Grybauskaite's courageous taste in art

  • 2010-01-13
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - Last week Lithuanians discussed President Dalia Grybauskaite’s taste in art. This theme, for a couple of days, became the top and controversial news, provoking hundreds of comments on Lithuanian Internet sites. It appears that Grybauskaite has good taste in art, though the average Lithuanian was shocked by her choice. On Jan. 4, Lithuanian presidential palace workers hung a huge contemporary painting, by Sarunas Sauka, in her presidential palace - the founding fathers and mothers of the Lithuanian state at the beginning of the 20th century, with various national heroes and even a current opera star, a rather fat tenor of good voice, who are naked on that painting.

Sauka is distant from mainstream Lithuanian painting. This 51-year-old painter is somehow above all of the Lithuanian artist community. He is a very non-talkative man living with his wife in Dusetos, a small and remote village among numerous lakes and forests. In 1989, when Soviet censorship collapsed, this post-modernist was awarded the first National Prize for achievements in art in Lithuania.

The painting, which was chosen by Grybauskaite, is dedicated to Lithuania’s Millennium. Grybauskaite said that she chose this painting to celebrate Lithuania’s millennium. In 1009, Lithuania’s name was mentioned for the first time in chronicles. In the center of the painting a man sits like Rupintojelis (“Sorrowful Jesus” in Lithuanian). The image of Jesus, seated with his face in his hand, is a common one in Lithuanian folk wooden sculptures. In this particular painting, the bleeding Jesus has the face and naked body of Sauka himself - it is a self-portrait. The painting is six meters in length and two-and-a-half meters in height. Its form is untraditional because it is not square - it has many corners. In front of Jesus-Sauka stand naked several dozen of the most famous Lithuanians. Sauka paints old wrinkly flesh quite authentically with the realism of Damien Hirst.

There is also a girl dressed in red and blue and a mysterious building on the painting. Sauka never explains his apocalyptic art. The viewers can believe whatever they want.
One of the best known personalities in the crowd of nudes is Antanas Smetona. He became one of the main founding fathers of Lithuania by signing the act of re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence in Vilnius on Feb. 16, 1918. In 1919-1920, he was the country’s president, paving the way to the democratic state of Lithuania. After the coup of 1926, Smetona again became president, limiting some democratic freedoms and introducing soft authoritarianism similar to the current political system of Russia. He escaped to the U.S. in 1940, when the invasion of USSR troops to the Baltics started.

Another figure on Sauka’s painting is a female writer known under her pseudonym Zemaite (real name Julija Beniuseviciute-Zymantiene). Thanks to the activity of such women, Lithuania gave voting rights to women after the re-establishment of its post-WWI independence, much earlier than the majority of Western European countries.
Nineteenth century historian Simonas Daukantas, Vincas Kudirka, the author of the Lithuanian anthem, linguist Jonas Jablonskis who created the Lithuanian standard language, Catholic priest and poet Maironis (real name Jonas Maciulis), philosopher Vydunas (real name Vilhelmas Storosta), Steponas Darius wearing his pilot’s cap and known from the 10 litas banknote, who together with Stasys Girenas died in a plane crash in Prussia flying directly from New York to Kaunas - all of them also stand in the crowd of nudes. There is only one now living and active personage in the crowd - opera star Virgilijus Noreika.

Everybody can come to view the painting in the presidential palace - it is enough to register for free-of-charge excursions in the palace via the presidential website
On Jan. 4, on the occasion of the hanging of Sauka’s painting in her office, Grybauskaite invited Sauka, philosophers Jurate Baranova and Zenonas Norkus, composer Mindaugas Urbaitis, and Sigitas Parulskis, the famous modern writer, poet and essayist of several Lithuanian magazines including the Lithuanian version of Playboy. Their discussion was officially called “History in Contemporary Art.” Sauka said that it took him some two or three years to paint his masterpiece, dedicated to the Millennium of Lithuania.

“The painting is so courageous that I decided to make society to feel nervous,” Grybauskaite said, adding that “Lithuania’s millennium was not easy.” She said that her advisors didn’t believe, until the last moment, that she would have enough courage to hang this painting. Grybauskaite described Sauka as a very interesting phenomenon.
“Your gesture will not increase your ratings. In case of some troubles, inform me and I’ll come to help,” Sauka said, smiling ironically.

The ratings of Grybauskaite are through the sky. She was elected Lithuania’s Person of the Year 2009 according to public research conducted by Baltijos Tyrimai. Grybauskaite’s international ratings are also high.
The influential French political, business and financial daily La Tribune has listed Grybauskaite among the top ten EU leaders. A jury of political correspondents in Brussels, coming from all over Europe, placed her at sixth place in their classification, leaving French President Nicolas Sarkozy in ninth place (Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt took the top position). No wonder that Grybauskaite is not suffering from low self-esteem. The Lithuanians love her style of tough talk. Rimvydas Valatka, leading columnist of the daily Lietuvos Rytas, who is not impressed with the nation’s passionate love of its leader and Grybauskaite’s monarch-style attitude towards other high-rank officials, often describes her, ironically, as Sun Queen.

However, it seems that Grybauskaite does not like the royal-style sweet and pomp art. She ordered the removal of the tapestry with various Lithuanian coats of arms from the wall of the presidential office. That modern sweet-looking tapestry was placed in the Lithuanian presidential palace in 1998. It seems that while living in Brussels, Grybauskaite was fascinated more with the paintings of Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte than with the Flemish tapestry of the Belgian Royal Palace.