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Leather Art: Bringing Beauty to Everyday Life
Lijana Natalevičienė
The evolution of the modernization in leather crafting can be divided into an early period, dominated by works created at the Dailė workshops, and a later period, when the artistic standards of the field were shaped by leather artists trained at the Estonian Art Institute. After the war, the Dailė workshops in Vilnius and Kaunas began to revive the field of fine leatherwork, building upon a rather humble pre-war foundation. According to data from 1936, pre-war Kaunas was home to "Šatrija" (at No. 18 Kęstučio Street), the largest leather workshop in Lithuania and run by Vanda Chodakauskienė, as well as nineteen privately owned bookbinding shops. Production for post-war haberdashery shops was influenced by surviving pre-war leather crafting traditions, locally available raw materials, and the demand for leather goods.
Early pieces by the Dailė workshops were made from local chemically processed leather that was rather hard, inelastic, and difficult to shape. Used for purses, albums, and journals, the leather was decorated with designs resembling traditional wooden chest painting and other ethnographic works of art. A similar style of ornamentation was also used in the 1950s to adorn books, graphic art, and textile works. Once the vegetable tanning method was mastered, leather became softer, more elastic and durable, as well as more absorbent of paints and dyes. Informational material published by the Dailė workshops in the 1950s displayed a rather broad assortment of leather goods: travel bags, purses, wallets, cases for eyeglasses and hairbrushes, knife sheaths, cigarette cases, and a large array of items for the office, such as book covers, albums, journals, and folders.
The early leatherwork developmental period was dominated by the names of a group of artists who lacked a formal training in leather crafting, including ceramic artist Valdemaras Manomaitis (1912–2000), designer Feliksas Daukantas, painters Vaclovas Kosciuška (1911–1984) and Balys Macutkevičius (1905–1964), Vaclovas Gutauskas, and, somewhat later, Aldona Marija Baltuškienė, Aldona Pociūtė-Juškevičienė (b. 1926), Kęstutis Žitkus (b. 1928), Sofija Vasilenkaitė-Vainilaitienė (b. 1928), and others.
Valdemaras Manomaitis, who began crafting leather in 1948 (and who went on to head the leather shop of the Dailė factory in Kaunas from 1950 to 1960), had much to learn. In 1953, he worked as an apprentice at various leather workshops in Estonia, known for its old leather crafting traditions, and later invited Estonian artisans to advise their Lithuanian colleagues. With his new experience, Manomaitis then turned to improving local production, introducing relief printing and engraving technologies. His own creations reflected the general trends of the period: decorating albums, journals, and other accessories with stylized graphic or relief figure designs related to a given object's purpose (as in his album entitled Saviveiklininkai [Amateurs], from 1960), and conforming to prevailing modern folklore trends by creating ethnographic designs (as in his Teatrinis [Theatrical] purse, of 1958) using plates, burning, dyes, inlay, or by bringing out his leather's natural texture. Manomaitis' album adorned with stylized figures of children planting small trees, shown at the 1955 Baltic Applied Arts Exhibition, was called an exemplary display of integrity of form and decoration by Soviet art critic Alexander Saltykov.  А. Салтыков, „Прикладное искусство трёх республик“, Искусство, 1955, Nr. 6, p. 16–17. Leather pieces from the Kaunas Dailė workshop, most of them made according to templates designed by Manomaitis, received a gold medal at an international exhibition in Brussels in 1958.
Albums, journals, wallets and souvenirs designed by Feliksas Daukantas at the Vilnius Dailė workshop were an integral part of the artistic trends of their era. Even as he developed an ethnographic style, Daukantas emphasized the constructivist and functional aspects of his works. Thanks to the artists employed by the network of workshops, the production of leather goods was considerably expanded over a relatively short period of time.
Graduates trained in leather crafting by the Estonian Art Institute returned to Lithuania to share their professional skills as they rejoined artistic life there. Eugenijus Kazimieras Jovaiša helped to establish a fine leather program at the Kaunas S. Žukas Applied Arts Technical School. Beginning in 1969, Rūta Gudaitytė-Zaturskienė headed up the Leather Section of the Vilnius Dailė workshop. Adding to the ranks of artists already employed by the Dailė network, leather craftsmen created unique and limited-run pieces (albums, journals, boxes, bound books), favoring laconic shapes and decorative stylization. Works by young leather artists each had their own individual style, but they shared an embrace of abstracted, flat ornamentation. Examples of such work include Gudaitytė-Zaturskienė's comment book (1970), leather inserts by A. Šlapikas (1970), and leather earring boxes by Zita Kreivytė (1973). While fine leatherwork represented only a small portion of production, it nevertheless grew increasingly more diverse and contemporary in style.
The younger generation of leather artists were the first to begin creating decorative panels for interiors. Initially, E. K. Jovaiša made the greatest strides in this field, creating designs for several interiors in Kaunas over a short period of time, including a series of panels entitled Muzikantai (Musicians) for the main hall of the “Baltijos” undergarment factory (1968), a seven-part panel composition for an herbal medicine pharmacy in 1970, and a panel created in 1971 entitled Naktigonė (Night Hunt) for the Lakštingala Café in Palemonas. In 1972, Algimantas Šlapikas created a panel he called Lietuva (Lithuania) for the headquarters of Lithuanian Radio and Television.


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Sources and links

А. Салтыков
„Прикладное искусство трёх республик“
Искусство, 1955, Nr. 6, p. 16–17
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