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How art and nation come together in Lithuania

  • 2001-04-26
  • Mike D. Walford
The nation-state is quite a recent phenomenon in the history of Europe. Ever since the time of the French Revolution, when the palace of the Louvre was turned into a free art gallery for all the people, cultural policy has played an important role in building the nations of Europe.

There are different ideas about what a nation is. The heritage of a nation is something that is partly produced by government policy rather than being something that is naturally occurring.

A look at the current popularity in Lithuania of three Lithuanian artists active during the 20th century throws up some interesting ideas about nationhood. There is a tension between the cosmopolitan flavor of Vilnius and the "hybrid" model of Kaunas, through the way these two cities have responded as capitals of Lithuania in different periods of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, both cities are today neglecting the most important Lithuanian artist of the last century, an artist who could be truly celebrated in Lithuania, but who is in fact largely ignored.

Mikolajus Ciurlionis (1875-1911), although his work is little known in the West, is widely exhibited and revered as Lithuania's greatest artist. The representation of his work in special gallery spaces in both Kaunas and Vilnius shows how Ciurlionis has been linked with the "spirit of the nation."

It is not accidental that Lithuania's populist leader Vytautas Landsbergis has written a biography of Ciurlionis. The work of Ciurlionis, which has been used to create a strong idea of Lithuanian heritage, was strongly influenced by the Pan-European symbolist movement.

Jurgis (George) Maciunas (1931-1978) was the founder of the internationally known Fluxus movement, which was at its height during the 1960s. Maciunas went to school in Kaunas and was a contemporary of Vytautas Landsbergis.

So it is surprising for visitors to Kaunas that there is no recognition of Maciunas in the Kaunas gallery system, yet in Vilnius there is a permanent exhibition space set aside for Maciunas, in the Contemporary Art Center.

Vilnius, as the long-time capital and a long established city often populated by large numbers of non-ethnic Lithuanians, has strong cosmopolitan sentiments. It appears that Vilnius has stolen a son of Kaunas to support its own claim to cosmopolitanism.

The Fluxus movement was against ethnically based forms of nationalism. With artists like Yoko Ono in their number, Fluxus promoted a form of cosmopolitanism. Fluxus was more concerned with challenging certain notions of art and the artistic establishment.

Its cosmopolitan ideas refused to concern themselves with specific places and the ways in which a wide range of people interact over long historical periods to generate unique ways of living. But their ideas were really only accessible to a small number of very well off people in the world.

Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) was born in what was Lithuania under the Russian empire but is now in Belarus. He was the 10th of 11 children to a mender in Smilovitchi. This seems to be a small village called Smolevici, which is about 20 kilometers north of Minsk. Soutine is described in the art world as Lithuanian because this was part of the same administrative region under czarist rule.

Soutine attended the Vilna/ Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts from 1910 to 1913. Then he moved to Paris and worked in France for the remainder of his life.

Soutine suffered from three forms of strong social exclusion throughout his life. First he was from a poverty-stricken background, which made access to education difficult.

Secondly, Soutine was Jewish and suffered from the anti-semitism rampant in the Russian empire at that time. There were anti-semitic pogroms across Russia in 1903 and a big wave of pogroms in 1910.

Finally, by becoming a painter in a Jewish environment he made himself vulnerable to Jewish hostilities. As a child Soutine was apparently beaten and told that Jews don't paint.

Soutine is a very strong example of the idea that identity is far more complex than just issues of ethnicity or religion. Soutine wanted to be a painter against all the odds. This formation of triple exclusion forced Soutine to leave Lithuania for Paris.

Paris at the beginning of the 20th century was the role model of a cosmopolitan city. Many foreign artists were able to work there despite difficulty in gaining recognition of their talent by the French.

Eventually Soutine gained a rich patron and, by the time of his death in Nazi-occupied France, was recognized as at least an equal by some of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Picasso was one of the few to attend Soutine's funeral, and Soutine was also a strong influence on later painters such as Francis Bacon.

Despite many books being written about him, and with many exhibitions in the most influential galleries in the world, Soutine's powerful expressionism was found too challenging for influential critics of Modernist art like Clement Greenberg. Greenberg's strong criticism of Soutine slowed up the process of greater international recognition.

Soutine's work can be read as a powerful unconscious expression of the forms of social exclusion which he suffered. While this expression of suffering can be seen as negative or melancholy, some critics see this as opening up possibilities for a new and better future for humanity.

It is this positive potential in Soutine's work that links him to the notion of hybridity, which celebrates the fact that humans are diverse and that they can create new and better worlds. This idea also recognizes that cities and regions have always been mixed and will continue to mix.

This model of what a nation should be is currently being developed by cultural policy bodies such as the Council of Europe and is happening in countries like Britain.

On visiting Lithuania Soutine's work is notable by its absence. This absence is sending out a strong unconscious message that cultural diversity represented by Soutine's Jewishness is unwelcome.

Whilst the tragic fate of the Lithuanian Jews is well known, a formal recognition and celebration of his position within Lithuanian heritage would show a commitment to those of Russian or Polish origin who wish to develop a Lithuania of the future that can transcend old-fashioned and mythical concepts of the ethnic nation.

Many in Lithuania are proud of older historical traditions of ethnic tolerance. Tolerance is, however, a word associated with cultural separateness, which is what cosmopolitanism often amounts to.

Perhaps in the future the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture will take formal recognition of Soutine seriously. This would enable Lithuania to bask in the limelight of the European cultural policy stage, with two positive outcomes. First, it would show its more insecure citizens that ethnicity is only a small part of identity, and second it would prove definitively to the European Union that Lithuania has much to offer in its own right.

The book produced as a catalogue of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York specifically regrets that the initial hope to include information and work from his time in Vilnius was impossible to achieve. Looking at the bibliography most of the critical work done appears to be on work from about 1920 onwards. In that sense there is a further job of recuperation to be done by art historians.

Providing a cultural policy lead in Europe might undercut what can sometimes seems like a patronizing tone in relations between the EU and the Baltic states. Providing a future model of the nation, which neither retreats into a mythical past nor gives up its own structures of feeling for an insipid "McDonalds-ized" form of cosmopolitan culture, could be Lithuania's greatest gift to Europe.