After a longer period, the legendary arts publication Nemunas is again a magazine with its classical square form but certainly not square content.
Photo by Justė Baronaitė Milušauskienė
Editor-in-chief Erika Drungytė included the review by Vidas Poškus of my show Dedication to Anna F. at Gallery Pamėnkalnio in November-December 2016 into the first, revamped issue of the magazine. This exhibition is a continuation of the portraiture series that started as the project About Them, and this link, also this link, and this link and this link too, will lead you to the background of these painting.
Power and Horror of Portraiture. The Cases of Elena Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė and Anne F.
Once, an acquaintance of mine (a rather young sculptor, by the way, creating objects from marble in the spirit of Lithuanian modernism of the 1980s) was explaining that the most terrible thing in visual art is portraiture. “Especially those depictions where sitters are look at the viewer from en face”, he specified. As an example, he mentioned one work by the British portrait painter from the 18th century where a lord was showed gaped directly at the audience, more exactly – at the small museum hall with visitors walking in it. Perhaps the speaker did not say the most terrible. Possibly, it sounded like that to me. Probably, the terms of persuasion and mesmerism were held in mind. But I think that horror (as its retinue fear with horror) is exactly what accompanies impact and what comes (gradually crawls up) after impact…
In classical portraiture painting (and this tradition was being formed since the era of the memorable Fayum portraits) the well-known (and invoked now too) mode of depicting the human being has been such a way that his gaze – more exactly, the eyes – would constantly observe the viewer walking around him (his portrait). Simply, when painting a portrait, both eye pupils should be placed in the centre of the eyes (consisting of eye-balls and iris). The similar principle was used in the painting of icons – Pantokrator or Virgin Mary gazing at repenting or worshiping palmers. Here we can also talk about the eyes as the gates to the Otherworld and the gaze as witnessing and persecution. But it is enough to say that it has got power and creates mood.
One more observation, and this time not necessary related to portraiture. In art, and let’s talk about painting in particular, the maximum impact was being pursued with the help of large formats. Let’s remember pre-historical colossus, painting of the Renaissance Venice and Baroque, even the leading figures of the 21st century (for instance, Anselm Kiefer). The size matters. The viewer gets lost and snarls up. He is being concretely affected physically by the gigantic format – drawn into it, grown over by it, crushed and so on.
Namely by these factors artist Elena Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė acts. In November and December of 2016 there was her exhibition Dedication to Anne F. held at Gallery Pamėnkalnio in Vilnius.
Firstly, about the title. It is obvious (at least for a more educated viewer) that the collection of works at the particular place at the particular time was dedicated to Anne Frank – a Jewish girl from Germany, a victim of the Holocaust. One diptych would not allow to doubt it – using the means of painting, in it the photographic image of the 16 year old girl is recreated and it’s negative antipode. Let us remind it that Anne got a notebook from her father as a gift for her 13th birthday and so she started writing the diary (it’s excerpts, calligraphically written, are used in the negative image), which later, after her death, had become the witness of that fearsome time and the bloody history, and the humanity in any circumstances… The artist has simply used the picture of Anne F., invoked both earlier mentioned portraiture’s methods of power and impact (the gaze + scale) and created a dedication. Or we can also say differently – the artists demonstrated all powers and horrors imbedded in portraiture. In this way, we could state, even if we were not to go deeper into it, who and for what reason is depicted.
I can tell my opinion about such dedications. “Such” – I have got in mind artists’ conscious binds to some well-known, iconic things. It is really not that difficult to win the audience over using the secondary favourites – from the Simpsons to the Sopranos, nuo Mickey Mouse to Winnie the Pooh. Those willing to go deeper, those searching for essences and truths employ Onkel Rudi or 48 reflections of literature, music, science (like Gerhard Richter), or actors of the German mythology as the aforementioned Keifer. In my opinion, E. Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė represents the German fraction of Lithuanian painting. It is witnessed by the palette reminiscent of the Wehrmacht’s uniforms or the paint spread in the camouflaged, sensitive manner, and the angular Northern hardness (those figures are really angular as are teenagers!), finally – pathos and passion. Thus, talking about her portraits, the impact is done not by the eyes or the side reaching several meters…
Moreover, there is only (sic!) celebrity in this exhibition. It is Anne Frank. She becomes a specific kind of key to the font for reading other portraits. Elena is both the artist and the art teacher who have raised two rebellious teenage sons. It tells a lot. I will not hide – I know this artist personally. I know how sensitively she approaches the adult-teenager relations, how subtly she reacts to intersections between a teacher and a pupil. In each person depicted she sees Anne Frank. Here speculations can be endless. And about that each of us, at least of teenagers, in certain circumstances (and they exist all the time – the mundanely restless atmosphere of the recent political events attests to that very well) would become those Anne F.s Or vice versa – if the situation were different, and Anne Frank remained alive, would have become adult, grown old and died – had lived the continuous rhythm of the earthly life where the adolescent age is not the essence (of course, we could argue about it), just one episode.
The artist does not cover her sitters in labels. Other depicted persons are not celebrities. They are not heroes of photographs and TV shows. Usually, they are characters from streets and yards, from middle and high schools. Catgirl, Street Angel, Bruno, Lolita are well sounding names pointing to their informal affiliation. Earrings, hair-dos are also from there. But the most important thing is personalities. I would not dare call E. Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė a portraitist. It would even be insulting. She is painting Danish princes or presidents celebrating their jubilees, she goes deep into the essence of the person. The easiest (not a very appropriate to say it, it should be better said – most feasible) way to get into the person’s body and soul is through the eyes – the mirror of the soul. For this reason alone the lovers look into each other’s eyes in the same way as the interrogator pierces the accused with his gaze…
In in of us there hides both an executioner and an Anne Frank, and an Adolf Hitler. Let’s say that E. Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė declares it through the dualistic structure of her portraits. On the other hand, seen formally, it is only the fixation of the image emerging. Without the negative as the initial stage (and without any ethical nuances) there would be no positive – that is a recognizable, discernible and visible portrait. Yet I think the author invokes power and horror as portraiture’s tools (I would fine down that the word horror here expresses Kierkegaard’s fear and trembling problematic) in order to highlight the positive origin (here in the ethical sense too). Only because of that the teenagers are about to become adults, living among the dead, not victims and not executioners either, simply enforcing the humanity through their eyes gazing at the viewer and their monumental formats.
It remains to be specified what has been said about so-called portraits (let’s call a spade for a spade – these are not true portraits, it’s more the doors to the Eternity, which can be entered penetrating faces and eyes to see the truth containing lots of horror and fear) is also valid for other portraits – and in general for genuine, truthful art.
My 3 men and my 2 pictures. November 23, 2016 at Gallery Pamėnkalnio, Vilnius.