In April at Art School on the Owls Hills, the district of historical Žaliakalnis, the painting exhibition of the works by Elena Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė, the painter from Kaunas, was held. Together with curator and painter Arvydas Martinaitis the artist compiled the exhibition Painting from Elena‘s earliest works. It is the first time that this selection of her earliest works from 1991-1995 was shown for the first time.
Elena (b. on March 4, 1958 in Žaliakalnis, Kaunas) graduated from Kaunas Art School (at that time – Steponas Žukas College for Applied Arts, now Justinas Vienožinskis Arts Faculty of Kaunas College) in 1978. Later she studied painting at the State Institute for Visual Arts of the Lithuanian SSSR (now Vilnius Visual Art Academy), which she graduated one year later than her fellow students. By the decision of the Institute‘s Communist Party nomenklatura she was expelled from the Institute in 1988 when there were barely three months left until the graduation. Elena‘s crime was copying answers from her notes to the exam sheets during the state examination of scientific (sic!) Communism. Those making the decision to expel her to this crime added the mischievous pranks, of which a student is not a student and without which the study years would not become a charming period of a person‘s life full of legends and stories to be re-told. One year later Elena was granted the permission to return to the Institute (her supervisor for the graduation work, triptych September, was Augustinas Savickas). The compulsory academic discipline of scientific Communism was no longer a part of the compulsory curriculum in the spring of 1989.
For Elena the end of her studies and the beginning of her artistic career coincided with the end of the Soviet Occupation and restoration of the Independence of Lithuania. Seldom does it happen that Great History makes such a present: together with the postgraduate diploma awards and completely new quality-wise possibilities to delve into unlimited, intensive explorations and discoveries. Elena did not have to paint singing tractors and Soviet workers passing out in the red ecstasy using ideologically approved artistic forms, render her ideas to the viewer using the Aesopian visual language. She did not have to go into compromises with herself trying to get nourishing but ideologically malodorous state commissions and later turn herself inside out trying to prove that anything she did then was also for the good of Lithuania. After the studies had been completed, the painter started at once working according to her own aesthetic agenda, making free, independent artistic decisions. In the greeting to the visitors of the exhibition the artists admits openly: “Now I say with great confidence that I am living a good life”.
About the beginning of Elena’s professional artistic career, about the very first years almost a quarter of a century ago of the good artistic life we talked with her at Painting in the afternoon of April 20, 2013.
2013, and you decide to show the works that you consider to be your first mature and important paintings. They are about 20 years old, and such a period in history is just one light breath. These works are already a part of your, as the painter’s, personal history as well as a part of Lithuanian art history. Why namely such an exhibition and why namely now?
First of all, I have never shown this collection in Kaunas. Individual works have been included into group exhibitions. It is important to me to see and to show if these works are still important, if they withstood the test of time. It is a Modernist collection because later I started to go into the direction of conceptualizing painting. This exhibition is also an introduction to my upcoming show.
Spring cleaning. 2013.
In 1989 you graduated from Vilnius Visual Art Institute. The graduates of that class were the first ones who did not have to pay their dues to the Soviet state by taking the assigned job for three years, a job that one did not ask for, did not even want too much. At that time there were also other doing something for the first time – our first emigrants who were leaving the country still having the Soviet passports for foreign trips, not waiting to get the green Lithuanian passports. Even though the freedom of movement was not as fancy as it is now, there were already some freedoms – freedom of movement, freedom of choice. You chose to come back to Kaunas.
Kaunas was my home. There were lots of strong painters in Kaunas, the artists group PostArt was active, and in general there was the feeling that many things in the public life were changing to the better. Nobody from my fellow students emigrated because they wanted to study or work abroad. After the years at the Institute and all the collisions there I wanted to work in my way, without any ideological constraints. The historical and cultural context of Kaunas was always important to me, the traditions too.
Besides, I had to come back to Kaunas because my father was ill.
The painter at the beginning of his career had to put the practical things in order: the painter may have an excellent idea and a unique artistic vision, but he still needs canvas, paints, brushes. On the Town Hall Square, where gallery Mano parkas belonging to the Kaunas Department of the Union of Artists of Lithuania is located now, there was a store selling supplies for artists. Yet without being able to show the ID proving that one was a member to the UAL one could look at these supplies but could not purchase them. At the same time, your paintings from 1989-1992 are already shown at group exhibitions, the first personal show you mount in 1990 at the Kaunas Artists’ House. How did this part – very material and tangible – part of an artist’s life look like then?
The vicious circle: you cannot become a member of the Artists’ Union because you have not had enough exhibitions but how you can organize them if you have not got paints, have not got materials because they are sold only to the members of the Artists’ Union.
We would come up with all kinds of solutions.
For example, Jonas Gasiūnas tegether with his students would go to St.Petersbourg and they were buying paints at a factory. Not in tubes, but high quality oil paints in cans (maybe somone was stealing from the factory and reselling it, maybe there was some factory shop there). At the artists residency in Palanga there was a store with pleasant sales personnel. Maybe because the residency was frequent by painted from the entire Soviet Union the shop was better stocked with materials, so they were selling paints easier. If anyone was going to Palanga, we would give money and they would buy paints and bring it.
And in Kaunas I would get stuck to someone who was already a member of the Artists‘ Union, and would beseach that person to buy me materials in that store. I would simply implore that person to do it for me. My first easel was bought for my by R.I. P. Arūnas Vaitkūnas. If a museum or a collector would buy a painting, then it was possible to buy materials, commission supporting frames because the prices were low, it did not not cost much. A small tube of paint costed 14 kopecks, a large tube – 40 kopecks.
There was also this rule that each member of the Union was allocated some paints; the Union would receive a certain amount of paints and distribute them differently to different painters. There was a list over painters at the Union and each was getting certain paints. It happened some painter did not need the assigned paints. I asked other members of the Union to buy paint for me, they obliged, then we would swap them among ourselves, re-sell them to each other. Since Social Realism was the officially approved style, plenty of ochres, browns, English reds were available in abundance; they would not get sold out and it was possible to buy them freely. The same was about canvas: a certain amount of it was allocated to each member painter of the Union. Sometime there were leftovers, it was given to others. It was necessary to find out ways of the situation, we had to be active, – and it was self-evident to all.
The artist also needs a room, a computer with the internet access and a bench on Laisves alėja are not enough.
In the beginning the studio was in my flat in Vilijampolė. One room, about 16 square metres perhaps, was the studio, and I, my husband Arvydas ir our son Kazimieras lived in another room.
This picture Letters to Oneself was painted at my flat in 1993. Expressionism does not permit many corrections but the life steps in too. Say, you feel ripe, the son is asleep, paints are on the palette, the agreement made that from now on 3-4 hours will be mine, that I am exiting the daily mode of life. Suddenly, Arvydas walks in and says: “You know there is a basketball match”. He turns a little potable TV set that was in the corner of the studio on and watches the match… But I did paint this picture later.
Then the life has taken another turn when Eugenijus Varkulevičius had left for Berlin. He was back home for a short visit and came to see us. When he saw how we painted, lived, and the child was taking his first steps. He said: “Take the keys to my studio and go there to work”. Arvydas and I used Augis’ studio on E. Ožeškienės Street for 6-7 years.
You painted The Skater in 1991. It is the only painting in the exhibition that has got a classical picture frame. In 2012 you told art historian Kristina Budrytė-Genevičė that this work was an important mile stone for you. What happened when you were painting it?
The Scater. 1991. Oil on canvas.
I was not painting it as such. Later I saw that there were several things united, that there were several motifs in it. During my study years we painted from nature: something is placed in front of you, everything is clear – you are painting from nature. In this work there is something from nature and something not from nature, two utterly different things are united: something that you see, the real impulse, and then the unreal, synthesized image that appears in the head; something seen, noticed and then added to that real motif.
After the graduation I was still painting still-lives, things simply placed on the windowsill, such processions of things – some stand, some are laid down. I was painting the outlines of the things, the silhouettes on complete white canvas. After The Skater I did not paint any still-lives. I came naturally to the understanding that there could be completely different things placed next to each other. I will give an example. It is getting dark, the room is dark, and you look at the window and see that there is something on the other side of the window but at the same time you see the things in the room on the window. The composition becomes multi-layered: while painting some things level and disappear, something becomes grows sharp and emerges. The space that is somewhere at the distance, the space immediately present and the internal space also, and the motifs lie on top of each other.
You have mentioned Letters to Oneself from 1993, which has some direct connections to the poetry by Henrikas Radauskas; namely, with the poem Letters to Oneself from the collection of poetry The Arrow in the Sky published in 1950 in Chicago. The poem starts like this: “Barely touching things and people / I am holding onto myself / And I am walking without the grace of the sky / The streets of the World”. In the elegant strophe by H. Radauskas, I think, the general principle of your creativity , the methodology of your art: people surrounding us and all the things nearby, the artist as the person and as the creator, the wider socio-cultural context of our lives – all they meet in a concrete work of art thanks to an artist.
This creative method is dictated by the life style itself. Sometimes artists say that they go to studios in the morning as to the office. I never had such a possibility – to investigate one theme thoroughly, render it, analyze it so it would travel from one work to another in a particular sequence. There was simply never time for that. This way I am living today too. Once I wanted to, was dreaming about one topic, to make a very even exhibition. As I understand now, I wanted to arrive at very conceptual issues, but the life arranged everything in such a way that I have never arrived at that. Never mind that, it is how it is supposed to be.
In the greeting to the viewer on the hall’s door you say that it is of outmost importance to find his own motif.
I have encountered such a thing when an artist is not able to formulate a motif for himself. It can be abstract painting but abstraction arises for the concreteness, its props are concrete. It happens that an author does not know how, cannot find a motif for himself, not even to take it from nature. For me it is something unbelievable. Then he starts copying other authors; for some it is the most natural thing, they are looking for motifs in the paintings by others and not in poetry, music, not in the re-created reality or culture to put it differently.
Art history knows such things. Nobody wanted to let Picasso into a studio because he would eat the whipped cream off the cake, all decorations off without any scruples, he would make many versions of his own. Yes, it is very important to find an own motif in all senses. It is very important to create your own artistic sign, to formulate it as a thought, to make it concrete. It may be that many have thought about it but you formulate your own sign.
Elena, painter and her teacher Alfonsas Vilpišauskas, painter and her husband Arvydas Brazdžiūnas-Dusė and The Evening Traveller. 2013.
Let’s come back to the motives layered one upon the other, which are both the ingredients of a technical composition and the aesthetic architectonic of the work. Say, the picture from 1991, The Evening Traveller. Well, there is a Lithuanian countryside landscape shown via late expressionist brushwork and what is called colouristics in Lithuania. Seen from this point of view, the painting is only one little plot within many in hectares of this kind of Lithuanian painting. The viewer would hardly guess that the picture captures the day, which is one of the most important in the history of 1985-1992 for Lithuania, Europe, the world, the day that made the world as it is today, different than it used to be in 1922-1991 when the monster known as the Soviet Union existed.
That day (August 19, 1991 – N.R.) got stuck in my memory, when we got to know about the State Coup in Moscow, that the military takeover was taking place, that it became unclear, which turn our life would take. I was in the countryside, I was painting. My R.I.P. aunt, on whose farm I was staying, was asking: “What should we do? Will we have to harvest potatoes or won’t we?” We were trying to calm her down by saying that they (the Soviets – N.R.) will come and harvest the potatoes themselves, if they come at all. The aunt was worried, told me not to let my husband Arvydas go to Vilnius. How I could have banned him from going if there were the Lithuanian self-defense squads formed… It was a very beautiful August, a warm evening, and that landscape was with me since my childhood. So I am painting, and my uncle is coming home with a scythe on his shoulder. And I painted everything exactly as it was. Here is a history for you, here is a motif. I do now know what it is more important here since it is not depicted, not written that there was the Coup taking place, and my reaction to that was this.
So, each painting by you has got larger and wider meanings than are immediately accessible to the viewer as direct neurological sensations or rather laconic titles of the works. Here is Three Sighs from 1993 that could be juxtaposed with The Skater, the only painting having the formal frame. As if on purpose, these two paintings are looking directly at each other. The decision to compose the painting in three individual canvases could not have been an accident, not a merely formal gesture on your side.
The idea for this painting came from the context. There was poly-chromatic research carried out at the Church of St.George, and we got the idea to make an exhibition there, at the Church that had become a church again after being a storage room. The work had to be vertical and long, to be hang on a column. The decision came through an analogy: you cut your finger and put a bandage on it, then comes the time to change it, you take it off and see the spots of blood imprinted at more or less the same interval in the ribbon of the bandage. The idea of this work was the work as the bandage shown on the column. I personally value this work very much, for it is one of the most interesting painting among my early works. I remember it very well that it was the Easter time, when some days are busy, some days are free and you can paint. This work was painting in two session, it remains unfinished, but it does not require it.
Elena and the viewers at the exhibition Painting on April 20, 2013.
One picture in the exhibition, The Boat of Love from 1992, raises the question about the limits of the artist’s individuality. Whether we like or not, it makes the viewer think of the well-known Lithuanian painting from the late 20th century – The Black Sun by Rimvidas Jankauskas-Kampas (1957-1993). The motif – a boat – is not even very Lithuanian, we are not Latvians who cannot not sing about the boat. Can it be that you with Kampas spent a lot of time at the fair with the swings-boats in the Vytautas Park? It is intriguing to see the same motif in the works of two painters with very strong individual artistic visions.
It is almost the same year when he painted The Black Sun. If both painting were put next to each other, it will be obvious that the two works are very different, and I am not annoyed by it. Many things remind someone of something. If you look attentively at the composition, the brush work, place the pictures next to each other, you will see that they are far from being alike. I am not going to lie: I do feel the responsibility to the Eternity. When I hung the painting at the group exhibition of the group Four at the Picture Gallery, Kampas came to see and said: “Wow! I have painted a similar picture”. But we had not seen each other’s works. Then in spring at the exhibition called The Context at the St. George’s Church he showed The Black Sun. There I saw it for the first time. The only similarity is the motif of a boat. Bright colours, – many of us were splashing them after the graduation. As if we had much paint.
This work I painted on the shore of a lake in the Utena District. I was painting outside, in the countryside, on the North side; there was the most beautiful light, but the colour had to be lifted up, tuned. Light is very important for this kind of painting, for the brightness at the daytime when you see everything perfectly. As to it reminding of something, I see no problem. Finally, we studied together, we can remind of each other in some ways and different in other ways. If the works by us who studied and painted together at that time were to be placed next to each other, many would notice shared tendencies, similarities.
It is likely that the Lithuanian art wold will have to wait for a long time to see these works by you in one exhibit. Do you imagine the future of these works? Are you planning it?
When my son Kazimieras was about 10 years old he asked me: “Mom, what will you do with your pictures after that?” I did not ask what after that is. I replied that it might be him who would do something with them, perhaps he would burn them, perhaps he would store them somewhere. I do not know. There are the racks in my studio, these paintings are store in them. There is not an insane amount of them, they do not get in my way. At the moment they are there. I do no think about it, not at all.
The racks in Elena’s studio in Šančiai, Kaunas. 2013.
Thank you, Elena, for the stories. See you at your and Arvydas’ exhibitions at National M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum in June.
The interview published on May 07, 2013 in kamane.lt