ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.1 - Spring 2011
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Book Review

Laučkaitė, Laima. Art in Vilnius. 1900–1915. Translated by Diana Barnard, Alfonsas Laučka. Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2008, 199 pages, 234 illustrations, ISBN 978-9955-23-183-7.

Laučkaitė, Laima. Vilniaus dailė XX amžiaus pradžioje. Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2002, 207 pages, 227 illustrations, ISBN 9955- 429-71-2.

The book under review is both a stylish art book and a useful scholarly work published in two variants, Lithuanian and English. It is stylish because it is designed artistically, with carefully selected illustrations knowledgeably associated with the text. It is useful since, chapter by chapter, it systematically reveals the art of Vilnius in the early twentieth century. The book discloses the artistic milieu and the activity of individual artists in the old capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Separate chapters are devoted to Polish art (“The Poles: 1. A Merry-go-round of Exhibitions; 2. Art as a Guardian of the Past”); Lithuanian art (“The Lithuanians: 1. The Activities of the Lithuanian Society of Art; 2. Collisions in the Art of Young Lithuania”); Jewish art (“The Jews”); and Russian art (“The Russians”). Incidentally, the author covers different interrelated issues of the perception of the traditional and modern national dependence of art (“The Duality of Lithuanian Art”), and at the end of the first chapter, she presents endeavours to unite artistic activities against the background of all kinds of national strife and generational discord (“Searches for a National Rapprochement”). This chapter is perhaps the most valuable in the book since integrative endeavours have been rarely dealt with, even by those investigators who were directly concerned with the interdependent knowledge and reconciliation of the inheritors and inhabitants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, such as Andrzej Romanowski, who describes the relations among literary circles in a step-motherly, albeit thorough, manner in his book Młoda Polska Wileńska (Kraków: Universitas, 1999).

In the second part of her monograph, the author presents the most influential personalities and artistic trends dominating contemporary Vilnius. Without obliterating their segregation and differentiation, without concealing their quarrels and without surrendering her right to evaluate artistic quality, Laima Laučkaitė conveys the picture in its entirety, thus exposing the then dominant cultural syncretism and the idea of integral Art, consciously writing the word with a capital A.

Various often contradictory undertakings create a pictorial panorama produced and united by the genius loci of Vilnius. The author warns that this picture is not complete, but this caution is largely redundant. If all details had been registered, the work would be overcrowded and the general picture fuzzy. Meanwhile, the author managed to find a proper vantage point enabling her to observe the situation, not only from the perspective of distance, but also against a wider European background and, wherever necessary, from a Central or East European perspective. Stating that “…today, the junction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is seen as a period of the rise and renewal of European art” (p. 12), the researcher asks: “Was there a similar ‘silver age’ here?” Perceiving the breadth of the European background and being well acquainted with its materials, the author does not lose the specific quality of Vilnius; she manages instead to catch it carefully, perusing diaries, correspondence, and even the reports of Russian tsarist censors found in various libraries and archives. It is worth noting that the author successfully exploits these materials, and thus obtains a natural and convincing final result from her research. The enormous amount of work put into this study is also witnessed by the discreetly presented reference notes placed unobtrusively in the margins, but nevertheless worthy of attention.

The work is based on a thorough knowledge of modern comparative principles and methodologies. In her observations, the art historian applies them cautiously and manages to go into the inner world of the period rather than merely describe it from the outside. One could even state that her vantage point is the suburb of Užupis in Vilnius, from the home of the painter Ferdynand Ruszczyc, whose house stands high on the slope with its magnificent view of Old Town. This view in some way coincides with the panorama of the book Art in Vilnius 1900- 1915. The painter saw Vilnius as a work of art – asleep and waiting for its awakening and integration into the context of world culture. This vision was seen through the windows of Ruszczyc’s salon, in which a group of people ready to serve the cause of Beauty gathered early in the twentieth century. In this milieu, partly cosmopolitan, but nevertheless bursting with love for this particularly beautiful city, there developed a spirit of cooperation, albeit not acceptable to everyone, in the name of the spiritual and aesthetic rebirth of the city. In the book, the discourse is conducted as if from that Užupis hill, at the foot of which today stands the Vilnius Academy of Arts. The culmination is reached in the chapter entitled “Ferdynand Ruszczyc’s Artistic Activity: Between Aestheticism and Patriotism.” Apart from a quite different chapter on a prominent art patron, “Józef Montwi and the Manifestation of Art Nouveau,” this is the only chapter dealing with a single artist rather than an artistic phenomenon or a group of artists. Even Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis is not bestowed that honor, although he is the main (but not the only) hero in the chapter on Lithuanian symbolism, "Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Lithuanian Symbolism.” As is well known, this artist did not reside in Vilnius for very long, and although he had far-reaching plans, he lacked the resources and time for their implementation. His gypsy-like way of life prevented him from maintaining an elegant home, living among beautiful (though modest) things brought from neighbouring estates, and engaging in book and magazine publishing, or setting up theatrical and quasi-theatrical events without, in large measure, any restraint, as Ruszczyc could. Ruszczyc was an artist “for whom there were no minor things,” outside the boundaries of an integral and indivisible Art. Reviewing the artist’s creative initiatives, Laučkaitė recalls the sources of his projects, among them the creations of the Pre-Raphaelites and the postulates and works of William Morris.

A characteristic feature of Laučkaitė’s style is to introduce the European context preceding each new theme. Thus, before speaking about Tygodnik Wileński, published by Ruszczyc, she points out other similar artistic magazines, among them The Studio (England), Chimera (Poland), Ateneum (Finland), and Verotajs and Zalktis (Latvia). Introducing a new trend or an artist, she briefly identifies them so the beginner does not get lost or the specialist feel he or she is being drilled repeatedly, like a weak pupil. Maybe it is a feature peculiar to popular publications written in the “American” way, but Art in Vilnius 1900-1915 combines the characteristics of scholarly works with those of popular books. The readers of the latter might find the introductory chapter complicated, which, with its copious footnotes, looks like a scholarly work. For some, this book will be an art guide, for others, interested in the footnotes, it will be a conscientious compendium of information about art in Vilnius at the turn of the nineteenth century.

With respect to scholarly balance and a lack of national bias, Art in Vilnius 1900-1915 wins high praise from its introduction to its last chapter. The chapters on new trends (“The Rise of the Avant-garde”) and a new style of city life (“Was there a la Belle Époque in Vilnius?”) sum up the book. Laučkaitė’s work is worthy of recognition merely for being written “without exceptions,” i.e., without especially emphasizing the problems of certain nations. For instance, she notes that after 1864 the tsarist government imposed a ban on both Lithuanian and Polish books, whereas in traditional historiography, the grievances of only one nation are accentuated.

Some shortcomings could be noted. Some appeared in the book's translation from Lithuanian into English. The translation itself is rich in phraseology and well done, but sometimes the influence of the Lithuanian original is clearly felt in the use of certain words or senses. For example, an attempt is made to write surnames so their forms correspond to the national selfidentification of their owners (the author states this on p. 20). Nevertheless, Wiwulski becomes Vivulskis, even in the fragment about his “dual national engagement” (p. 57), and the names of personalities from a more distant past are presented only in their Lithuanian form, e.g., Kanutas Ruseckas, Mykolas Andriolis, Vincentas Smakauskas (p. 21) or Sluška (p. 29). The use of the Lithuanian word verbos in the English text in relation to Ruszczyc’s collection of traditional Palm Sunday fronds is actually a double translation, requiring the addition of the Polish word palma or a more detailed description. There are also some factual errors. In Central and Eastern Europe of the period there were not two, but three, greedy empires: Austro- Hungary, Russia, and Prussia (p. 16). Supraśl, a Polish town in the county of Białystok, is attributed to Belarus (p. 100), and the Orthodox Jordan Feast, or Theophany, is treated as Catholic (p. 29). However, a full absence of mistakes would seem strange against the background of such an enormous abundance of facts, even though the author demonstrates a high level of competence and tact. As the exception endorses the rule, so these few inaccuracies prove the correctness of the author’s statement that “The tendency to distinguish, in the dual centuries-old ethnically common cultural heritage, what belonged to the Poles and what belonged to the Lithuanians remained strong until the very end of the twentieth century” (p. 61). 

Art in Vilnius 1900-1915, however, appeared at the start of the twenty-first century, in our time, which is more favorable (let’s hope for a long while) to the search for what is common. The author, together with the visitors to Ruszczyc’s salon, shares the belief that participation in the creation of universal culture, rather than isolation, was the real aim of national aspiration, and even more so, perceived as an objective appropriate to the whole of humanity. Similarly, the cult of Art was opposed to the exploitation of artistic creation for subservient and servile purposes. From this perspective, Vilnius could be seen as being abreast of the other European capitals of Beauty. One only needs to walk up the hill of Užupis with the author of this fine book.

Radosław Okulicz-Kozaryn, University of Poznań
Translated by Alfonsas Laučka, Professor Emeritus University of Vilnius.