Can’t help but look

  • 2012-04-18
  • By Laurence Boyce

CHECK THIS OUT: Often brutal and disturbing reflections on humanity by painter Sarunas Sauka are on display.

TALLINN - As the exhibition of Lithuanian painter Sarunas Sauka, titled “I, Painter Sarunas” at Kumu Art Museum heads towards its conclusion, I am urging people to check it out while they still can.

Born in 1958 in Vilnius and having studied at the National Institute of Lithuania and  the Vilnius Art Academy between 1976 and 1983, Sauka is a post-modernist painter whose work is a brutal and often disturbing reflection of humanity and the Communist tyranny under which Sauka spent much of his life. Utilizing various techniques and styles, Sauka’s work comes across as a dark parody of other artists (for example much of Sauka’s work – in its use of religious iconography and its visions of hell and damnation – is reminiscent of that of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch) in which surrealism and irony are chief components.

Paintings such as “Inferno” and “Ascension” are replete with images of flayed skin, mutated human figures and people all with the same expression. Whilst these evocations of irrational fears and desires are bleak and desolate, there is also a strong sense of technique and style at work in the paintings. It’s this tension between the starkness of the ideas and the mastery of the form that makes Sauka so emotive: you often don’t want to look at the grotesque tableaux but you can’t help it.

Whilst this tension can be used to unsettle the viewer, it can also be used to amuse. “Temple” is a beautifully crafted picture of a glittering palace with a shimmering pool at the center. A beautiful scene, only slightly spoiled by the fact that there is a cherubic child at the corner of the painting urinating in the pool. Indeed, Sauka’s work often seems quite funny, though you can’t help shake the feeling that Sauka is mocking the viewer as much as modern values of morality and redemption. There’s also much made of the sacred and the profane, as Sauka presents many religious tableaux that challenge notions of faith and absolutism.

It’s ironic that one of his most lauded paintings, “The Battle of Grunwald,” for which he was awarded the Lithuanian National Prize in 1989, is the one that dispenses with the level of visceral brutality of his other works (itself an irony given that it’s a depiction of one of the most important battles in Lithuanian history). The diptych (i.e. consisting of two canvases) is a glorification of Lithuania’s past that, whilst you can’t help detect a certain amount of irony thanks to Sauka’s other work, seems to be a genuine celebration of national pride. The same goes for the portrait of his father – a beautifully painted piece – which seems a simple paean to paternal pride. Compare  this to one of the artist’s self-portraits, in which he depicts himself with a grotesquely oversized head and a bulging eye.

“I, Painter Sarunas” sees an artist attempting to strip away layers of convention (and, in his work, literally stripping people) to contemplate the human condition. Confrontational yet playful, this is a powerful exhibition of painting and sculpture that captures an artist whose work is full of contradiction and juxtapositions. Whilst it is sometimes unsettling, this is an exhilarating collection that should be seen before it closes at the end of April.

The exhibition will be on view at the Kumu Art Museum until April 29.
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