Arbit Blatas returns with his paintings

  • 2011-07-06
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

CHERCHEZ LA FEMME: Laying Woman (Portrait of Gassoon) by Arbit Blatas.

VILNIUS - The recently opened exhibition of more than 300 paintings and sculptures created by Arbit Blatas (1908-1999) is one of the greatest events of Lithuanian cultural life in 2011. This Kaunas-born artist, whose father sold pianos on Laisves Avenue in Kaunas, became a world famous artist, living in Paris, New York and Venice. Blatas also designed theatrical scenery in the opera houses of Sydney, Hamburg and many other opera houses around the world. Manhattan-based Regina Resnik-Blatas, his widow and former prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, donated his legacy collection to the Lithuanian Art Museum. On June 15, his paintings, lithographs, sculptures, and other legacy arrived in Lithuania from New York. In April, another part of Blatas’ artistic legacy arrived from his studio in Venice. The exhibition in the Lithuanian National Gallery (Konstitucijos Avenue 22), which is a branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum, is titled “Arbit Blatas. The Return to His Homeland” is open from July 1-Aug. 28.

The legacy of Blatas came to Lithuania mostly due to the personal long-lasting friendship (including some drinking in bars in New York) of the Blatas family and Vilius Kavaliauskas, Lithuanian journalist, collector of art and advisor on Jewish issues in former Lithuanian leftist governments. Recently, Kavaliauskas made Simonas Alperavicius, head of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, a little bit angry by stating that the recent parliament-approved compensation for Jewish religious property is far too big for that real estate, and it would be good to return some of that property in buildings, not money. Anyway, Kavaliauskas and Alperavicius sat next to each other during the exhibition’s opening ceremony.

“I did meet Blatas twice, in Vilnius and New York. We spoke in Lithuanian. He was a great patriot of Lithuania,” Alperavicius said. Blatas visited Lithuania in 1975 and 1988.
On July 1, Michael Philip Davis, who is the stepson of Blatas and stage director, producer, librettist, and former opera tenor, presented the exhibition of his stepfather’s legacy during the opening ceremony. Davis became a good friend of Blatas after their first meeting when Davis was 15-years-old and Blatas invited him and his mother to a French restaurant in New York. Davis spilled some sauce on his jacket accidentally during that dinner and Blatas told him not to worry, because they could bring that jacket to a modern art museum and sell it for 50,000 dollars.

Art works by Blatas are possessed by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the Georges Pompidou Museum in Paris, the Jerusalem Museum, and many other of the most prestigious museums of the world, but the Lithuanian Art Museum has the biggest collection of his works now. Blatas was awarded for his art with the highest French state order, the Legion of Honor, twice. He also received the Presidential Medal of Italy, the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of Lithuania and many other highest orders of various states.

Blatas, at the age of 18, went to study art in Paris, but he often returned to Kaunas to visit his parents and exhibit his paintings (he opened his gallery in Kaunas in 1932). Leaving for Paris, he took with him some Catholic religious wooden sculptures (carved by Lithuanian folk craftsmen), which can be noticed in some of his paintings and which have now been returned from his Venice studio back to Lithuania. In the 1930s, paintings by Blatas were already on show regularly in the major galleries of Paris and New York. In 1941, he fled from Europe to the USA and became an American citizen. His first wife and his daughter decided to stay in Europe. In 1941, the Nazis deported his parents from Lithuania due to their Jewish origin. His mother died in the Studthof concentration camp.

Writer Balys Sruoga, a good friend of Blatas, and many other non-Jewish Lithuanian intellectuals were also sent to Studthof a couple of years later (as a punishment for Lithuania because Lithuanians boycotted the creation of a Lithuanian unit of the Waffen-SS) – Sruoga survived Studthof and later wrote his book, full of ironic humor, about that camp. Blatas’ father managed to survive Dachau. After the war, Blatas returned to France to bring his father back with him to the U.S. Blatas created several monuments to the victims of the Holocaust, which are standing in Venice, Paris, New York (in front of the UN headquarters) and Kaunas.

Blatas was a very communicative person. Famous writers, painters and all other kinds of Lithuanian artists were his good friends, regardless of their ethnic Lithuanian or Jewish roots, in pre-war Lithuania as well as in Paris and, after WWII, in the U.S. Blatas never forgot the Lithuanian language and always was proud of his Lithuanian roots. He also was a friend of many world celebrities. Blatas created two life-size bronze sculptures of two Lithuania-born artists and his personal friends, cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and painter Chaim Soutine, which now stand in Paris.

The exhibition in the Lithuanian National Gallery presents Blatas-painted portraits of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, French mime Marcel Marceau, painter Pablo Picasso, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (this Russian dissident was a big supporter of Lithuanian independence during the Soviet aggression on Vilnius in January 1991) and other international celebrities, including his wife, a mezzo-soprano of the Metropolitan Opera. There are also paintings of city-life of Paris and Venice as well as paintings inspired by the Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht-created The Threepenny Opera, which Blatas attended in Berlin in 1928 and never forgot his impression about that masterpiece performance.

The exhibition is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 12:00-19:00, on Thursdays from 13:00-20:00, on Sundays from 12:00-17:00. Closed on Mondays.