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The passing present (quartet)
The interest painters expressed in the 1970s in the present day and in routine life — their effort to reconcile themselves with the inevitability of Soviet reality — was piecemeal, conditional and short-lived. In the works created by the quartet, the present was always somehow linked to the past.
The beauty of the routine is very fleeting in paintings by Dereškevičius. An ossified moment of a busy life captured in cold, artificial light appears like a frozen frame of a film. Photographic images, like photographs themselves or the residual traces of reality, capture an irretrievable past. In his assemblages made of the paper residue of civilisation and recovered intimate objects, Dereškevičius connects love to the transience of domestic life and a nostalgia for the past. The announcement displays covered in the remnants of old posters that he began painting around 1980 also testify to the destructive effect of time and the transience of life’s events.
Arvydas Šaltenis distanced himself from the aesthetics of form of earlier generations of painters, believing that life is already beautiful as it is and does not require further embellishment in works of art. The difference between what is seen and what is imagined in the artist’s brisk, expressively realistic paintings is not entirely clear, because the fragments of the visible routine of life in his work are often assembled into a seamless composition that could not possibly exist in reality. Šaltenis always liked to repeat the same motifs, one of which was the tiresome and tedious waiting people had to endure in crowded spaces — the oppressively prolonged present moment.
Dawdling and delay in his paintings are evidenced by closed, claustrophobic spaces, human inactivity and apathy in the face of physical coexistence. Time is experienced differently when one talks on the telephone, drives or mourns a loved one by a coffin. Šaltenis’ mandatory service in the Soviet Army also left its mark on the different experience of time in the artist’s work. For Šaltenis, as for Dereškevičius, the “sardine can” was frequently referenced in paintings as a mode of transportation and a model employed to examine the structure of a depicted space. Enamored with the work of Francis Bacon, Šaltenis also attempted to paint poor states of health — vomiting or the thirst brought on by a hangover.
Algimantas Kuras, like Šaltenis, painted bleak objects typical of the Soviet era as well as unpleasant moments in time, such as defecting in the doorless stalls of a railroad station public bathroom. In his painting series Seni daiktai gamtoje (Old Things in Nature) (1977-1979), he depicts worn, broken or discarded objects and devices — remnants of technological progress against a verdant landscape. Their decaying state serves to further emphasize the entropy of his painting style: a shriveled and pale range of colours and casual brush strokes. Vanishing can sometimes occur quite suddenly — when a mine explodes, for example. The theme of disappearing, transience and death is augmented by natural landscapes revealing the traces of a person who has just departed the scene. The shadow of such a vanished body often appears as a black jacket against the background of a darkening sky. The colour black, the symbol of mourning and pessimism, became an enduring and integral feature of Kuras’ painting. The artist created his ironically melancholic assemblages from the strange products of the era (metal mourning wreaths, for example) which, when reused, became hopeless relics.
Šaltenis not only painted in memoriam genre paintings, including within them recreations of portrait photographs, he also referenced famous works of art. Algimantas Švėgžda, who in his early creative period favoured sleek wavy lines and colour planes, created a painting called EM in 1978, in which he presented a precise depiction of an 1845 self-portrait by the printmaker Edvard Munch, placed behind a sheet of glass that contained a reflection of a window and a silhouette of Švėgžda himself.
Eyes wide shut (fifth)
The new generation of painters of the 1980s shut their eyes to reality and delved into the frightening, unsettled and mysterious world of the imagination. Members of the informal “group of five” — Raimundas Sližys, Mindaugas Skudutis, Romanas Vilkauskas, Henrikas Natalevičius, and Bronius Gražys — posed for a photograph with their eyes shut in 1983 for the catalogue cover of third art exhibition in Šiauliai. Critics coined the name “wormism” to describe the phantasmagorical, darkly humorous and often horror-filled works created by the group because of their admiration for small creatures and depictions of crowds of tiny figures taken from the crawling masses painted by Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Shrinking size was the response of the group to the ornamental grandeur of modernised socialist realism.
In truth, only Raimundas Sližys painted compositions with insects and worms in place of people. The artist was interested in the similarities between people, reptiles and gorillas. He appropriated his most significant trait from expressionism: the abstraction of the human figure through satire and caricature. His depictions of large-headed creatures in bed or flirting, dressed in party clothing from the 19th century, appear like illustrations from a belle epoque novel. A frequent character in his paintings is the author mocking himself. His paintings encourage the viewer to create his own story around what he sees. Literature and memory — the principle sources of imagination — are represented in the paintings by anecdotal plot lines and cultural memory and art history. After 1990, Sližys painting approximately twenty versions of the biblical Judith. His painting style, with its traits of 19th century French salon realism, symbolism and calligraphy, is reminiscent of coloured lithographs and pasteles made on rough, gray cardboard.
Mindaugas Skudutis, who toward the end of the 1970s painted sleeping women, their eyes closed and in a deep trance, soon shifted toward a style of pessimistic self-portraiture and self-destruction. This style was accompanied by a consistent undermining of modernist aesthetics: painting with deliberate carelessness, destructively refashioning historical styles and specific works of art, and applying the logic of the subconscious and dreams to art history. Skudutis recrafted Gečas, Šaltenis and Dereškevičius, referencing old family photographs rather than those found in the current press and covering the eyes of unrecognizably decomposed faces with black rectangles.
In his painting Gimimo diena (Birthday, 1981), the enormous recumbent face of the author appears like a landscape that is receding into the distance, eyes covered by the traces of his palms. The painting Autoportretas. Kristaus amžius (Self-Portrait. Age of Christ, 1981) depicts a monstrous head buried in the earth wearing the darkened glasses of a blind man, surrounded by tiny parasite-like people. The motif of giants and lilliputians mysteriously reappeared in many works by Skudutis and other artists in the 1980s, including Natalevičius, Ričardas Filistovičius, Jūratė Mykolaitytė and Šarūnas Sauka. Not coincidentally, a portion of a woman’s face with a severed cheek and one closed eye appeared alongside a possessed blind man. The artist directed hatred not only at himself, but also to women, long the embodiment of evil.
In the fifteen-part work Metabolistinis paveikslas (Metabolistic Painting, 1980), rows of naked people flock to Vilnius’ Old Town, eating breakfast on a lawn and settling at the foot of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. In the panoramic composition Blogio triumfas (The Triumph of Evil, 1981-2000), the artist is being crushed by a powerful enemy and surrounded by unique images of violence, death and lust — a naturalistic female torso with golden wings and a face-slashing saw. By the mid-1980s, Skudutis had distanced himself from corporal nightmares, choosing to paint funeral ceremonies and scenes of Vilnius that seemed to move and become shapeless, as if viewed from the window of a passing bus.
The tiny people and hybrid animals that had appeared in works by Henrikas Natalevičius disappeared for a while or became almost invisible, replaced in his paintings by skin-coloured clothes and dwellings in whose walls one could sometimes see eyes opening. The total humanisation of the surrounding world destroys the difference between the body and the imagination, between sensory experience and imagery. If eyes and skin hint at a self-portrait, they are phantasmagorical visions — hallucinations. Animals don human masks, a jacket transforms into the fatty skin of a pig. The theme of corporal transformation continues with motifs of water, mirrors, shadows and curtains. Eyes appear in the inside flap of an old book or grow on trees.
Natalevičius usually painted art history on various objects: depicting Bosch-like small images on matchboxes, a Baroque plafond on a lamp shade or a Roman victory column on a rolling pin. His painting Mona Lisa, comprised entirely of playing cards in 1984, features a landscape that is quite simliar to the original.
Narrative scenes, an old-fashioned style of expression and a ghastly attention to oneself took on new qualities in the work of Šarūnas Sauka.
Turning toward history
The turn to embrace history that appeared in Soviet art did not have a clear starting date. As the “thaw” period encouraged a renaissance in painting, artists first turned their focus back to the modernist traditions of the 1930s. The modernist fervor had already faded by the late 1960s, and the determination of artists to reform the arts system from within was replaced by an escapist mood accompanied by a new focus on the past and an internal need to dismantle the cohesion and harmony of painting.
In their efforts to create meaningful forms, Leopoldas Surgailis, Vincas Kisarauskas and Valentinas Antanavičius sought inspiration from images of the saints, biblical narratives, ancient myth and literature. One also finds religious scenes and the memory genre in the works of Rožanskaitė, Piekuras and Šaltenis. Painters not only gave new interpretations of traditional scenes, they also began to repeat and reference well-known works of art, solidifying the postmodernist principle of appropriation. Reality in paintings was often represented by photographic imagery — a bygone moment in time, or in assemblages by obsolete and deliberately antiqued objects.
The legitimisation in official art of the shift toward history and the retrospective style was facilitated by commemorative exhibitions organised to mark the centennial of the birth of M.K. Čiurlionis in 1975 and the 400th anniversary of the founding of Vilnius University in 1979. In their preparations for the latter event, painters studied and revived the traditions of imaginative and representative portraiture of the period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Vytautas Ciplijauskas painted a full-length, stately portrait of Steponas Batoras (Stefan Batory), complete with all of his insignia, and Motiejus Kazimieras Sarbievijus (Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski) against a background featuring a Latin text written in gold letters. Valdas Karatajus depicted Kazimieras Būga leaning against the backrest of an antique armchair. Kisarauskas’ work Jonas Rustemas (Jan Rustem) is a refashioning of a self-portrait by the 19th century painter. Leonardas Gutauskas created an emblematic composition that included two paintings against decorative foliage to honour the environmentalist Tadas Ivanauskas.
The destructive re-imagining of historical painting styles by the young painters of the 1980s was not coincidental. They incorporated traditional images into horrific, suicidal and apocalyptic individual narratives. Not all artists followed in the steps of the leaders of the group of five painters, however. Changing social circumstances, an expanding (although still ostensibly illegal) market for artworks, and a growing number of collectors (Valdas Neniškis, Marius Šukliauskas, among others) forced artists to at least partially indulge the tastes of their followers. Painting saw an increase in literary content and a consistently realistic depiction of fictional or imagined images possessing traits of photorealism and magical realism.
Algimantas Švėgžda, Romanas Vilkauskas, Giedrius Kazimierėnas and Pranas Griušys all created photorealistic paintings that included fragments of daily life being confronted in one way or another by reflections on imagination and memory. Their works encouraged the interpretation of their narratives in search of hidden Aesopian meaning.
In the mid-1980s, the younger generation of artists turned once again to expressionism and the artistic currents of the early 20th century. Their response to the earlier deliberate destruction of art and its “degradation” was a desire to simply create beautiful paintings. Soviet stagnation, the alienation of society and the idle, public ideological discourse during a severe systemic crisis led to an indifference to public affairs on the part of the artist community. Their only creative philosophy was the revival of the old slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” — not as a new principle, but as one with historical and familiar roots.
A fine example of dissociation from reality was the figure painting of Antanas Martinaitis and Adomas Jacovskis. Young painters, including Vygantas Paukštė, Arūnas Vaitkūnas, Audronė Petrašiūnaitė, Eglė Velaniškytė, Gintaras Palemonas Janonis, Ričardas Bartkevičius, Algis Skačkauskas, Jonas Gasiūnas and Eugenijus Varkulevičius-Varkalis developed expressionism with figures and narratives at a time when it was already permissible to paint abstract compositions. Their artistic truth encompassed various experiences in imagery, from the symbolic depiction of individual mythology narratives with vague meanings or paintings about painting to the most banal aestheticisation of surrounding objects.


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Sources and links

Lietuvos tapyba. 1960–2013
Sudarytoja Raminta Jurėnaitė, Vilnius: Modernaus meno centras, 2014
Šiuolaikiniai lietuvių dailininkai. Henrikas Natalevičius
Teksto autorius Viktoras Liutkus, Vilnius: LDS Dailės leidybos ir informacijos centras, 2009
Šiuolaikiniai lietuvių dailininkai. Mindaugas Skudutis
Įvadinio teksto autorius Viktoras Liutkus, Vilnius: LDS Dailės leidybos ir informacijos centras, 2005
Šiuolaikiniai lietuvių dailininkai. Romanas Vilkauskas
Teksto autorius Viktoras Liutkus, LDS Dailės leidybos ir informacijos centras, 2003
Valentinas Antanavičius
Sudarytojai Valentinas Antanavičius, Eugenijus Karpavičius, Vilnius: LDS Dailės leidybos ir informacijos centras, 2002
Vincas Kisarauskas
Įvadinio teksto autorius Marcelijus Martinaitis, Vilnius: Vaga, 1996
Raminta Jurėnaitė
Kostas Dereškevičius. Tapyba
Vilnius: Modernaus meno centras, 2012
Raminta Jurėnaitė
Arvydas Šaltenis. Tapyba
Vilnius: Modernaus meno centras, 2012
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