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Glassworks: Drawn to Transparency
Lijana Natalevičienė
One family's story
The post-war Lithuanian glass industry was stagnating: it employed no professional artists and glass craftsmen at the various workshops were not blowing or casting any unique pieces. Only a few artists were designing artistic glass pieces, partially satisfying the demand for such work and drawing attention to a vital field of art, full of plasticity and opportunity.
Stasys Ušinskas (1905–1974), already known for his work in the inter-war period, was forced by circumstance and a loss of commissions to begin experimenting at the Aleksotas glass factory, where he set up his own small workshop equipped with a small, liquid fuel-fired furnace. There, he created low-fire fine glass works: vases, plates, aquarium bowls, lamps, and small glass figurines. His colorless glass dishware was blown by J. Zapolskis and S. Bagdonavičius, glassmiths at the Aleksotas factory. The range of shapes of the dishware was limited by the inferior quality of the available glass that was unsuitable for fine art designs. Ušinskas decorated his creations using stained glass painting techniques: employing silicate paints (glazes), enamels, metal film, gilding and silver plating. Flaws in the furnace's construction often led to contamination of the molten glass, but glazing would usually cover up shoddy glass. Initially, Ušinskas used the supply of paints that he had brought with him from Paris, and later turned to mixing his own glazes.
Ušinskas' decorative vessels were smoothy shaped, with distinct contours and harmonious proportions. The ornamentation applied to the pieces served as the main decorative accent, as if continuing the style of the stained glass work from the artist's pre-war creative period. Ušinskas sought to obtain the glow of colors seen in stained glass through his stylized, constructive design compositions, but he did not overuse coloring, believing that ancient artisans were capable of creating many tones and shades from one basic color. Kazys Strazdas, Lietuvos stiklas: nuo 1940 metų, Kaunas: Technologija, 1997, p. 122. Examples of such work include Mėnuo saulužę vedė (The Moon Married the Sun, 1957), Klumpakojis (1959), Eglė žalčių karalienė (Eglė - Queen of the Serpents, 1960), Sportininkai (Athletes, 1962), and others that displayed hints of the festival style.
As he worked at the Aleksotas glass factory, Stasys Ušinskas was assisted by his student and sister, Filomena Ušinskaitė, whose contribution to Lithuanian glass art has not yet been sufficiently appreciated. The creative style of Ušinskaitė, who trained as a stained glass artist and theatre set decorator, approximated that of her brother. The similarities of her vases created in the 1950s and 1960s to the fine glass work designed by Stasys Ušinskas were not only the result of their using similar technology, but were also a factor of her brother's strong, lifelong influence over her. Both artists sought to master and improve glassworking techniques. To this day, specialists still sometimes argue over which of the two artists created a given piece of glass.
Ušinskaitė's tall, monumental vases, blown by the Aleksotas glassmiths, did not vary much in shape because she needed to leave as much flat surface as possible for ornamentation, the most important artistic accent of her pieces. She painted her vases using a technique introduced by her brother Stasys, using glazing and enamels with gold and silver highlighting. Though the themes featured in her decoration also had to bow to the demands of the time period, and while Ušinskaitė did create works depicting scenes broadly popular in Soviet art such as collective farm life and the pursuit of international peace (see Fermoje (On the Farm, 1960] and Taika [Peace, 1961]), her works were not illustrative in nature and they adhered to the specific characteristics of decorative art.
From the end of the 1950s, glass art designs were also being created by Stasys Ušinskas' students: his second wife Vitalija Blažytė (1926–1999), and, later, his two daughters from his first marriage, architect Vida Ušinskaitė (1936–1976) and glass designer Jūratė Ušinskaitė (1936–1996?). All of them further developed the glasswork traditions established by Ušinskas himself, creating vases of monumental form and expressive decoration. It was entirely natural that the whole family became caught up in the pursuit of fine glass design, as all of the women were strongly influenced by Ušinskas' authority on the subject.
Read more: Stasys Ušinskas.
A new phase
Attempts in the 1960s to give a new impetus to glassworking did not guarantee the desired quick results of mass production or greater prestige. A degree program in artistic glass was established at the Lithuanian Art Institute in 1961. The program's first graduates (Gražina Didžiūnaitytė, Anita Šlėgel, Algimantas Žilys) remained true to the field of artistic glass and became successful representatives of it, despite difficult working conditions (many of their works had to be produced at glass workshops in other Soviet republics). The degree program in glass art did not survive very long at the Institute, however. Another class began training in 1962, but its students (Algirdas Dovydėnas, Henrikas Kulšys, Rūta Katiliūtė, among others) finished only two semesters of the program, later choosing to pursue stained glass, considered a more promising field, or other branches of art.
From 1961 to 1963, artistic glass students were taught by Jūratė Ušinskaitė, who leaned toward carved glass (which she herself studied at the artistic glass program in Estonia). After Ušinskaitė left to complete a one-year internship in Czechoslovakia in 1964, she was replaced by the Estonian specialist Silvia Raudvee. Raimonda Kogelytė-Simanaitienė, „Lietuvos XX a. II pusės – XXI a. pradžios meninio stiklo raida“,, 2009 01 10.
The founders of the glass program at the Lithuanian Art Institute had the needs of the local glass industry at the forefront of their minds. Construction on the Panevėžys glass factory began in 1961, and production started there in 1965. The production lines of the Red Dawn and Aleksotas glass factories were mechanized over the years between 1962 to 1965. Stained glass began to be cast at the Red Dawn factory in 1969. Until then, glass for the impressive, thick-walled stained glass pieces that were the pride of Lithuanian artists was produced at the Neman glass factory in neighboring Byelorussia.
Because Vilnius lacked the proper technical infrastructure, artistic concepts were produced by factories in other Soviet republics, primarily at the Neman factory in Beryozovka (Lida District), Byelorussia, and at the Lviv Glassworks in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, then, artistic glass works were only designed by a handful of enthusiasts, including Gražina Didžiūnaitytė (1940–2008) and Algimantas Žilys (1936–2009).
Both can be considered representatives of a new style in Lithuanian glass art because they embraced an approach to glasswork that differed from that of Stasys Ušinskas and his devotees. For these younger artists, a work of glass was identified not so much by its decoration (which they considered only a supporting element), but by its plasticity: by the work's form and the flaws and imperfections in a piece's contour or walls that arose during the blowing process.
Early in her artistic journey, Didžiūnaitytė used the free-blowing method to create large-form colored vases, emphasizing their imperfections, the flowing lines of their contours and their blending colors, decorating them with imprinted, fused or carved ornamentation (as in a series of vases based on Lithuanian folk sculpture motifs designed between 1969 and 1971). Didžiūnaitytė experimented with and perfected the technology she used (inventing two new technical methods from 1974 to 1975), and began to design multi-layered glass. She held her first solo glass exhibition in Vilnius in 1969. Writing much later, Didžiūnaitytė recalled her early years as an artist:
Glass enchanted me, bewitching me like a sorcerer. Only someone who himself has come into contact with this medium can truly understand me. Glass allows an artist to improvise and fantasize, but it only reveals its true secrets to the technical virtuoso, to the one who comprehends it at its finest detail. Jolita Petkevičiūtė, „Gražina Didžiūnaitytė“, Dailė, 1984, kn. 25
The creative pursuits of Algimantas Žilys were influenced by his place of employment, namely the Red Dawn glass factory, where he began working as Senior Artist in 1969. There he designed working templates for the production of blown and free-blown glass. Žilys' early experiments were characterized by a variation of style, and his vases and decorative dishes were influenced both by freely formed works made by Czech artists, as well as more conservative, rule-abiding examples of Scandinavian glass works.
In the 1960s and 1970s, stained glass artist Ginta Baginskienė (g. 1940) and Feliksas Daukantas both created laconic glass pieces using a design-based approach to their work. Their creations were rational in their form and without decorative ornamentation.
Although Lithuanian glass did not develop on a large scale, its evolution at the time is associated with the works of several individual artists. Furthermore, the beginnings of certain trends can be discerned in the development of artistic glass that only became more evident in later stages of evolution of the applied arts.


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Sources and links

Raimonda Kogelytė-Simanaitienė
„Lietuvos XX a. II pusės – XXI a. pradžios meninio stiklo raida“, 2009 01 10
Jolita Petkevičiūtė
„Gražina Didžiūnaitytė“
Dailė, 1984, kn. 25, be paginacijos
Kazys Strazdas
Lietuvos stiklas: nuo 1940 metų
Kaunas: Technologija, 1997
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