ALWAYS ON THE ROAD…
PRANAS DOMŠAITIS’ (1880 – 1965) PAINTINGS EXHIBITION ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
Organiser - Lithuanian Expatriate Art Foundation
Partners - Lewben Art Foundation, Čiurlionis National Art Museum
Curator and author – Kristina Jokubavičienė
Coordinator – Ugnė Bužinskaitė
Translator – Aleksandra Fomina
Editor – Rima Bertašavičiūtė
Photo - Rytis Šeškaitis
Translation editor – Joseph Everatt
Sponsors - Lewben Group, Enercom Capital, Živilė and Jonas Garbaravičiai, Lithuanian Councol for Culture
Media Sponsor – artnews.lt
When the collector Mykolas Žilinskas in the Federal Republic of Germany donated two oil paintings by Pranas Domšaitis (1880 – 1965), among other works of art, to the Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis National Art Museum (ČNAM) in 1977, neither the artist’s name nor his work were well known in Soviet Lithuania. The first brief piece of news about the famous Lithuanian artist, who originally came from Lithuania Minor and ended his life in South Africa, had appeared in the Lithuanian press a year after his death in 1965.
In 1980, the Lithuanian Foundation (Chicago, USA) acquired more than 800 works, mostly from Domšaitis’ creative legacy, from his widow, who by that time had moved from South Africa to Hawaii. After the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, the foundation donated 665 works by the artist to the Lithuanian Art Museum.
For 15 years, the Klaipėda branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum has shown a permanent exhibition of Domšaitis’ work in a gallery that bears the artist’s name. For the past two decades, special attention by Lithuanian society, art lovers and collectors has been paid to the distinctive gift from the Lithuanian Foundation, the huge collection of works, the distribution of exclusive information about the artist’s life and work, and most importantly, his unique art. The works by Domšaitis, collected by private individuals and institutions, both complement and reveal new and unseen aspects of the painter’s creative work.
One of the goals of the Lithuanian Expatriate Art Foundation (LEAF, established in 2010) is to gather works by artists who lived and worked outside Lithuania, and which are therefore scattered around the world, as an integral and inseparable part of Lithuanian art. Over the years, the foundation has assembled an impressive collection of expatriate art, which includes 26 works by Pranas Domšaitis.
Since this year is the 135th anniversary of Domšaitis’ birth, the Lithuanian Expatriate Art Foundation decided to organise an exhibition to present his works from the foundation and other private collections (belonging to Nerijus Dagilis, Edmundas Kolakauskas, Aleksandr Popov, Rolandas Valiūnas, Ramūnė and Antanas Zabulis). The exhibition also provides an opportunity to see Domšaitis’ works from the Mykolas Žilinskas Gallery, part of the Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis National Art Museum, which found their way into the museum as gifts from private individuals, in particular from the artist’s widow Adelheid Armhold-Domšaitienė-Žvironienė (1901–1992). The exhibition comprises 55 works: oil paintings, pastels and watercolours.
In addition to oil paintings, pastels and watercolors, Domšaitis’ artistic legacy consists of drawings, etchings and lithographs, and embroidered compositions. He painted portraits and still-lifes, but his artistic intentions are best revealed in his religious compositions and landscapes. The foundation has selected works for this exhibition in order to provide a condensed picture of the artist’s life, from his origins in the village of Kruopinė in Lithuania Minor to Cape Town in South Africa.
His creative legacy includes numerous intriguing double-sided paintings, of which the back is often artistically equal, or even superior to, the front. His creative impulsiveness was quite compatible with the frequent repetition of the same motif. The exhibition shows his talent by providing two, at first glance very similar, paintings (African Women, LEAF, and Two Women, A. and R. Zabulis collection), whose subtle differences in composition and colour are only revealed on closer inspection.
The beginning of the painter’s creative work bears the marks of late Impressionism. His early work is dominated by images of his native land and everyday life, and is characterised by realistic drawing and colouring (Potato Digging, circa 1911–1916, ČNAM; Portrait of Mother, 1914–1916, ČNAM; Portrait of a Woman, 1917, LEAF).
A turning point occurred during the First World War. The style of pictorial realism in Domšaitis’ work was replaced by the expression of his inner feelings, and came closer to Expressionism, with its simplified forms, rich structure and colour of the painting’s surface (Farmer’s Family, circa 1919; Streets, 1919 (both LEAF); Lithuanian Village During the War (Rural Scene), circa 1918, ČNAM). From down-to-earth subjects, idyllic landscapes and rural scenes, the artist changed to landscapes that were full of expression, and his first compositions depicting the Flight into Egypt, a topic that was to become extremely important for the artist, who had spent most of his life away from his homeland. The freely interpreted biblical theme was related to wartime events, witnessed by the artist himself, and to the universal human experience of refugees, expatriates and eternal travellers. In the 1920s, Domšaitis’ work was influenced by the new materiality (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement (Still-Life with Fruit, 1927–1930, Rolandas Valiūnas’ collection; Portrait of my Wife Adelheid, 1929, ČNAM).
The period of the artist’s success and recognition in Germany ended with the Third Reich, which launched a campaign against modern art in 1933, claiming it to be ‘degenerate’ (Entartete Kunst). Finding himself on the list of unwanted artists, on the outbreak of the Second World War, Domšaitis took refuge in Austria; and in 1949, he and his wife left for South Africa.
The distant country provided him with a favourable atmosphere for his work, so he painted extensively, held solo exhibitions, and participated in group exhibitions. In Mamre (Western Cape Province), Domšaitis found and would often visit a missionary station that had been there since 1808. His name and work became an integral part of 20th-century art in South Africa.
The mid-1950s marked a qualitatively new stage in his creative work, characterised by laconic forms and expressive colour combinations in his landscapes, still-lifes and figure compositions. In his later work, Domšaitis, who returned once more to religious subjects, would often develop his favourite scenes from the New Testament: the Flight into Egypt, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Kings, and the Crucifixion. In seeking to interpret rather than portray the material world, he would go deep into the essence of the subject and put all his attention into the intensity and rhythm of the colours and figures. His compositions focus strongly on light and lighting. Flashes of light, reflections and shine create a magical atmosphere, with glowing, vivid, almost primary colours, framed by a black outline.
The exhibition displays one of his last works, called I am Always on the Road (Ich bin immer unterwegs) (1963–1965, ČNAM). Two figures, illuminated by the silvery light of the moon, are travelling, directed by a white cloud. According to his wife, Domšaitis uttered these words on his deathbed. It is hard to say exactly what the phrase refers to: is it a quiet look at what has already passed, or a preparation for a new phase in a journey, a step into the timeless beyond, which has almost palpably fallen into place in his visions of pictorial landscapes?
The paintings that Domšaitis painted during the last decade of his life have been described as works marked by an enormous suggestiveness and an unbridled human sensory quality, as well as modern icons that invite us to indulge in existential reflection. The artist himself took a more unsophisticated look at his own work, which was his reality, his meaning and expression of life. In his rare statements, he identified himself only as a mediator, who did not even know why he had a unique gift or grace, an ability to use images to convey visions, feelings and sensations of the mystery of existence.
Lithuanian art of the 20th-century has few figures whose work is marked by such an intertwining of different layers (the European modern art experience, images of Lithuania Minor, the fluid forms of Lithuanian folk art, and traditional African art) forming a multi-layered and multi-faceted creative texture. Looking at Domšaitis’ work, many meanings come to mind with the following words by Harold Haydon (USA):
Through the ages, nations and states remain best-known by their artists and the value of their work. Blessed are those who can appropriate Pranas Domšaitis, because, although deeply drawn into the whirlpool of artistic movements in his turbulent era, he never lost touch with the Lithuanian artistic tradition. Domšaitis remained a Lithuanian artist, for artists, once developed, carry with them their own nationality, regardless of where they find themselves ...
The Lewben Art Foundation, founded by the Vilius Kavaliauskas Private Foundation, is a non-governmental organisation which is a part of the Lewben Group, an international provider of financial, tax, asset, transaction, management consulting, finance and accounting services. The foundation manages a collection of Lithuanian and international art from the end of the 18th century to the present day. In addition to paintings, which dominate the collection, there are large amounts of graphic works, photographs, sculptures and installations. The Lewben Art Foundation organises exhibitions and publishes books on art, in collaboration with art researchers, curators, artists, and cultural and art organisations.
The Lewben Art Foundation established the Lithuanian Expatriate Art Foundation, which seeks to systematically explore the art of the diaspora and return it to the homeland. The collection managed by the Lithuanian Expatriate Art Foundation consists of works by members of the Lithuanian diaspora from the early 19th century to the present day.
The Lewben Art Foundation is constantly supplementing its activities with new cultural and educational projects, as well as new cultural initiatives. In 2013, it became a founder of the public enterprise Artnews, which manages projects such as artnews.lt, artbooks.lt, Kita/ fotografija and Echo Gone Wrong.