A life transformed

  • 2002-07-04
Vaidotas Zukas has been dubbed by some the "artistic conscience of Lithuania." A painter, journalist and one-time presidential candidate, Zukas has been at the forefront of Lithuania's intelligentsia since the 1980s. Ausrine Bagdonaite talked to him about his life, work and the similarities between the two.

Zukas is married and has six children. A large section of his family's flat was converted to an art gallery where Zukas exhibits his work. He also occasionally holds public political and cultural discussion session there, which attract students, artists, lawyers and politicians.

In 1989, Zukas founded the radio station Mazoji Studija ("The Little Studio"), part of Lithuanian Roman Catholic Radio, and was its program director for seven years. From January 2000 to April 2001 Zukas was the director general of Lithuanian National Radio and Television. He now hosts the radio shows "The Winds," "Summer Studio with Vaidotas Zukas" and the talk show "Face to Face."

How would you depict your works ignoring critics' interpretations?

Critical disapproval reached me only during the Soviet era. Now the criticism is more or less benevolent. Out of all the critics who tried to interpret my work, art critic Nijole Adomonyte was the one who most exactly verbalized the subjects in the paintings. Even those I knew only subconsciously. It appeared that she was telling what I wanted to hear, because the artist is often humble to talk about his works, then he purposely says something less clever or even purposely makes fun of his working process. Journalists take things seriously and write down exactly what I say. I'm a journalist myself, but I try to analyze the spiritual and emotional world. Journalists quote the artist but don't understand the irony, which may be hidden behind what is said. It would be an advantage, if journalists knew principles and subtleties of music, theater and art. (Tabloid-style journalism) has drowned the culture. But, anyway, being a journalist and an artist, I also think that real values may be infused into the mass culture in a milder way.

How do your ideas translate into realty?

I'm not into a quick creative process. I like the prudent method of creating. For example, I prefer Paul Cezzane to Van Gogh, who used to paint three canvases a day. Paul Cezzane sometimes produced one painting in two or three years. Another reason why my works don't come out often is my journalistic activities. I can peacefully paint only when I recede into silence. I'm for a serious, restrained and profound working process. I don't like setbacks and have to go from the beginning to the end although, at the end the work can sometimes look playful.

How has the nature of your work changed throughout your life?

(It has changed) very much indeed. At the beginning, before I entered the Vilnius Academy of Art, there was the discontent and search of a young human being. I entered the academy in 1974 and became an artist in 1976. Then my nose was up high, I wasn't interested in anything but art. I worked a lot - about 10 to 12 hours a day. That's because during the Soviet-era undercover people from abroad or the culture attachï from St. Petersburg or Moscow who was looking for informal modern art used to come to Lithuania, so my friends would bring those people to me. I wasn't directly anti-Soviet or a very religious person at that time, but I wanted to make interesting and good art in the international context.

You were expelled from the Academy of Art. Why?

I was a disobedient person in the Soviet system. I was scolded at the academy, but they couldn't (raise objections) because I had good grades. The pretext for expelling me was loud partying after the opening of the exhibition by students two weeks before graduating in 1979. But at that time I was a full-blooded artist and degrees were of no importance to me. I got the diploma later, in the independent Lithuania.

How did the expulsion affect your career?

On the one hand, the conflict with the former government had built some barriers. After I was expelled from the Academy of Art, I was barred for 10 years from taking part in official exhibitions. On the other hand, I was as free as a bird, because those who graduated had to do senseless work in factories and create proletarian posters. As for me, I went to the countryside and painted whatever I wanted, since I had given up everything.

When did you get interested in journalism? Where did you come up with the idea for "The Little Studio"?

When one of my teachers, Justinas Mikutis, died I was invited to speak on the radio about him. I enjoyed the experience, went to the head of national radio and told them I was interested in doing something. After several successful tries I was given permission to do the half-hour weekly Catholic program in 1989 (on Lithuanian Catholic Radio). There had been no Christian culture on the radio since World War II. Later we founded a separate studio - "The Little Studio." That was an interesting seven-year period. We were allied with the Roman Catholic Church, but at the same time we were separate. We wanted to have a versatile church. Now I think that I demanded too much from the church, because maybe it didn't have all the necessary conditions for making some changes. I don't quite like what the studio is doing now, because they are not looking for anything new.

What role does religion play in your life?

When I was young, the word "God" wasn't often heard in our family. The most vehement creative period of my life was between 1977 and 1990. This wasn't only the search for the form but also the constant analysis of myself and going deep into the transformation of real life on the canvas or paper. Art asks to interpret life somehow, not to copy it directly. I thought that art was even higher than parents. I was a typical hard-boiled existentialist. After that period began this Christian period in my life. Looking back 20 years I can say that life itself and the creative process led to this turning point. Now the religious reawakening both in Lithuania and in my creative work has flooded back.

Do you feel you're more a journalist or a painter?

I feel like a father most of all. My oldest daughter is 25 and has her own family, and my youngest boy is 7 years old. Everything happens in our family like in any family but first of all we are friends. I like playing and being crazy with my wife and children. Also there's a constant choice in life - what is more important and what is not. At the same time you have to do many things, so you choose what is best. Intuition tells you how to behave.