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Interpreting folk art
Students of the pre-war Kaunas School of Art and artists who had begun their careers in an independent Lithuania, including Vytautas Jurkūnas, Algimantas Kučas, Jonas Kuzminskis, and Domicelė Tarabildienė, continued their work in graphic design under the Soviet regime. After the war, they pursued the development of trends begun in the 1930s: neoclassicism, critical realism, and expressionism rooted in folklore traditions. As ideological oversight over art increased at the end of the 1940s and at the start of the 1950s, they began creating more realistic, meticulous dry drawing engravings, but here also the illustrations by Jurkūnas for a publication of Donelaitis’ major work Metai (The Seasons) in 1956, for example, differed little from a pre-war edition by Vytautas Kazimieras Jonynas (published in 1940).
An exhibition of Baltic graphic artwork and an accompanying conference on art theory organized in Vilnius in 1956 as part of the Soviet Union-wide preparations for the First USSR Artists’ Congress revealed that the uniqueness of the Lithuanian national graphic art style was defined by the use of crude and rudimentary form. The end of the 1950s saw a return of various interpretations of folk art. The folklorist graphic art movement was noted for the use of roughly cut wood or linoleum carvings featuring ornamentation found in traditional rural works of art and artisan engravings approximating a primitivist sketching style.
Creating book illustrations based on imagery motifs, ornamentation and passages from texts, graphic artists referenced the artistic principles of book illustration that took hold in Lithuania in the 1930s, whose origins, passed on through folk art carvings, reach back to the roots of xylography in 15th century Germany. Works by Žemaitė, Petras Cvirka and Vincas Krėvė accompanied by Soviet-era illustrations fostered a critical and rather disdainful view of that cradle of folk art, the traditional village, along with its way of life and customs. Fine examples of this include Brička by Jonas Krikščiukaitis-Aišbė, with illustrations created between 1938 and 1943 by Algimantas Kučas, and Kazys Boruta’s Baltaragio malūnas (Whitehorn’s Windmill), illustrated by Jonas Kuzminskis. Illustrations by Kučas and Jurkūnas featured scenes from the routine of everyday life, peopled by clumsy, doltish characters, expressive figure drawings reminiscent of caricature, crude proportions, and the depiction of domestic anachronisms that portrayed village life as dense and backward.
Prints of that era differed from book illustrations only in that they were based not on the work of a specific author, but on folklore, and instead of addressing the gritty prose of village life they conveyed the pathos of struggle or lyrical longing found in songs. Jonas Kuzminskis, chairman of the Soviet Lithuanian Artists’ Union from 1958 to 1982 and head of the Graphic Art Department of the Soviet Lithuanian State Art Institute (1948–1968), engraved 14 xylographs based on Lithuanian folk songs between 1960 and 1978, reworking some of them to embrace revolutionary themes. Kuzminskis, Jurkūnas and Domicelė Tarabildienė applied a socialist realist approach to the enduring, symmetrical composition style of symbolic figures found in sacred paintings crafted by village artisans and other “national” forms of expression to portray issues relevant to Soviet society of that era, crafting naive allegorical narratives, usually on the theme of world peace.
A new generation of graphic artists coming of age at the end of 1950s (many of them students of Kuzminskis, Kučas and Jurkūnas), including Albina Makūnaitė, Algirdas Steponavičius, Vytautas Valius, Aspazija Surgailienė, Birutė Žilytė, Sigutė Valiuvienė and Aldona Skirutytė, created a multitude of prints employing motifs from folk songs, stories and literary works. Often, they inserted lines of text into their imagery. Desiring to keep pace with colorism’s influence on painting, they applied gouache to give bright coloring to their wood and linoleum cliché plates. Modernist, expressive and decorative interpretations of folk art that revealed one specific element of a given folk engraving, carving, weaving or wooden chest ornamentation formed the foundation for their own individual style of expression. A characteristic common to graphic artwork of the folklorist movement was the use of ornamental fields comprised of parallel stroke marks and the use of dash strokes seen in the silhouetted figures of folk carvings, used to considerable fluid and plastic effect.
One of the most popular subjects for graphic art in the 1960s was the story of Eglė, Queen of the Serpents, known to Lithuanians from a poem by Salomėja Neris, children’s stories and from versions of ancient fables with associations to Greek mythology. The great characters of the tale loom like monuments in the stained glass-like engravings of Albina Makūnaitė. In one of many prints on this theme by Birutė Žilytė, Eglė is portrayed as an old woman with the bleeding heart of the Mother of God, while above her the broken body of the serpent man serves as a bleak vision of an unavoidable fate. These two female artists were drawn to the difficult lot in life of women as portrayed in stories, songs and poetry, and they crafted their somber prints and engravings to reflect that grief and pain.

Folk songs inspired many artists, but only a few sought to portray their vivid metaphors in graphic art. Folklore’s dramatic narratives and their connection to history were the subject of a few works by Arūnas Tarabilda and Valerijonas Galdikas, who laid out a thorough portrayal of the content of one song over a series of several prints. Others were more interested in decorative form. The naive, simplified engravings on folklore themes by Aspazija Surgailienė and Sigutė Valiuvienė are reminiscent of children’s coloring books. Soviet interpretations of folklore had singing and dancing Lithuanians dressed in national costume or pipe-playing shepherd boys replacing the saints and religious symbols traditionally found in folk carvings. Folklore images were also openly used in the service of ideological propaganda. Ancient symbols of past social orders once found on rural crosses, fabrics, traditional spinning wheels and washing paddles were rendered as meaningless ornamentation in Soviet graphic artwork.

In most graphic artwork produced in the 1960s, traditional Lithuanian culture is presented as a lifeless souvenir—entirely rustic, primitive and childish. It was no coincidence, then, that the illustration of children’s books began to thrive. More discerning artists attempted to revive and contemporize the folklore tradition, devoting greater attention to the content of this heritage and exploring the significance of its revival or, conversely, by sifting through and purifying folklore forms through the use of various different graphic art techniques.

Using eau forte etching and zincography techniques to illustrate short collections of folk stories or folklore-like works by other authors, Algirdas Steponavičius discovered visual equivalents for vividly descriptive proverbs. Human figures of different sizes with large heads and short legs resembling wooden figurines, plants, animals, heavenly bodies and strange creatures all intertwined into one great undulating throng. In the 1960s, Steponavičius created modern prints on industrial themes, but he was more successful with his use of Aesopian language and his monsters covered in short brushstrokes, such as a fish with rapacious teeth, machinery ticking away in its belly.

Algimantas Švažas’ cardboard print series Tadas Blinda (1967)  incorporated stanzas of song lyrics, and resembled old, yellowing documents, while his series of 50 prints entitled Lietuva (Lithuania), created between 1966 and 1968, appears like a tourist guide presenting the customs, legends and historical landmarks of different  Lithuanian regions (such as Vilnius Cathedral, Palangos Juzė , the Stelmužė Oak , beer from Biržai, the devil at Puntukas Rock ), portraying the country in a rather inhospitable and unpleasant light.

Having chosen the popular narrative from Eglė, Queen of the Serpents for his thesis project, Petras Repšys created an engraving that portrayed a retelling of the famous story he had heard from his own relatives. Like remnants found in a newly uncovered grave, the prints of his disjointed composition feature strewn pieces of jewelry, skeletons and traces of fabric. Archeological motifs transform the story into a true historical event, and its interpretation becomes an investigation linked to the author’s own imagination and personal background. In Repšys’ prints dedicated to Sigitas Geda’s poem Strazdas (1967), the artist’s concepts intertwine with details of village life and religious symbols found in folk art to create rather grisly and uncomfortable imagery. Repšys’ documentary, personal and moving approach to the nation’s cultural heritage was a direct response to the childish and alienated view of ethnography being propagated by the Soviet government.

In the early 1960s, Rimtautas Gibavičius experimented with redesigns of folk art patterns or artwork made of straw. The naive stylization in his graphic art pieces took on elements of geometric abstraction.
Modernism and European traditions
Other trends in graphic art in the 1960s, while not directly associated with folklore, were also rooted in elements of the Lithuanian national cultural heritage. The spread of modernism was inextricably linked to European cultural traditions, just as the portrayal of the present day was rooted in historical methods of expression. The village had less and less sway over artists as they were increasingly drawn to the cities—Vilnius, first and foremost. Rough woodcut and linocut prints were gradually replaced with techniques that required more precise patterns, such as etching, lithographs and, later, silkscreen printing.
The most modern and Western graphic artwork being created in the 1960s was designed by Gibavičius and Vincas Kisarauskas, as well as Vytautas Kalinauskas and Saulė Kisarauskienė.
The fish swimming through the uniformly placed zig-zag lines covering Gibavičius’ linocut work Vandenynų gyventojai (Inhabitants of the Seas, 1964) emerge as if from a work of optical art. The use of a square-format printing plate, a simple and sparse use of expression, and many different variations of the same subject theme (or perhaps even the mechanical repetition of that theme) also feature prominently in Gibavičius’ series of cardboard engravings called Pajacai (Clowns, 1965), depicting a lively jumping-jack against a background of a chessboard. A series of zinocraphic prints inspired by the poetry of Janina Degutytė and Jurgis Baltrušaitis illustrate Gibavičius’ passion for geometry and formal logic, modernism and historicism, as well as his effort to find harmony between innovative forms and references to the national cultural heritage. 126 prints in the series Vaikystės prisiminimai (Childhood Memories, 1977-1982) are comprised of 9, 16, 25, 36, 64 or 100 small squares, each containing the same images from a village farmstead, appearing as if viewed through an open window or a door left ajar. The past and memory become references, and traditional village culture becomes a personal experience examined over a distance of time and space.
The graphic artwork of Vincas Kisarauskas and the collections of his works published in book form are similar both in style and subject matter to the artist’s paintings. Jagged, angled figures, collapsed faces, tight geometric spaces, and a threatening contrast between black and white in his early cardboard and linocut engravings powerfully convey the tragedy, captivity, oppression, fear and loss experienced by the nation and its people. Here we encounter Kisarauskas’ favorite heroes, including knights, Oedipus, and the Prodigal Son, and we see the emergence of such motifs as intimate dialogues and conversations around a table, twins, signs of the Zodiac, or the Vilnius Old Town. Kisarauskas usually produced his prints using several plates and various different object surfaces to create collages and monotypes. From 1980 onward, his work evidences more use of linocuts with slanted figures outlined in thin, white geometric lines, imprisoned in boxes and shoved to the margins of a black background.
The turn away from rough expression toward more austere constructivism is also evident in art books created by Kisarauskas. At first glance, the books appear like intimate visual diaries or memoirs. Later, Kisarauskas carved letters and figures to give form and shape to pieces of texts: his wife’s poetry, Donelaitis’ The Seasons, Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis, or letters written by the Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.
Graphic art in the 1960s also saw examples of the realistic depiction of reality  and the embrace of realism and academism. Though graphic artists received numerous commissions to create portraits of writers, both living and long dead, this genre was also one of the most important means to access and portray a reality and contemporary life that was unobscured and undistorted by words. Not everyone succeeded in properly rendering the human face or body. Artists of Jewish background, or those who had studied art in Russia, had more success in this field.

Janina Lili Paškauskaitė’s flat, drypoint carvings with their thin black lines, slightly reminiscent of pop art, differed significantly from the works of other Lithuanian graphic artists. For her graduate thesis at the Art Institute, Paškauskaitė created a series of portraits in 1950 of famous women of Soviet Lithuania, and later released another series entitled Kultūros ir meno darbuotojai (Artists and Cultural Figures, 1953–1957). She also created several works portraying scenes from everyday and urban life in the 1960s, but her main creative focus was dedicated to her portraits of artists and academicians. Some of these reveal only the intellectual, concerned faces of her subjects, while others allowed for a more expressive environment. Silhouettes of her subjects in etchings with mezzotint, printed using two plates, appear to shine against a black background. In addition to their works featuring figure compositions on themes such as sports and human struggle, portraits were also created by Samuelis Rozinas and Galina Rozinienė (who emigrated to Israel in 1973), and Adasa Skliutauskaitė, Eduardas Jurėnas, and Romualdas Čarna.

Though he was an excellent crafter of portraits and caricatures, Stasys Krasauskas nevertheless placed greater value on poetry illustrations, heroic and allegorical imagery, simplified human images, and fluid drawings featuring agile, proportional bodies. The 1930s neoclassical style borrowed from Soviet Russian art was revived by Krasauskas’ very deliberate interest in the world’s cultural history, inspired by various texts. Leonas Lagauskas, meanwhile, having honed his academic sketching skills and soft lacquer technique in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), was fascinated by Renaissance and Baroque art, inspiring him to create images of perfect human bodies, youth, and young people in love, alongside portraits and compositions portraying industry, harbors, and labor. A form of expression based on classical European art traditions allowed Lagauskas to create images of village life that differed from the folklore graphic art style, as well as impressive panoramic images of old Vilnius.

The city of Vilnius as the subject of artwork, popularized by inter-war Lithuanian artists, was also acceptable to the Soviet regime, as the ancient capital had been returned to Lithuanian jurisdiction by the Soviet Red Army. Rimtautas Gibavičius was awarded the Lithuanian SSR State Prize in 1968 for his Vilnius print series (created between 1964 and 1967). Many graphic artists depicted landscapes featuring the Lithuanian capital, including in the folklore style by Jonas Kuzminskis, modern works by Vytautas Kalinauskas, and stylishly decorative pieces by Birutė Žilytė. Vytautas Valius and Aldona Skirutytė were intrigued by Vilnius’ European Baroque style, Rozinas and Paškauskaitė by the empty street’s of the Old Town, while Tarabilda, Makūnaitė and Repšys found inspiration in the city’s numerous legends.

Lagauskas’ Senojo Vilniaus panoramos (Panoramas of Old Vilnius, 1971–1979), a series of 15 etchings, are meticulously realistic depictions of the Old Town as seen from above, spacious and lit in the bright light of day, with barely perceptible figures of contemporary residents, baby carriages, and automobiles. The final print in the series shows the artist’s studio and printing press, seen through a cutaway section of a nearby house. Two half-naked models pose for the artist, while a third is seen flying aloft like a muse, holding a lyre, while small, naked, trumpet-bearing angels hover in the heavens above. Lugauskas conveyed the connection between the city’s history and present day with the help of cheerful, romantic allegory: a nude woman brimming with youth encounters a dandy poet against the background of the Old Town while a wedding is celebrated.

Images of Vilnius, particularly its Old Town, were not only a serious alternative to village folklore, they also exposed the historical break between Soviet Lithuania’s present and the receding, vanishing past. Approaching folklore from an archeological perspective, Repšys attempted to revive the past by deftly combining old and modern forms of expression. He portrayed the poet Sigitas Geda assuming a rather prosaic pose in the Old Town, standing barefoot on a scale. In other works, Repšys depicted traditional Lithuanian customs, historical battles, and motifs from the tales of Jonas Biliūnas using rather gruesome and unpleasant, but carefully rendered etchings or lithographs, intertwining Baroque traits with surrealism or references to antique prints and maps, or even with images from his own imagination or family life. Repšys’ graphic art conveys Lithuania’s past and traditional national culture as an integral part of European history and culture, captivating his audience with eerie visual mysteries.

Other artists created series of prints in the 1970s on the subject of Lithuanian history. An important impetus for these works was an exhibition in 1979 celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Vilnius University. Other popular subjects were the Battle of Žalgiris (Grunwald)  of 1410 and the 1863 popular uprising against Tsarist Russian rule. Artists were actively seeking a visual code—a key to the past—hoping to perhaps find it in the scenic space of a battlefield or in the compositional principles of ancient prints.
Young artists of the 1970s
Younger artists in the 1970s employed contemporary methods to portray the present intertwined with world culture, its history and their own imagination. From the perspective of form and technique, the revival of graphic art benefitted considerably from the work of an informal trio of artists: Eduardas Juchnevičius, Mikalojus Vilutis, and Vytautas Jurkūnas, Jr.
Having completed a series of prints in 1968, toward the end of his studies, on ancient Baltic Prussia, Juchnevičius later placed the legendary Iron Wolf (the founding symbol of Vilnius) by his own feet in one image, or lined up rows of knights alongside biblical and mythological heroes, or Zeus alongside the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas the Great. Like Krasauskas and Kisarauskas before him, Juchnevičius used the negative image characteristic of relief printing to his advantage. Patterns of white lines on black backgrounds on large format linocut prints were both constructive and grotesque, and bodies covered in innovatively styled armor today bear a resemblance to Greek vases or the aesthetic of cyberspace science fiction.
After graduating from the Art Institute in 1970, Vilutis continued his studies in Kiev, learning silkscreen printing and popularizing it at home in Lithuania. This decorative, pop art-related technique, saturated prints with bold colors and brilliant finished surfaces, and its expressive designs were reminiscent of caricature, allowing artists to modernize even the most ancient and historic images. Vilutis’ silkscreen works, emerging from quickly drawn designs, usually featured a single head, as in his rendering of the profile of face with a parachute above it, or the figure of a horrifying women with her arms aloft, or an aggressive giant gazing skyward. His creatures soon grew larger than the Earth itself, but their patterns became smaller and purely decorative elements began to appear. In the 1990s, Vilutis began creating collage imagery. Weightless, wounded figures appearing from the universe of various media and the artist’s own imagination met in a place bathed in the glow of sunset, though the imagined, gravity-free space was merely the surface of a sheet of paper with various found items arranged upon it.
Vytautas Jurkūnas experimented with nearly all known techniques: etching, woodcuts, black and white and colored linocuts, silkscreen printing. His prints abound with a joy for life. We find no traces of the past there, only the present, and we see the people whom the artist encounters around him, his imagination, humor, amusing stories, nude women, and a mood lifted from the works of Salinger and Kerouac. From the perspective of form, Jurkūnas’ graphic work is noted for its fluid and purposefully childish, stylized patterns, where human figures are often seen tousled about with the wind, while other works employ montage compositions and calligraphic text inscribed alongside his imagery.
Lithuania’s female graphic artists mainly worked with etching and lithography. Prints and poetry illustrations by Gražina Didelytė and Elvyra Katalina Kriaučiūnaitė were small in format, but their compositions were complex, often assembling images using contrasting fragments into puzzle-like creations. Freely undulating lines, white spaces surrounding human figures and plants, and depictions of weightlessness create a sublimely uplifting and nostalgic mood.
Jūratė Stauskaitė’s early etchings portrayed village life, but she soon turned her focus toward European culture and her experiences as a woman. In one image a woman sheds a Rococo dress to sit, naked, on a field with a dog nearby. Sparse and fragile black lines, almost disappearing into the whiteness of the surrounding page, eventually transform into calligraphically meticulous, sharp, and energetic forms. Fascinated with bodies and movement, Stauskaitė soon discovered dance, the central theme explored in her creative work. Sketch strokes transform into dance movements to inspire the souls of her audiences.
Gerardas Šlektavičius, who completed his schooling in graphic art in 1976, created a series of 6-color prints entitled Studijų metai (My Study Years) for his thesis project. The prints portrayed everyday student life at the Art Institute combining the silkscreen technique then in fashion with a classical, old-school image structure into a harmonious, multidimensional figure composition. Some of these were depictions of interior spaces from which the architecture of the Vilnius Old Town can be seen through unusually large windows. He later went on to create color linocuts on themes such as youth and old cities.
Elvyra Kariūkštytė stood out among other students graduating from the Art Institute in 1970s because of her innovative approach to the linocut technique, in honing colored, multi-plate prints and further developing this method’s capacity for expression. Her work became the missing link that bridged the folk art interpretations of the 1960s and the neo-expressionism of the 1980s and 1990s which was also associated with primitive forms of expression.
Initially, Kairiūkštytė depicted imagery from her immediate surroundings, portraying the people around her and student life, and also crafted portraits of her closest friends. Her work soon began to include references to ancient world cultures, allusions to feminist criticism and a multitude of different portrayals of women—from sensual nudes to unidentified saints or theatrical Greek goddesses. Kairiūkštytė’s multi-colored prints are multifaceted works that, because of the interplay between their unique surfaces and visible depth, take on an optically animated quality. Her bold and unrestrained mastery of the art, together with her modern expression, irony and parody of folk primitivism is a well-aimed blow at the stagnant school of so-called national graphic art, and simultaneously the harbinger of its rebirth.
Responding to the need to reexamine both tradition and the national heritage, and staying true to their own desire to keep in step with the wave of European neo-expressionism, graphic artists in the 1980s and 1990s once again took interest in folk art and unrefined “folksy” embossed print engraving.
Viktorija Daniliauskaitė’s small, sparingly rendered gray-toned prints resemble sharply enlarged fragments of traditional engravings. An important element in her work are parallel strands of strokes that are liberated and detached from their surrounding contours. Natural motifs or fanciful images of Baltic and pagan earth-women, bird-women and plant-women appear here as if born from the margins of folk art. The colored, wooden engravings by Roberta Vaigelaitė-Vasiliūnienė are intentionally disordered compositions of multiple lines and color layers. Religious and ethnographic motifs, images of archeological findings and traditional symbols are assembled like the ornamentation of a woven carpet. Laisvydė Šalčiūtė created expressive engravings of figures of naked women, consumed with passion, against backgrounds of decorative carpets. The expressionist prints created by Eglė Vertelkaitė between 1998 and 2001 are dedicated to portrayals of the femme fatale. Finally, Kęstutis Vasiliūnas used his “folk” wood engravings to emphasize the religious content of folk art.
Kęstutis Grigaliūnas, perhaps the artist with the best grasp of neo-expressionist ideas, fought against empty ornamentation and in favor conceptualism and meaning. In his series of twenty colorful linocuts entitled Jurgeliškės (1988–1989), Grigaliūnas uses childishly primitive yet simultaneously attractive pop art forms to tell the story of a vanished village in the days of post-war Lithuania: depicting Soviet tanks, exile, shots fired in the forests, funerals, the horrors of the night, and town squares covered in the dead bodies of partisan freedom fighters.


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Sources and links

Degantis gyvenimo artumas: Elvyra Kairiūkštytė 1950–2006
Sudarytojos Ksenija Jaroševaitė, Kristina Kleponytė, Regina Norvaišienė, Ramutė Rachlevičiūtė, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2010
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Petras Repšys
Sudarytojai Laima Kanopkienė, Eugenijus Karpavičius, tekstų autoriai Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, Alfredas Bumblauskas [ir kt.], Vilnius: Kultūros barai, 2006
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