Lithuanian paintings, literature and other arts | True Lithuania
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Lithuanian Art and Literature

Art and literature of Lithuania have been defined by multiple alternating periods of persecution an freedom. There may be no world famous names among the Lithuanian art creators but their works well-represent the rapidly shifting Lithuanian situation. Moreover, some would say a few Lithuanian authors failed to reach worldwide fame solely because all the political and military upheavals precluded it.

History of Lithuanian Art and Literature

Folklore, folk traditions and mythology are the roots of Lithuanian art. Folk art tradition continued longer in Lithuania than in many Western countries and for a long time, it was the sole truly Lithuanian art. As such, it still inspires many people today.

In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era Lithuanian and Polish art were hard to distinguish as there was a widespread Polish-Lithuanian diglossia with Polish used as the literary language. However, at the same time, a Lithuanian language literary tradition was developing in Lithuania Minor (East Prussia).

1795 Russian Imperial occupation of Lithuania eventually led to heavy persecutions and ban on Lithuanian literature. Yet this also triggered the National Revival which made Lithuanian a popular literary language all over the country. Lithuanian books used to be illegally imported from Lithuania Minor. National Romanticism took hold.

By 1904 the Czar was forced to moderate his policies and in 1918 Lithuania became independent. Lithuanian art and literature flourished in this interwar era.

It all ended in 1940 when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania. Heavy censorship was introduced, many artists and writers murdered or imprisoned. Only pro-Soviet literature continued to be published while art was restricted to Socialist Realist guidelines. Every author had to "pay his dues" to the regime by creating some propaganda works. Meanwhile, the censorship reached absurd proportions. Pre-Soviet and foreign art and literature were also censored (some of it banned).

As an alternative to the Soviet art (which has been partly stripped of creativity), new forms of art were developed by refugee Lithuanian artists and writers in the West (mainly the USA). The so-called "landed" generation was followed by the "landless" (those who grew up abroad). Their creations followed worldwide trends (with an additional overarching theme of longing for the lost homeland). They had been banned in the Soviet Union but their illegal imports were endlessly copied by a samizdat press.

With the 1990 independence restoration, the Lithuanian art and literature once again reunited and became free of forced ideology. By 1990s the "exodus literature" (as the creations of Lithuanian Americans became known as) was adopted into school curriculums while in 2000s Lithuania also rediscovered Fluxus movement.

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Lithuanian Literature

Translated foreign literature is more popular in Lithuania than the Lithuanian one but some local "star authors" manage to write an extremely successful book now and then. For others, a small market precludes from making a decent living as very few Lithuanian books get translated in English.

Like other art, Lithuanian literature passed multiple distinct phases. It is rooted in the folk tales, some of them extremely archaic.

Until the 19th century, the folk tales/myths remained largely unwritten leaving the books to Christian religious works. Additionally, the Medieval period (13th-16th centuries) had many political chronicles, Renaissance (17th century) authors concentrated on works glorifying the nobility and "proving" its descent from the Ancient Rome, while Baroque (18th century) witnessed the appearance of drama and poetry. However, Latin and Polish were used as the main literary languages by Lithuanians of Lithuania-proper (some works are now back-translated) back then. This and dated subjects mean that few works of the era are well-known today.

The National Revival (19th century) brought Lithuanian language and national romantic topics to the Lithuanian readers, concentrating on beautiful nature, glorious Grand Duchy history and ethnic traditions. Many works were didactic in nature: promoting Catholicism, knowledge, denouncing alcoholism. The struggle for independence from the Russian Imperial rule has been another overarching topic.

After that freedom was achieved (1918) literary experimentation prevailed in many new magazines, establishing a writer as an "anticonformist" figure, mostly either a neo-romantic (seeking to unify ethnic tradition, Christianity, and modernity) or a leftist. Still, others published ideology-free "popular fiction" that also prevails today.

After the Soviet occupation (1940) the Lithuanian literature became divided into free one of Lithuanian-American refugees (continuing experiments, longing their "stolen homeland") and a heavily censored one back home.

After independence (1990) Lithuanian literature became free of shackles once again, although the rapidly changing history meant that very different books would be written in the "1990s of discovery" and the "2010s of Global Lithuania".

Such constant "literary upheaval" means that today's children tend to dislike literary curriculum at school simply because most of the "Lithuanian classics" seems horribly dated to them as they (even if merely 20 years old) talk about issues extremely different from the ones faced by modern youth. This is in contrast to English literature where Shakespeare may seem eternal.

Most famous Lithuanian books

Some of the famous Lithuanian literary works include:

*Folk tales such as "Eglė the Queen of Serpents".
*Kristijonas Donelaitis "Metai" ("The Year", ~1775). The first Lithuanian language fiction book, it tells (uniquely in Ancient hexameter) a story of a relationship between the peasantry and the nobility in contemporary Lithuania Minor. Translated in some 12 languages, including English. Lithuanian Minor has been the first major use of Lithuanian as a literary language.
*Maironis poetry (1895-1932). Published in many volumes and adapted into many songs the stanzas of this Catholic priest hero of Lithuanian national revival continues to inspire Lithuanians to this day.
*Balys Sruoga "Dievų miškas" ("Forest of Gods", 1945). Balys Sruoga had been imprisoned by the Nazi Germany and this is his account of concentration camp experience filled with dark humor. Some literary critics claim this would have become a worldwide bestseller had it passed the Soviet censorship on its inception date (the author died in 1947 after the Soviet occupational authorities in Lithuania denounced his book).
*Antanas Škėma "Balta Drobulė" ("White Shroud", 1958). One of the first existentialist novels in the world. However, having been written in Lithuanian language by a Lithuanian American, it failed to get necessary attention both in the Soviet occupied Lithuania (where it had been banned) and in the USA (where it has been only translated to English in the 2010s). Semi-autobiographical it tells a story of an intellectual Lithuanian refugee forced to work unqualified labor in New York to make a living.
*Jurga Ivanauskaitė "Ragana ir lietus" ("The Witch and Rain", 1993). The young author transposes her sexual fantasies with a Tibetan Lamma in this book describing a forbidden love between a woman and a Catholic priest. Initially banned out of the censorship inertia the book was swiftly legalized and this marked the rise of new libertarian censorship-free Lithuania (which lasted until ~2004).
*Kristina Sabaliauskaitė "Silva Rerum" (2009). A historical novel about 1600s Lithuania. Many scenes are well-researched and accurate although the morals are inspired by the present day. This became one of the most popular modern Lithuanian books.

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Lithuanian mythology and folklore

Lithuanian mythology and folklore are closely intertwined. While Lithuanians have been the last European pagan great power to Christianise the pagans never had religious books and thus much of the old religion has survived in the folklore alone. What were once deities may have been relegated to mythical creatures or natural forces in later folktales, however.

Lithuanian pagan gods

There are probably as many theories on the historical Baltic pantheon as there are researchers. Many borrow on other faiths to explain it, speaking of "Baltic trinity" or "Baltic Olympus", others make the religion seem almost monotheistic by adding an omnipotent "God" above other deities. With researches based on descriptions by missionaries and archeological digs, the truth may stay hidden forever.

Nevertheless, some Lithuanian pagan gods are well known. Perkūnas (literally Thunder) is the prime god, punishing with his mighty force (lightning). Nearly every major natural phenomenon was considered to be a god or goddess in the Baltic pagan faith, among them Sun (female) and Moon (male), the parents of Earth. Other than that goddesses are better known than gods as it is common to name baby girls after them. They include Žemyna (goddess of earth and fertility), Medeina (forests and hunting), Milda (love and freedom), Laima (goddess responsible for fate appearing as a trinity of Laimas declaring good, mediocre and bad fate), Gabija (goddess of fire and the home fireplace; the latter provided heat and served for sacrifices, its position so important that "home fireplace" is now a euphemism for "family relations" in Lithuanian).

Perkūnas as depicted by the symbolist painter M. K. Čiurlionis in 1909. Little authentic images of Pagan pantheon survive inducing the 19th-century national romantic artists to create their own. Usually, however, the Lithuanian gods are depicted as bearded old men.

Lithuanian mythical and folktale creatures

Lithuanian mythological creatures are rarely plain "good" or plain "evil", most of them are able to be both depending on circumstances. These are the best known of them:

*Aitvaras (plural: aitvarai) may have been the god of water and clouds. Aitvarai may take a form of a bird, a serpent or a tornado. They bring riches to the needy people (yet may take them from the greedy). Aitvaras's riches can be useful but rarely bring happiness; furthermore, Aitvaras may start droughts by drinking rain. Aitvaras presence at home may be unnoticed but such a home would never be poor; however, the prerequisites of "creating" an aitvaras may also be bought intentionally.
*Raganos (witches) (singular: ragana) are antagonist old women with malicious supernatural powers. They are able to transform into any animal but when such an animal is hurt so is ragana (witch) herself. All the Lithuanian raganos (witches) are said to meet annually on certain hills to practice their magic together.
*Laumės (singular: laumė) are female intermediaries between Earth and Sky. They weave endless textiles and gift them to the people, yet they are unpredictable and could even weave a person. A Laumė may both endow a child and kill him/her, she may also replace a baby with her own (an especially introverted kid unable to show affection; arguably a mythological explanation for autism). In the myths, laumės are usually pretty but in newer folktales, they are more witch-like.

Representations (left-to-right) of Laumė, Ragana and Aitvaras in Naisiai museum of Baltic gods. As the descriptions vary and there is no single canon, these are partly artists' imagination. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Žaltys (serpent) has been the deity of home and health. As a creature, a serpent is considered immortal, magical and related to rain. Serpents, therefore, used to be cherished and fed.
*Kaukai (singular: kaukas) are very small creatures that may turn into a handful of dust (and vice-versa). If a kaukas settles in a home he makes all the things there to be enjoyed longer.
*Maumai (singular: maumas) are scary creatures living under the well or on the lakebed. Parents used them to scare misbehaving children. Baubai (singular: baubas) are similar to Maumas but they lurk in dark places.
*Velniai (devils) (singular: velnias) are usually smallish evil-yet-stupid creatures who may be tricked by clever men. However, they may take other shapes, and even may help a person when nothing else could. Devils also create hills and stones. Such representations of Lithuanian devil may be seen in the art of Devil museum in Kaunas (they are extremely different from the traditional Christian views).

Devil museum in Kaunas is a unique-in-the-world collection of folk art devil statuettes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian folktales and legends

Many of the most famous early Lithuanian folktales are actually legends: they explain the creation of various things, towns, and lakes through folk etymology. They tend to be especially popular in the related localities where they may have inspired street names and sculptures.

A famous Eglė the Queen of Serpent folktale explains why some trees are named the way they are:

Eglė the Queen of Serpents

Fisherman's daughter Eglė finds a large serpent in her clothes after swimming in the Baltic Sea. The serpent talks in a human voice and returns clothes only in exchange for a promise to marry it. Thousands of serpents come to her family farmstead the next day. Initially, the family cheats them but then is forced to give up Eglė. Eglė's husband then becomes a handsome young man Žilvinas and they live underwater together, having 3 sons and 1 daughter. Eglė longs to visit her parents and siblings. With a help of a witch, she does so despite Žilvinas's protests. Žilvinas tells Eglė and their children how to call him when they will be coming back: "Žilvinas, little Žilvinas, if you are alive come in a milky wave if you are dead - in a bloody wave". After coming back Eglė's children get tortured by her brothers and the daughter betrays the calling phrase. Eglė's brothers call and then murder Žilvinas. When Eglė calls Žilvinas she sees a bloody wave and learns of the betrayal. Disheartened Eglė curses her children and herself to turn into trees (note: Eglė and her children names are Lithuanian words meaning various trees).

Eglė the Queen of Serpents statue in seaside Palanga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Yet other Lithuanian folktales are meant to give their listener a lesson. Their characters (human beings as well as anthropomorphic animals, plants, and natural forces) usually have their psychology limited to a few dominating traits. The traits in many cases depend on who the character is. E.g. the youngest one of three brothers is stereotypically stupid while a fox is a trickster.

Some of the most famous folktales/myths (such as the Jūratė and Kastytis love story) are actually much younger than they seem to be, dating to the 19th-century national romantic search for the long-lost "ethnic roots".

Jūratė and Kastytis

Goddess Jūratė was living in an amber palace under the Baltic Sea. She sent mermaids to warn fisherman Kastytis to stop catching her fish. He did not comply and Jūratė came to give the warning in person but fell in love with Kastytis instead. She invited him to her palace, but their love was not approved by the prime god Perkūnas (Thunder) who destroyed the amber palace, killing Kastytis. Jūratė was eternally chained to the ruins. Her moans and cries now cause the sea storms while the Baltic amber is what remains of her palace.

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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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Lithuanian traditional crafts

Much of the Lithuanian ethnic crafts are useful products for day-to-day needs. These are woven textiles (blankets, tablecloths) of colorful geometric designs, wickerwork baskets and furniture, wooden crafts (such as spoons, plates and furniture decorated in cut-through patterns) and patterned metal crafts.

Traditional Lithuanian crafts for sale at the 'Mėnuo Juodaragis' ethnic-oriented music festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Today, however, all these have been largely outcompeted by manufactured goods, yet the original ethnic ones are still acquired for symbolic or art value during the many craftsmen fairs.

Wickerwork stall in the Vilnius Kaziukas fair. Nearly every festival in Lithuania has an accompanying fair, where a fair share of salesmen sell the traditional crafts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian wooden religious art and crafts are arguably the most famous. They include elaborate UNESCO-inscribed crosses and chapel-posts (roofed religious sculptures on poles). Rūpintojėlis is a traditional sculpture of a sad Jesus. Such religious crafts are typically erected outdoors: at the roadsides, next to one's home or at particular locations known as "holysites" (šventvietės).

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

Lithuanian Jewelry has been traditionally made of metal, wood or amber. Amber jewelry is considered "the most Lithuanian one" due to Baltic amber being a local material that has few counterparts elsewhere. In fact, as early as 2000 years ago, amber was exported to the Roman Empire by the Baltic peoples.

Amber Jewelry in the Palanga museum of Amber. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Recently, however, the authentic Baltic metal jewelry designs have also regained popularity. They are often based on archeological finds and are more popular among the local women whereas amber is the preferred souvenir by foreigners.

Authentic Baltic metal jewelry in the Museum of archeology in Kernavė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some of the unique Lithuanian crafts are reserved for particular holidays. These include
Verbos - bouquets of dried plants used on the Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter). They represent the palm branches that were laid in Christ's path when he triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Many Verbos are crafted and sold by vendors in streets that day and then sanctified in the churches. Verbos are the most artful in southeast Lithuania.

Verbos at the museum of Verbos in Čekonikškės (Vilnius suburbs). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Equally famous are the masks crafted for Užgavėnės carnival. They are made of Papier Mâché and represent animals or stereotyped ethnic/social groups. Using those masks, people dress up as somebody else.

Užgavėnės masks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Margučiai are artfully dyed/decorated Easter eggs which are then used for various contests (e.g. "whose egg is stronger" or "whose egg goes further when pushed"). Many families still dye their eggs at home rather than buying them at a shop.

Easter eggs (margučiai). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among the unique crafts are the sodai ("gardens") that were usually reserved for weddings. These 3D contraptions of dried grass are extremely fragile and thus are not sold as souvenirs.

Sodai at Vilkaviškis regional museum (as one of the symbols of Lituanity, they are common in many locations related to ethnic heritage). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

See also: Visual arts in Lithuania , Top 10 Lithuanian folk arts.

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