels, and adorned the building with ornamental friezes, rosettes, and intricate cornices. These works most clearly corresponded to the demands of socialist realism: displaying the ideals of a new life and presented in an uplifting and optimistic language that was readily accessible to the viewing public.
Socialist realist scenes made their way into ceramic works as well. Aldona Ličkutė's dissertation piece, Pirmūnės pasveikinimas (Congratulating the Most Productive Laborer), commissioned (under the guidance of Teodora Miknevičienė) for the interior of the Lithuanian Art Institute, depicting a ceremony honoring the best worker on a collective farm, was full of socialist realist painting elements: a propagandistic narrative, a correct, closed composition, a well-developed spatial structure, a naturalistic style, unnaturally animated movements by its characters, and faces beaming with joy.
Small sculptures, made popular during the inter-war period, also made a resurgence, primarily in the form of animals and figurines of children playing or tending to animals. These types of compositions were designed for exhibitions and ordered for mass production by the "Dailė" workshops. Many of them were designed by Valdemaras Manomaitis and Jonas Mikėnas. Many figurines of children and athletes were produced based on models designed by Leokadija Belvertaitė-Žygelienė, who worked at the "Dailė" factory. By far the most popular figures, however, were those of dancing girls, dressed in national folk costumes, happily twirling to a folk song, stamping their feet in clogs, or bowing gracefully, straw hat in hand. Žygelienė depicted blonde, braided young girls, poised in thought, or carrying well water in clay pitchers, watering flowers, feeding geese. These sincere and fairly simple ceramic sculptures were very popular and, because they didn't provoke the attention of political minders, they were produced in large quantities from the start of the 1950s to the mid-1960s.
While ceramists were able to pay their dues to new obligations with scenic decorations and new types of creative works, textile artists had a more difficult time. Textiles were more associated with imagery and, thus, with painting, which faced particularly great challenges in the socialist realist style.
Ornamental carpet designs by students testified to the continued development of folk textile traditions. The dissertation projects of the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, were entirely different, featuring figurative tapestry designs based on the demands of socialist realism, in an attempt to harness the long history of tapestry for propaganda purposes. Meticulously woven tapestry portraiture, intended to demonstrate a young textile artist's ability to convey an anatomically precise rendering of the human face, failed to impress the representatives from the All-Union Ministry of Education in Moscow dispatched to Lithuania to assess the professional and ideological training of young textile artists. They took issue with the tapestry technique, which they considered slavish. Balčikonis redalls:
The work of the textiles department was inspected by a commission from Moscow in 1950–1951. These inspections were usually in response to local complaints. Not having found enough socialist realism in the works, the commission would declare that compositional works were unsuitable for mass production. The tapestry technique used to create small samples was dismissed as a slavish method, while the riju technique was considered to be formalistic because it couldn't be used to produce realistic works. The Eastern knotted carpet technique was tolerated, with a recommendation to include leaders' portraits with national ornamentation. The commission was headed by the painter Shcherbakov. He wasn't an angry man—he only advised us how we should understand socialist realism. He told us to devote considerable attention to instruction in painting. Juozas Balčikonis, Memoirs [manuscript], Vilnius Art Academy Department of Textile archives, 2001
Balčikonis defended his thesis, a knotted carpet entitled Derliaus nuėmimas (Reaping the Harvest), in 1950. One month before his defense, his thesis advisor Kairiūkštis was dismissed from his position for "formalism." Just before the defense, Marxist-Leninist theory professor Denisov took issue with Balčikonis' completed thesis work. "Can there really be weeds among the rye?" he asked, angered by the bouquets of rye adorned with cornflowers that ringed the borders of the carpet. "Not only that, there is no sense of the collective farm spirit. The way you show it here, one could work like this for a kulak." After this critique, Balčikonis had to take apart the completed borders of his carpet and change the cornflowers to five-sided red stars. Only four out of six candidates succeeded in defending their works then, while the others were accused of formalism.
At the request from Moscow conveyed by academics dispatched from the capital to monitor the level of instruction at higher art education institutions in the Baltic countries, students of the textiles department were forced to immortalize the most important political and cultural activists in their works.
Marija Dūdienė (b. 1927) and Anelė Mironaitė (1911–2005) wove portraits of Stalin into knotted carpets (in 1952 and 1953), while Andrius Valius (b. 1929) incorporated an image of Maxim Gorky (1954). Valius recounts that he had wanted to create a portrait of the renowned Prussian Lithuanian pastor and poet Kristijonas Donelaitis, but his instructors had to protect themselves. "The most important thing is professionalism," the young candidate was consoled by department instructor Sofija Veiverytė (1926–2009), who herself had been criticized by artistic supervisors for her work. In her knotted carpet entitled Laiminga vaikystė (Happy Childhood, 1952), Marija Dūdienė depicted a motif captured in many photographs and postcards: a Soviet pioneer girl presenting flowers to the leader of the nation. More and more knotted carpet works appeared featuring Soviet symbols intertwined with Lithuanian folk art patterns.
Many renowned Lithuanian artists helped lay the foundations of the 20th century professional Lithuanian textile tradition. In 1940, prior to the first Soviet occupation, after the Kaunas School of Art was reorganized as the Kaunas Applied Arts School (renamed the Kaunas Applied Arts Institute in 1941), graphic artist Vytautas Petravičius (1906–1989) was appointed to head the Decorative Textiles Studio. Petravičius helped develop a universal program for the training of textile artists, envisioning the transformation of studies of natural scenes into stylized, two-dimensional imagery. Antanas Tamošaitis, who replaced Petravičius as head of the Textiles Studio in 1942, promoted a form of textile art based on Lithuanian folk ornamentation. Set designer Liudas Truikys (1904–1987), who directed the department from 1946 to 1949, added Eastern traditions to Lithuanian textile design. Truikys, who had long been enamored with Eastern cultures and fascinated by Egyptian art, sought to infuse textile art with Eastern carpet design principles and the incorporation of wall painting styles characteristic of ancient Egypt.
Zenonas Varnauskas, who had studied under Petravičius, Tamošaitis, and Truikys, began teaching at the Kaunas Applied and Decorative Arts Institute in 1947. Varnauskas further developed the experience he had gained from his predecessors into his own, unique educational system, which, after the Textiles Department was moved to Vilnius, he utilized at the S. Žukas Applied Arts Technical School, where he was an instructor, and also later at the Evening Program of the Lithuanian Arts Institute, which he helped establish in 1959. In this way, the traditions of the Kaunas School of Art, founded on the heritage of folk, classical and Eastern art, were transferred to the Soviet textile design system, cultivated by Balčikonis in Vilnius and Varnauskas in Kaunas.
Such was the start of Soviet Lithuanian applied art. Generally, however, and with some ideological deviations, the traditions of the Kaunas art school were continued in the first post-war decade. Ceramists, textile and other material artists usually attempted to pay their dues to contemporary themes in their usual flexible language, "politicizing" the titles of their works. The knotted carpet by Balčikonis entitled Rugiapjūtė (Cutting the Rye, 1948) was renamed Naujakurių pjūtis (Settler's Harvest), and his thesis Derliaus nuėmimas (Reaping the Harvest, 1950) was rechristened Derliaus nuėmimas kolūkyje (Reaping the Collective Farm Harvest). Ceramist Vytautas Minkevičius renamed his Kolūkinis servizas (Collective Farm Dishware, 1954) to Teklesti kolūkiai! (Long Live the Collective Farms!). At the same time, the artists attempted to convey contemporary ideological decorative motifs as broadly as possible, in a stylized fashion.
It is unlikely that many of these works will be remembered by art historians for their artistic value. They are, rather, of greater interest as witnesses of the Stalinist era, eloquently illustrating how the artists of the day navigated between ideological restrictions and individual artistic expression.
Read more: Juozas Balčikonis.


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Sources and links

Juozas Balčikonis
Memoirs [manuscript]
Vilnius Art Academy Department of Textile archives, 2001
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