Painting that was born and lived for a long time in the basement 

ARCHIVE. Interview with art critic Nijolė Adomonytė


2021-02-09 5 min read

Painting that was born and lived for a long time in the basement 

In January 7-29, three halls of the Vilnius Vartai Gallery housed a display of works by Vaidotas Žukas. The exhibition bearing an intriguing title, “paintings that were never displayed”, consisted of paintings created in 1975-1986 and 1998-1999. 

Canvases hidden in basements were brought to light, still in their authentic state.  Unframed paintings that had never been exhibited, included a rebellious spirit and the dust of time; they did not deny the past, but neither did they stiff. These vital, tacky paintings had, perhaps, an even stronger effect than they had back in the eighties. 

At that time, Mr Žukas’ work was foreshadowed by a convulsive existentialist art, which intoxicated most of the more flexible painters. Today his art emerges as a lonely pillar of fire in the torn apart landscape of contemporary painting. 

V. Žukas’ painting fits under the expressionist formula: it creates a vision of the “suffering world”. However, the author does it with dignity, not chasing after the typical stimulants of Expressionism. 

He paints the issues of the Far or Middle East, and chooses biblical scenes, i.e. stories which should make one excited or tearful. 

The same can be said about the plasticity: it’s complicated, multi-layered process lacks obvious signs of depression, but it gets on your nerves as something that’s about to burst. 

Not only does the exhibition, provide a rare opportunity to see quality painting, it also has a moment of intrigue. 

Knowing the metamorphoses of V. Žukas’ life and his current journalistic and educational activities, many will be interested to explore the “pre-Christian” face of the author. A conversation with the artist should also clarify the circumstances of creating art in the past. 

‘Why weren't these paintings “displayed”?’

‘For various reasons. Some paintings are leftovers which did not fit in the larger cycles, others I hid because of  their “non-commercial” appearance. Some of them I used to carry to the Exhibition Palace, believing that they weren’t inferior to works brought by others. 

But then they ignored me. I’ve heard there was a sanction: not to accept Žukas’ work in exhibitions for ten years. I remember a case when a portrait of J. Keliuotis painted by me got accepted. Unfortunately, just before the opening of the exhibition, it was visited by K. Bogdanas and L. Šepetys who upon seeing my name ordered that it be removed.’

‘What does the intriguing phrase “the basement period” mean? You used it many times when preparing for the exhibition.’

‘For me the basement was the beginning of my creative career, a stage of my life. For a couple years I worked in the basement. Clearly, this was harmful to my health. There was a lack of light (sometimes I painted in candle light), a lack of air, and the smell of paint made me choke. Later, Father saw that something might come out of his son and allowed me to bring my canvases home. 

Here it was better, but what was painted during the day I had to breathe during the night – I worked and I slept in the same room... Works piled up, and then they were again taken to the basement. Many of them were destroyed when the sewer pipes broke.’

‘You call works that are displayed in the exhibition your “existentialist period”. How much is the suffering purely philosophical, and how much of it is real?’

‘All was real, a true experience, nothing was done on purpose. I’ve always been very much aware of the occupation – for me it was a very heavy burden. 

I survived it through my creative process. For example, I sometimes would paint a nice and neat picture. And then I’d take the broadest brush, dip it in black paint and go over the faces and bodies a few times. Of course, I tried to do this in a way that was logical and aesthetic. 

Such is the semantics of my work. For example, who were those naked children? They weren’t stripped and put on display for morally wrong reasons. Someone looks at them as guinea pigs – maybe the doctors or the military experts. After all, the stripping of a young man is known from ancient times – the Christian martyrs were stripped down for ridicule. A girl protecting her chastity would be displayed in the middle of town. Of course, there are beautiful legends about how her hair would grow long all of a sudden, but if you imagine the actual condition of this person, I think it’s similar to the human state during Soviet times. 

For me, the creative process was excruciating. At that time I thought that everyone who wanted to seriously pursue artistic quality could achieve it. I sought art with brutality. For ten years, day after day, I would stand in front of the easel for ten straight hours. My friends Josefas Josadė and Rolandas Rastauskas would come every weekend only to find a dozen new pieces. But I destroyed many of them. Especially when my friends harshly criticized my art.’

‘What made ​​you stop?’

‘ My life and work had reached such a degree of tension that it seemed easy to end everything. Those sick kids were my authentic experience. I myself lay on a deathbed several times. Everything I painted was connected to my personal life. In addition, my arrogance as an artist had reached its peak. There came a time when I felt that I could do everything, everything was in my hands. But what was next? Was this enough? I realized that something had to change.’

‘Looking from the side, this period seems not unlike a session of exorcism.’ 

‘Could be. Although I did not consciously formulate these things. I just worked and searched. I’m not very fond of the word “to search.” I have never done art “just for the hell of it”, so even my earliest 

work cannot be called “searching.”

But, on the other hand, after all, a good artist is always looking for something – even if he is ninety years old. I think it’s funny that some of my older colleagues even wear beards the way they grew them thirty years ago. Don’t they get bored? 

The same can be said about painting: how long can you use the same strokes, the same colors? I have learned to create hard, coarse, even screaming art: work that makes you want to run away, and attracts you at the same time. But the time came when I felt that it might hurt others, and I felt I couldn’t go on like this myself.’

‘Can good pictures, however, be harmful?’

‘Kęstas Antanėlis had bought a few rather strange paintings from me – I warned him that he had better hide them. 

I do not want to mystify those things and think that the tragedy that took place in his home happened due to the paintings, but I sometimes feel that it isn’t good to be with them all the time and keep them in the environment where you come to rest. They suck your energy, they breathe, they require attention and are emotive. 

That’s what I want, but I’m not sure if it’s good for others. 

Yet many in Vilnius have my paintings – I’d say, there is about a hundred of them in different homes.’ 

‘Everything, you say, is very personal. Didn’t you experience any influence from the development of Lithuanian art and its topical issues of the time?’

‘I came to a Lithuanian identity through a different door than everyone else. And much later – when I did not have a workshop and was allowed to work in the folk art repository of the All Saints Church, and when I started to travel throughout Lithuania. Only then did the Lithuanian identity become natural to me. In the beginning, I deliberately wanted to move away from what is known as the “Lithuanian tradition.” 

I really like the words of an Estonian painter and a good friend of mine Peter Mudist: “There is no need to look for your face.” 

If you look for the creative product conscientiously and long enough, if you are not afraid of changes (and changing is very typical of me), the face appears automatically.’

Nijolė Adomonytė “Lietuvos Rytas”, January, 2000.

Cover painting: Stars-flowers. 1995-2015. Oil on canvas. 70x100

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