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The Jonas Švažas generation
At its conference in 1956, the LSSR Artists’ Union condemned Stalinism’s socialist realism, while in 1957 the First USSR Congress of Artists adopted a new program for the development of art. A qualitatively new era of art management and creative socialist realism, or socialist modernism, had begun. Artists were officially required to produce more original “interpretations of reality”, featuring laconic, abstracted imagery, emotional power, creative passion and a diversity of form. The state remained the principal sponsor of art. The leadership of the Artists’ Union continued to control not only the dissemination of art, but also the entire creative process, selecting sketches for future works and concluding acquisition contracts with artists.
In the latter half of the 1950s, a new generation of painters emerged who had completed their studies under the Soviet regime. Jonas Švažas, Jonas Čeponis, Silvestras Džiaukštas, Sofija Veiverytė, Vincentas Gečas, Vladas Karatajus, Augustinas Savickas, Aloyzas Stasiulevičius, Galina Petrova and Leopoldas Surgailis had studied socialist realism at the Vilnius Art Institute but, once the “thaw” had begun, they were tasked with overcoming this trend, since socialist reality now required new forms of expression.
Švažas, who led the AU’s Painting Section from 1959 to 1969, and the artists associated with him (bold “artistic individuals”) would today be called rebellious heroes and their movement to renew painting — adaptation through rebellion. In changing the norms of official painting and expanding the influence of the Artists’ Union, they implemented the cultural policy outlined by the Soviet government. 
Read more: Jonas Švažas
A renaissance in painting meant a new search for individual expression and the revival of the inter-war Lithuanian colourist painting tradition that had much in common with Western modernism, as well as the development of the infrastructure for the dissemination of art. In 1957, the directors of the Artists’ Union rehabilitated “bourgeois” art, organising exhibitions of works by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Petras Kalpokas, Justinas Vienožinskis, Vladas Eidukevičius and Antanas Gudaitis. Lithuanian artists had the chance to see abstractionist works at the Sixth World Youth and Student Festival in Moscow in 1957. Modernizmo metmenys (A Framework for Modernism), by Lionginas Šepetys, was published in 1967. That same year, the Art Exhibition Hall was opened in Vilnius, featuring four expansive exhibition spaces. However, only works with the most vibrant of colours and formidable forms could compete with the structure’s crude plaster walls and multi-coloured stone floors that resembled the speckled palette of a Lithuanian sausage. The first Baltic painting triennial was held here in 1969.
Artists wishing to make a career of their craft were still required to paint so-called “thematic” paintings, even after 1956. These were works encompassing multiple figures engaged in “socialist” narratives (war, “revolutionary” struggles, labour, recreation, sport). If we compare Augustinas Savickas’ triptych Revoliucinis Vilnius, 1918–1919 (Revolutionary Vilnius, 1918-1919, completed in 1958) with his later paintings Pirčiupių motina (The Mother of Pirčiupiai, 1959) and Kraujas ir pelenai. Fašistų sudegintame kaime (Blood and Ashes. A Village Burned Down by Fascists, 1965), it is evident that painters learned how to manage this challenge rather simply, without violating the requirements imposed by the government.
“Thematic” canvases of the 1960s were mostly colourful compositions featuring the silhouettes of frozen figures without any of the clear pathos of a plot or narrative. Painters, basing their work on neoclassical art or the expressive primitivism of the “Ars” group, discovered and repeated individual imagery composition schemes onto which they could impose any required content. Only the names and sparse details of the paintings differed, but the works of each artist were easily recognizable.
Veiverytė, perhaps the only artist to avoid more vivid colours, liked to incorporate in her paintings groups of almost identical massive figures, outlined in black contours or featuring somewhat oblique faces. Džiaukštas painted large fallen figures against interiors or landscapes comprised of broad, colourful expanses. Paintings created by Leonardas Tuleikis were akin to reliefs made of a mass of paint, reminiscent of wood carvings due to their angled lines. Both narrative and space disappeared from the paintings, making them flat and decorative, while figures were stylised based on folk art templates, becoming anonymous and lifeless.
The requirement to present “laconic and abstracted” depictions based on one’s personal abilities made it easier for artists to receive and fulfill government commissions, so they now had time to devote to personal painting pursuits. Beginning in the 1960s, artists’ studios began to fill with unofficial works that were not meant for government consumption. Some of these works, such as Džiaukštas’ dramatic paintings on the hardships of war, were only presented to the public at large after 1990.
Appreciating the dangers of duplicated efforts, the leaders of the Artists’ Union attempted to expand the field of official art by including the landscape genre, an integral part of Lithuanian painting tradition, within the scope of “thematic” painting. This permitted more freedom to experiment with form and shape. Commission contracts continued to confer less value on landscapes, but they now were incorporated into all “commemorative” exhibitions. Švažas, a master at presenting simplified depictions of factories, construction projects, bridges and other industrial and technical objects, including harbor landscapes, was particularly fond of the leafless tree motif. Colours in his almost abstract landscapes seem to shine through a web of black lines, reminiscent of stained glass. Jonas Čeponis painted scenes of the Vilnius Old Town and natural landscapes with exceptionally vibrant colours. Stasys Jusionis depicted the wooden architecture of Samogitia — its castle hills and outer woods — on canvases covered with a particularly rough, raised layer of paint.
After 1968, the government began promoting a new “thematic” direction — portraiture — for the early 1970s, in an attempt to subdue colourism and repetition of designs. The interpretation of creative works by art critics continued to be based almost exclusively on analysis of the visible structure of paintings and the concept of progress through modernisation of form.
Toward abstraction
Artists creating these “thematic” paintings took inspiration from several large, often faceless compositions painted around 1930 by Antanas Gudaitis, a member of the “Ars” group, although the master artist mostly painted landscapes in the post-war years, later turning to portraits. Lecturing in painting at the Art Institute from 1945 to 1985, Gudaitis was a living embodiment of tradition and an authority to younger artists. Beginning in the 1960s, Gudaitis demonstrated at least two alternatives to modernised, “Lithuanianised” socialist realist kitsch and the disconnect between form and content: the use of visual metaphor (a form of Aesopian speech), and nearly abstract painting. Communist Party colleagues criticised his triptych commemorating Lithuanian composer Čiurlionis (1962) that featured barely visible silhouettes contained in an obscure space that was nearly abstract, like some of his landscapes. These works were dismissed as “formalistic”, not only because it was difficult to identify real objects within them, but also because of their rushed, sketch-like painting style that sometimes revealed blank canvas between gaps in the porous layer of paint.
Nearly abstract landscapes and still lifes were created by painters from the older generation of artists who maintained some distance from public artistic life, including Algirdas Petrulis and Leonas Katinas. As with pieces created by Švažas and Čeponis, their work was characterised by ornamental decoration. The first purely decorative abstract work was painted in 1958 at the Cultural Hall in Palanga by the monumentalist Vytautas Povilaitis. In the 1960s, the writer Romualdas Lankauskas began painting compositions of various colour patches that contained no apparent subject, while various shape constructions were created by the sculptors Teodoras Kazimieras Valaitis and Šarūnas Šimulynas.
The principal trends of abstractionism, formlessly expressive and geometric, emerged in unofficial paintings toward the end of the 1960s. Povilas Ričardas Vaitiekūnas made a significant contribution to the development of the former in Lithuania. His nearly abstract and monochromatic landscapes, composed of but a few occasional and fluid suggestions, compelled viewers to contemplate the meaning of even the smallest of expressive elements. Grayish green meadows under gray skies, the occasional small figure usually cut from the mass of paint with the opposite end of a brush, and the blinding whiteness or deep darkness evoked restlessness and longing.
Kazimiera Zimblytė, trained in textiles, created minimalistic geometric abstractions with collage elements starting in the late 1960s. Architects Leonas Linas Katinas and Eugenijus Antanas Cukermanas, the most consistent developers of abstract painting, experimented with both trends. Katinas’ experiments were associated with fabric, flags, simplistic maps and technical drawings. Combinations of geometric expanses in his paintings were augmented by abrupt gestures, dripping paint and cuts in the canvas. The artist also devoted considerable attention to the creative process, often painting at night. Cukermanas, who started from geometric compositions, occasionally incorporating pattern elements, later used many slow, thick brush strokes to paint multi-layered works reminiscent of cracked walls.
Meaningful form
In Gudaitis’ series Trys Petronėlės (The Three Petronėlė’s, 1964-1965), an odd trio of women hold their pose in different settings. A primitive, vividly painted cement sculpture from a cemetery in Samogitia that had stuck in the artist’s mind appears to come to life in his paintings, becoming an energetic and active character in the works. In recreating the statue, Gudaitis attempted to give significance to the form and justify its existence. The meaningful form not only gives passive pleasure to the eye, it also seems to take on a life of its own, always performing for the viewer — influencing him and becoming comprehensible in its own way.
Folk statues, a still life motif favoured by members of the “Ars” group and their followers, also found new life in paintings by Leopoldas Surgailis. Due to the caricature-like expressive distortions, bold lines and resolute brush strokes he employed, the statues become animated and threatening, capable of engaging in work, picking a fight or engaging in frenzied amusement. The statues participate in a drama set in an undefined, abstract space, akin to a page of text.
In that same undefined space, Stasiulevičius used thick lines of brick, plaster or pavement colouring to draw individual Vilnius buildings or their fragments and diagrams of city rooftops and streets that resembled maps. He was among the first to incorporate collages, pasting cardboard, roughly wrinkled pieces of fabric and newspaper cuttings into a strong relief painting composition in an attempt to present a city of new settlers as eternal and unchanging.
Vincas Kisarauskas was perhaps the most successful at conveying significance to the alienated, modernist form. Objectified figures in his early works come to life when they are murdered, broken or chopped up. His flat expanses and visible three-dimensional painting motifs are important: boxes, constructed from fields of color, confine faces and body parts into an apt symbol for captivity. Kisarauskas also uses eroticism as another means to breathe life into mute shapes. In his Brutal series of the 1960s and 1970s, he explores the themes of lust and coercion through a sharp confrontation between the female body and angular, stereometric shapes. The series Figūros figūrose (Figures Within Figures) interchanges motifs of an autopsied female body and boxes, expressing not only creative suffering or masculine fears, but also the evils of the political system.
In the mid-1960s, Valentinas Antanavičius, who primarily displayed portraits at official Soviet-era exhibits, began painting frightening creations and giant hybrid creatures that possessed a mixture of human, animal and mechanical features. His paintings are full of mythical and erotic references, some of which also serve as obvious political metaphors. Like Kisarauskas, Antanavičius began creating assemblages in the 1960s, crafting strange, threatening and wittily obscene figures from objets trouvés. In the 1970s, he found inspiration in cutting, breaking and taking apart dolls in order to combine their parts into surrealistically unpleasant and brutal compositions.
Assemblages, an art form that involved creating a purposely awkward arrangement of found objects or their parts on a flat surface, were crafted by Vytautas Kalinauskas, Linas Katinas, Igoris Piekuras, Algimantas Kuras and Mindaugas Skudutis in works that began appearing in art exhibitions in the 1980s. The assemblage technique expands a painting into the viewer’s own space, destroying the line between art and reality, meaning and existence. Among these works, experiments with form by Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė in the 1960s are particularly noteworthy. Her geometrically shaped boxes — constructed from wood, cardboard, metal, plastic, tin and mirrors — are empty except for the space inside them and are covered in hard, transparent or dark screens. The pieces are reminiscent of a theatre stage and appear to have been impacted by a strong application of force.
Assemblages, abstraction and the Aesopian language of meaningful forms — the manifestations of what has been called “quiet modernism” by Elona Lubytė, Elona Lubytė, Tylusis modernizmas Lietuvoje: 1962–1982, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 1997. or “semi-nonconformism” by Alfonsas Andriuškevičius  Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, Lietuvių dailė: 1975–1995, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademija,1997.— arose under certain specific conditions. By borrowing foreign art albums from one another or reading the cultural press of the “Socialist bloc”, artists were able to familiarise themselves with the trends of modernism: surrealism, postcubist configurations and New York abstractionism. They were also influenced by European art, particularly the works of Tadeusz Kantor and Władysław Hasior.
As members of the Artists’ Union, Kisarauskas, Antanavičius and other artists no longer felt a need to survive solely from their art or to sell “thematic” paintings to the state. They preferred to earn their living from teaching: at the Art Division of the Čiurlionis School of Art, established in 1960, or the Justinas Vienožinskis Children’s Art School, while they exhibited their work in locations that were less accessible to the general public, including the Writers’ Union Club, the Artists’ Union office (now home to the German Embassy), the Artists’ Palace (now the Lithuanian Presidential Palace), the Art Salon on Cvirkos (now Pamėnkalnio) Street, the Republican (now Martynas Mažvydas) Library, the Conservatory, the “Vaga” publishing house, the Institute for Urban Planning, or the Panevėžys Drama Theatre. Before 1968, these institutions were able to host exhibitions without any real intrusion by the leadership of the Artists’ Union or the Ministry of Culture. The 1960s also saw the appearance of the first collectors of contemporary art, including Vladas Žukas, Laimonas Noreika and Zigmantas Liandzbergis. Friends and acquaintances purchased paintings from artists for a few tens of roubles as gifts, usually for their doctors. Later, works of art were sold to anyone wishing to purchase them at stores operated by the Artists’ Union.
The Soviet government in Lithuania sought to legitimize the activities of less than obedient artists by continuously expanding the limits of officially sanctioned culture in an attempt to prevent the rise of underground art movements. Artists’ Union officials were among those who attended “secret” exhibits at the home of Judita and Vytautas Šerys (in Vilnius, at 2 Užupio Street), and organized the inclusion of works by lesser known painters in Soviet art exhibitions in Paris (1965), London (1967) and Tokyo (in 1969, 1970, and 1972). The works of the “quiet modernists” could not develop into a serious challenge to the system because of the limited size of their audience and a lack of theoretical interpretation.
Photographic character
The 1960s also saw the emergence, under Vincentas Gečas, of the documentary, photographic movement, which stood in opposition to decorative, colourist painting. The motifs, composition and colours of Gečas’ early, humble paintings resemble amateur photographs. After spending a few months in Italy in 1963, where he became acquainted with classical art and the newest trends in pop art and photorealism, Gečas later painted images from Italian cities, most likely basing them on photographs published in the press. Through his efforts, montage compositions — the presentation of different images based on shared associative or logical ties — and references to black and white photographic images were legitimized as officially sanctioned painting, employed by Gečas in propagandistic works dedicated to the “revolutionary” past or criticism of the capitalist world.
Read more: Vincentas Gečas
Documentary painting based on photographs, not on the study of natural or modern art forms, especially flourished in the 1970s. Creating montages to combine precisely recreated paintings of press photos and scientific and technical images, Igoris Piekuras explored topical and global themes such as ecology, space exploration and medicine. Montage compositions by Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė were created with precise documentary detail, replete with folds of fabric, fields of symbolically significant colors, and black and white screen-printed inserts where bodies and machines met. Rožanskaitė investigated the industrial health care machine and attempted to convey the anxiety of man held in the grips of that system.
The principles of fragments and montages and reality in the form of a photographic reference clearly reveal the structure of a painting and thereby compel one to ponder the meaning and limits of the image.
Kostas Dereškevičius masterfully combined ornamentation with documentary art, expressionism with pop art and photorealism. Like Algimantas Švėgžda, Algimantas Kuras and Arvydas Šaltenis, he belonged to a quartet of famous young painters of the 1970s which, according to Andriuškevičius, achieved the most to consolidate efforts to “deromanticise” painting.
In a 1972 painting entitled Adelė benzino pardavėja (Adelė, Petrol Seller) and other works exhibited in 1973 at a showing of the quartet’s work at the “Cvirka Salon”, Dereškevičius mocked socialist realist portraits of heroic labourers and canvas works on the topics of work and recreation. Around 1970, Dereškevičius painted expressively realistic still lifes, self-portraits, portraits and interior scenes. Later, he used the pop art style (employing flat, posterly, even expanses of vivid colours to imitate mechanically produced imagery) to paint women from fashion magazines and photographs and the fetishised accessories they wore which, in times of scarcity, were in particularly high demand. He also painted women and crowds in public transportation, windows in houses and automobiles, or the sides of vans or mail boxes that stared back at the viewer. Soviet reality viewed through the prism of pop art began to appear more and more appealing and Western.


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Sources and links

Alfonsas Andriuškevičius
Lietuvių dailė: 1975–1995
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademija,1997
Elona Lubytė
Tylusis modernizmas Lietuvoje: 1962–1982
Vilnius: Tyto alba, 1997
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