Between 17 May and 30 June the Panny Marie Snežné monastery gallery in Prague is hosting an exhibition Four Lithuanian Photographers in Prague. The works presented in the exhibition come from Antanas Sutkus’ photography series People of Lithuania, Aleksandras Macijauskas’ series Markets of Lithuania, Romualdas Rakauskas’ series Blooming, and Romualdas Požerskis photographic narrative about a village dwarf The Little Alfonsas. In the Czech capital, the works by Lithuanian photographers attracted both a large crowd of visitors and attention from art photography experts. It can appear self-evident – after all, the presented works are habituary called the Lithuanian Photography School classics. However, the abstract and reoccurring argument of “classics” has little to say about the historically conditioned context for the Lithuanian photography exhibition in the Czech Republic and does not explain the reasons behind its popularity.
Organized by Garik Avanesian, a curator and publisher living in Prague, the exhibition features four Lithuanian creators and extends the long-term tradition of collaboration between the two countries in the field of photography. During the Soviet years, Revue Fotografie, a magazine published in what was then Czechoslovakia and also available in Lithuanian, helped Lithuanian photographers behind the Iron Curtain to improve, while Czech publishers and photographers (Daniela Mrazkova, prof. Vladimir Birgus, prof. Ludvik Baran), took care of dissemination of Lithuanian oeuvre in the Western world. Already in 1969, the aforementioned Czechoslovakian photography magazines published A. Macijauskas‘ work and later presented three other Lithuanian photographers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the private view of the Four Lithuanian Photographers exhibition was visited by D. Mrazkova, V. Birgus and other photography experts who know and appreciate Lithuanian photography and with whom, over the years, Lithuanian authors have fostered professional connections.
And yet why was the exhibition visited by a numerous crowd of people who do not have any personal ties to Lithuanian photography and perhaps do not recognize the displayed works as “classics”? While looking at the images featured in the exhibition, it seems like its curator G. Avanesian (perhaps intuitively) followed several obvious criteria: to present works that have become icons of Lithuanian photography and to choose images that have an easily read metaphorical meaning. The exhibition poster greets the visitors with the famous image of Jean Paul Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre in Lithuania, Nida, 1969), taken by A. Sutkus in Nida, while the exhibition presents other famous examples of the Lithuanian photography school: village grandmothers under falling petals by R. Rakauskas, a girl nesting by her mother‘s arm observed by A. Sutkus (Mother’s Hand, Vilnius, 1966), a village trader with a piglet pictured from an unusual angle by A. Macijauskas (In the Lithuanian Markets, Kaišiadorys, 1969), and so on.
Such works attract the viewers’ attention not only because of their artistic quality, but also because of clear visual metaphors. These are the most obvious in R. Požerskis’ works, where Little Alfonsas is immortalized in situations preconceived and staged by the photographer. The character, walking down the beach with a young woman invited to take part in the photoshoot, certainly highlights the contrast between the ideal and happiness as a goal, and reality which is often imperfect and painful. In other photographs, the destiny of Little Alfonsas is symbolized by images of the Hill of Crosses, while his humanity – by warm interaction with domestic animals. These photographs reduce reality to a generalized idea, and for the sake of its clarity the creator sacrifices the portrayal of daily contradictions that impervious to unambiguous interpretations. Besides, the content of both R. Požerskis’ and the other authors’ works is primarily related to exalting humanity and thus appears universal and accessible to everybody.
This feature, of course, connects the works of Lithuanian photographers to the international humanistic photography trend whose historical development shows that the portrayal of easily recognisable human experiences makes photography attractive, understandable and relevant to a particularly wide audience. A chrestomathic example of this is the Family of Man exhibition, held in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, later shown in other countries around the world and visited by a record number of visitors – 10 million people[i]. The everlasting popularity of humanistic photography is eloquently testified by the permanent exhibition Family of Man[ii], currently held in its curator‘s native Luxembourg, inside the Clervaux castle, and the constantly expanding circulation of its catalogue.
Essentially the same humanistic worldview, in which the visitor can easily recognize a reflection of their own human experience, since the 70s has been fostered by the Lithuanian authors whose works are displayed in Prague. A. Sutkus, R. Rakauskas, A. Macijauskas were among the most important founders of the humanistic photography trend in Lithuania, and the traditions of their school have been continued by R. Požerkis, who debuted around a decade later. In 1969, A. Sutkus, R. Rakauskas, and A. Macijauskas took part in a period exhibition 9 Lithuanian Photographers in Moscow, after which the Russian art critics used the now widely used concept Lithuanian photography school to describe the work by Lithuanian photographers. Writing about this school, a painter Vincas Kisarauskas poetically rephrased statements that guide the humanistic photography trend in the West. In the introductory text for the nine Lithuanian photographers’ exhibition, he accentuates the universality of the human experience and asserts that, while looking at the works by the authors from the Lithuanian photography school, the person “sees themselves in other people”[iii].
This is why the works by the four Lithuanian photographers are not difficult to comprehend for the exhibition visitors in Prague. In this case, it is not only the creative aspects of photography, dependant on changing tendencies and apprehensible by photography experts, that matter, but also the value foundation of such photography, which is accessible to a large audience. Works by Lithuanian photographers represent the same humanistic worldview that, at different points of time, gave people the possibility to believe in the universal human nature as an undisputable value uniting the humanity. This idea is embodied in each of the photographs under different circumstances, moments of life or a staged scene, and obtains different forms, depending on each of the Lithuanian authors’ individual worldview and creative touch. However, the essence of a humanistic worldview remains unchanged and tempting with its visions of a more meaningful life.
On the other hand, in the Lithuanian authors’ works the international humanistic photography trend has gained a unique aim, formed by historical circumstances, to preserve national Lithuanian identity and culture. In the Soviet era, when the nine Lithuanian photographers held an exhibition in Moscow, the topic of national identity had a sense of indirect resistance to the contemporary political situation. Nowadays, such photography represents our country‘s culture under the circumstances of freedom, yet the photographers‘ position remains the same – they firstly present themselves not as individual creators, but as four Lithuanian photographers. From the creative point of view, the status of their works has changed even more significantly. Almost five decades ago, taking part in the exhibition in Moscow, A. Sutkus, R. Rakauskas, and M. Macjiauskas with their colleagues established a photography school that was, back then, new to Lithuania and the Soviet Union. Today, their and R. Požerskis‘ works are presented as our country‘s photography classics, gaining some of the charm of nostalgia for a time gone by.
[i] Jean-Claude Gautrand, “The Family of Man”, in: The New History of Photography, editor Michel Frizot, Köln: Könemann, 1998, p. 628.
[ii] The Family of Man [interactive]. Accessible via the Web: http://www.family-of-man.public.lu/.
[iii] Винцас Кисараускас, „Река в море культуры“, in: 9 фотографов Литвы, Каунасский фотоклуб, 1969.