Lithuanian symbolist paintings | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Lithuanian visual arts: paintings, photography, sculpture

Much of the 19th century and earlier fine arts have been religious and best visible in churches and chapels. Much of it has been created by unknown authors. Some of the top city churches have been decorated by famous foreign (especially Italian) artists.

Rūpintojėlis (a wooden sculpture of sitting sad Jesus) and elaborate UNESCO-recognized wooden crosses are the national forms of Lithuanian religious art. These are common at the roadsides, yards and certain holy sites (šventvietės) rather than churches; Hill of Crosses is the largest such location.

Old roadside crosses at Zervynos village, Dzūkija National Park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Manors and palaces of the era were decorated with portraits and other paintings but heavy looting meant that most of the pre-modern secular art has been lost or carted away to foreign museums.

The number of secular works (especially national romantic) increased in the 19th century. This trend gave rise to (arguably) the most famous Lithuanian painter ever: symbolist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) who even has an asteroid and mountain range in Russia named after him. He was also a composer who created scores to be listened while viewing his paintings. The main museum of his works is in Kaunas.

1918-1940 independence led to experiments with various styles, the tradition later continued in exodus where Fluxus movement has been created by Lithuanian Americans (the collection has been acquired by Vilnius municipality).

Karalių pasaka (Tale of Kings) by M. K. Čiurlionis (a fragment). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Non-communist artists who did not leave Lithuania before Soviets occupied it were less lucky. The Soviets murdered or exiled to Siberia some of them while others had their creativity heavily confined. "Socialist realist" painting style became the only legal; it required to paint the Soviet society using centuries-old academic style. Megalomaniac monuments for Soviet communist "heroes" have been constructed all over the cities to replace demolished religious and patriotic sculptures.

In the late Soviet era, socialist realism was allowed to give way to a more abstract "modernism", but the content of that modernism still had to be pro-Soviet. Even a politically-neutral work could have landed an artist into trouble.

A mural in a government building of a late Soviet period, depicting cosmonauts. Topics such as cosmonauts were often chosen by Lithuanian artists as they were acceptible to the regime as showing off the „Soviet achievements“, yet they did not directly glorify the perpetrators of the Soviet Genocide. In such way, the Soviet Lithuanian artists walked a tightrope between being forced to „worship the murderers“ and having their works banned or themselves arrested. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Black-and-white photography became a new fine art (colors considered unartful). What could be photographed was also heavily censored: for example one photography of mother and her child was banned with such reason: "The side of the image where the mother is walking towards looks darker, while in reality she should be walking to a bright communist future".

Best collection of 20th century Lithuanian fine arts is housed in the National Art Gallery of Vilnius. Soviet propaganda art (especially sculptures) is available at the Grūtas park (where it has been collected after the banishment from city downtowns ~1990).

After the independence, art often became used to beautify the less-than-beautiful areas of the city, such as using murals to cover the abandoned or derelict buildings, or to give a playful atmosphere to a district.

A mural in Klaipėda celebrating its jazz festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

See also: Lithuanian architecture, Lithuanian theater, and cinema, Lithuanian music, Lithuanian traditional crafts, Top 10 places to see art in Lithuania.

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