From driftwood huts to canvas collections

  • 2015-04-17
  • by Julius Bailey-Augalistas

If a picture paints a thousand words, this article should be about 17,000 words long. Slight problem: 17,000 words simply wouldn’t do justice to describing the truly remarkable exhibition of Baltic art unveiled at a cosy, cultured and very civilised gathering at the Lithuanian Embassy, London, on Friday 10 April 2015.

Having acknowledged the expressive superiority of the paintbrush over the puny pen, one can but merely scratch the surface in offering a drive-by look at something that truly demands a visit in person to be fully appreciated. It’s an experience that’s intimate, up close and personal.

It is particularly personal for art lover and third generation Lithuanian-American Bob Shopes, the man who made the exhibition possible. He is a distinguished gentleman of mature years who is every bit as vibrant and fascinating as his art collection. He has a presence about him, an earnestness and likeability not unlike James Randi. There is an energy and positivity to his tone of voice and a gleam in his eyes as he tells, in a broad American accent, of his childhood in San Francisco:

“My dad was a working man, a blue collar worker. He didn’t have a lot of money. He started his family in a driftwood hut on the beach, carrying back a crate of vegetables he bought at the farmer’s market for a few dollars, or for dimes if that’s all he had. This was Depression-era America.

“But he was strong and smart. We survived. Even after he got a job, weekends were always for the kids. We went to the beach, the park, and more often than I can count, to free public museums and galleries. Thanks to him I grew up with some idea of what art to expect to see in a first-class museum, an expectation I used when looking for Lithuanian art.”

Bob’s father never forgot his Lithuanian ancestry, yet never managed to visit Lithuania due to the Soviet occupation and health issues later in life. When his father passed away, around 10 years ago at the age of 97, Bob thought it a fitting tribute to use the money he left to buy Lithuanian art, although this wasn’t something he had specifically planned to do:

“It just sort of happened. We had been touring around Vilnius with our Lithuanian friend, Ieva. We ended up by the Presidential Palace about four o’clock in the afternoon, too early for supper. With a bit of time to kill, we spotted a sign on Totoriu gatve: “Young artists’ workshop.” We walked into this courtyard, up a couple of steps and inside…”

Decidedly unimpressed by some average-looking works, they turned to leave, when suddenly:

“There was a truly remarkable painting of a young man in theatrical costume holding out a blue saucer. It was a little expensive as souvenirs go, but maybe a little more worthwhile than the average. We talked it over and agreed it would fit in our luggage.”

This inspired him to look up other Lithuanian artists on the internet, discovering Jurate Mykolaityte and – Bob’s your uncle!

Bob stays around for a brief Q&A, and talks about his favourite painting, the rather enigmatic “Bubbles.” A few of us all come up with surprisingly different interpretations, highlighting just how the meaning is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Having told his story, Bob leaves the paintings to speak for themselves. Cultural attaché Rita and assistant Giedre are lively and engaging as they mingle with the guests who wander from picture to picture. A young woman stands with her gaze transfixed on “Spring Morning” by Rytis Martinionis. Her face is contorted with sadness. “I feel emotional and yet I don’t know why,” she says. It’s hard to say which is stranger – the painting or her reaction to it. The image is of a limbless, faceless corpse that looks like a tailor’s mannequin sprawled in a rather claustrophobic room with hideous “busy” wallpaper, a striped sofa and a mirror showing a distorted reflection. Through the open door we see out onto what looks like a beach vista. Outside is pleasant, normal. Inside is anything but.

Perhaps most interesting of all is another Martinionis piece. “Two Pilots,” depicts two men, one naked and leaning forward as he sits on a box while a faceless man appears to be writing or etching something on the back of the naked man. To the left of the men stands what appears to be a severed shark’s fin.

“Two Pilots” is said to relate to Lithuanian politician Rolandas Paksas. Paksas served 15 months as President of Lithuania before being dismissed on grounds of corruption. According to the guidance notes at the exhibition:  “Paksas was said to have received a call from Russian Yuri Borisov demanding to know when his aircraft factory was to receive a very lucrative contract for helicopters. He had financed Paksas’s campaign and now wanted payback. The phone call was among those being monitored by the Lithuanian Department of Security while investigating Russian mafia interest in Lithuania.”

The telephone call, together with allegations of bribery and extortion, saw Paksas ousted. Both Paksas and Borisov were pilots.

Today Paksas is still in politics as part of a small Lithuanian anti-EU party. He is also a close ally of Nigel Farage, leader of the British anti-EU party UKIP. The two men met during Farage’s recent visit to Lithuania. And they say you can judge a man by the company he keeps…

Walking round the exhibits is quite a feast for the eyes. It’s like being in a strange dream where things are somehow distorted. Is that Vilnius Cathedral without the tower? And Vilnius University?

 The paintings are all quite modern, painted within about 10 years of each other, yet they are each unique. Some surreal, others abstract, some Piccasso-esque, enigmatic and annoying. Arunas Mecius’s “Bird” sees a crow-like bird about to drink from a bejewelled bowl under an orange sky next to what looks like a gallows, or does it? And what is that strange hanging on the right-hand side? The rational side of the brain tries in vain definitely to decipher and psychoanalyse these pieces, yet this is an impossibility. The works defy definitive explanation. They say things that words cannot. They raise questions and provoke discussion. That is what makes them art.