amber and lithuanian art

The waves of the Baltic Sea used to throw amber ashore since olden times. Its articles can be found in archaeological treasures, and amber beads have become part of a national costume. The outlook on amber as a national symbol and the image of a Lithuanian girl wearing amber beads was formed in the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century by the writers and poets of the national liberation movement. It has survived in the national cultural memory up to the present days.

Artists consider amber to be a complex material. The shapes of its pieces present a great diversity, and the process of its grinding and polishing unfolds a host of shades, textures, whitish fibres seen inside the piece, some hardened semi-transparent “tiny clouds”, and air bubbles in the clair mass. The dug out or cast out amber by the sea is coated with a “rind”, which prevents from seeing its inside. The mysterious inside unfolds itself only after the process of polishing. Amber – the hardened resin which was dripping down from the trees fifty million years ago. The shape of a piece depended on the place of the accumulation of resin, i.e. whether is accumulated on the trunk or roots, and flat small pieces also acquired their shape inside between the rinds. Resin is of a dark yellow colour, transparent, and the bright whitish insertions in the clear mass appeared only due to the foaming of resin.The foaming resin originated the non-transparent yellowish, white amber. The so-called blue amber was born under the impact of iron admixtures, and the black – under that of charcoal. Even a strong wind might have effected the appearance of amber – not fully hardened mass rippled and left an expressive texture.

Amber gives many possibilities to an artist, the only thing to do is just to choose what attracts you. If one imagines the relationship between an artist and material as a dialogue striving for mutual understanding, amber could be called a very talkative interlocutor. Whereas to perceive the artist’s words, which witness the mysterious spiritual kinship and are close to his creative credo, is difficult, indeed. At present and in the past, the greater part of amber adornments in Lithuania is produced by folk masters (artists amateurs) and craftsmen.

We had only few professional jewellers up to the end of the 70s. The most prominent among them – Feliksas Daukantas and Kazimieras Simanonis – devoted much attention to amber. The mentioned and other artists created standarts for a serial production of amber adornments at the state enterprise “Dailė”. The stylistics of their adornments became an example for artists amateurs.

In the course of time, the production of amber adornments (they were in great demand in the former Soviet Union) started to curry favour with mass taste. Amber became for lithuanians material for a souvenir production. A predominant opinion was that amber was not suitable for a valuable adornment. Amber disappeared from the horizont of professional art quite for along time because older artists worked less with amber and the new young generation, which emerged in late 70s (the majority of them were awarded the qualification of specialists in fine metal work at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn), came with new ideas. The traditional conception of an adornment as a decorative whole of a stone and its metal frame was substituted by an aspiration not only for a decorative but first of all for an artistic expression. Adornments were enriched with symbolic signs, pictures and inscriptions, which give rise to thoughts and associations – the disclosure of the decorativeness of an amber piece did not become a dominant task of the young generation.

The early current decade witnessed the first attempts to change the prevailing outlook to amber: in 1990 an exhibition of jewellry in amber was held at the Museum of Applied Art. However, it was Kazimieras and Virginija Mizgiris who took a programmed initiative to stimulate the jewellers’ attention to amber and return it to the sphere of creative searchings of contemporary professional art. In 1992 K. Mizgiris, photo artist and author of the album of photographs depicted the seaside dunes, and his wife opened a museum-gallery in Nida, the most picturesque health-resort in Lithuania. They arranged an exposition, which familiarizes the visitor with amber, the gift of nature, as well as with a section of adornments by artists and folk masters. When stimulating artists to work with amber, they created possibilities to arrange exhibitions in this gallery, some ten artists exhibited their works at least once.

However, Nida is a health-resort, and out of season life comes to standstill there, but the people charmed by the amber exposition wanted to see it in the capital. The idea to open an amber museum-gallery in Vilnius was realized in the spring of 1998, but the gallery in Nida also continues its activities. It took the gallery expert V. and K. Mizgiris to accumulate the collections of eight artists, among them of the most prominent Lithuanian jewellers, seven years. The museum-gallery in Vilnius displays them splendidly: it a convenient to view the works placed in glass-cases, they are well enough lighted, and the sand at the bottom of the glass-cases creates a perfect atmosphere for amber.

This review was written on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition Amber in Lithuanian Art, which started in May of 2001 and will be open throughout the summer. The Amber Gallery was established in Vilnius three years ago, and many initial ideas have been successfully implemented since then. Twelve exhibitions were arranged. The major exhibitions presented artworks of Birutė Stulgaitė, who preceded the movement for bringing amber back to the professional art, as well as creations of young artists Sigitas Virpilaitis, Eimantas Ludavičius, Jonas Balčiūnas and Vaidilutė Vidugirytė, Solveiga and Alfredas Krivičiai, who have been winning fame rapidly. In 1999, the Gallery was invited to enter The International Amber Art Contest of the Baltic Countries in Germany. Then, the Gallery arranged elimination competitions that attracted altogether 25 well-known as well as less known artists. Eight participants were selected to represent Lithuania in The International Amber Contest, where Jonas Balčiūnas and Vaidilutė Vidugirytė gained the 3rd place.

Another contest, arranged by the Gallery, was called A Piece of Amber. In my mind, the Gallery owner Kazimieras Mizgiris’ love with primeval amber, created by the Nature, gave birth to this idea. Under terms of the contest, the artists had to use a large single amber monolith as the basis of their artwork. Eighteen artists of the senior, middle, and younger generations, who entered the contest, presented different approaches to the application of amber in art.

The retrospective exhibition Amber in Lithuanian Art (13 artists, 47 artworks) gives visitors a possibility to take a look at the creations of the most potential Lithuanian art professionals. The Lithuanian audience is already familiar with many of the artworks, presented here, from the previous exhibitions. However, the context of these artworks could become a novelty, because the retrospective exhibition assists the visitors in seeing what they had been keeping in their mind. Thus, in my opinion, the jewellery of Birutė Stulgaitė, Žilvinas Bautrėnas, Vytautas Matulionis, whom we may refer to as the classics of Lithuanian amber art, represents the ever-modern Classic. However, the innovations of the artistic principles, applied to amber jewellery by the younger generation – Sigitas Virpilaitis, Jonas Balčiūnas, and Vaidilutė Vidugirytė seem to have succeeded in passing the test of time and might become the Classic as well. The exhibition has allowed us to contemplate about the input of the Post-modern generation to Lithuanian art.

Artworks by Žilvinas Bautrėnas and Vytautas Matulionis, presented at the exhibition, belong to the collection that has already been introduced on the website of the Amber Gallery Museum. The brilliant individual manner of Birutė Stulgaitė has not changed much in the last few years. The artist is presenting new artworks, but they even strengthened my belief that her luxurious jewellery is qualified by modest elegance and the unpretentious adornments, created from leather and strings, have a touch of high style elegance. The jeweller Ąžuolas Vaitukaitis, an active participant of exhibitions, has been creating in a more decorative manner. His lapidary artworks are constructed from large and unique pieces of amber.

Sigitas VIRPILAITIS arranged his solo exhibition at the Gallery, and has become famous for introducing Post-Modernism into Lithuanian jewellery art. Lithuanian and other amber jewellery is not very open to the principles of the Post-Modernism, because the traditional approach to amber is deeply rooted and is resistant to changes. The amber itself is the reason: each piece has strong individual features, its own depth, optical qualities, as well as specific meanings, carried by its long history, which lasted millions of years. Up to now, the neglect of this individual and precious aura that is covering amber, was almost unacceptable. Only Post-Modernism could embrace this approach by annihilating the opposition of the subtle or vulgar taste, of luxurious, precious, and unique items or cheap serial artifacts, generally speaking, of high or common culture. In his jewellery, Sigitas Virpilaitis makes amber look like caramel paste, cut by a cheerful confectioner into candies – shells, baby pacifiers, ovals, and quadrates. He puts them in turn with sweet looking (chocolate?) pieces of coconut shell, inserting sharp small pear-tree sticks here and there. Yet, this game has its rules. I noticed them, when I was trying to rearrange in mind the segments of a necklace or imagine that the coquettish feathers on a finger ring do not “support” the vulgar redness of acrylic paint. Just change anything, and you will wipe out the style. This is a challenge for an artist to eliminate the solidity of an adornment, to make it light and playful, and still keep it within the frame of jewellery artwork. Sigitas Virpilaitis has managed to succeed in achieving this.

Jonas BALČIŪNAS and Vaidilutė VIDUGIRYTĖ made an impetuous debut in the Lithuanian jewellery art. Artists have a quality, which is extremely important for jewelers. I mean a feeling of substance, and the ability to join materials, creating unexpected associations. Artists make moulded silk look tougher that metal. On the other hand, silver, covered with gently modeled ornaments and whitened with acid, has no glitter and does not remind a metal any more. Pieces of polished amber absorb light instead of reflecting it, and seem to be filling up with heaviness. There is no dominant material in these artworks. The image of the world, created by the artists, leaves no place for the modern self-expression. It seems that not self, but the world is spreading out in their creations in the manner, set by the tradition. Post-Modernists do not care about origins and cultural roots of any tradition. The spirit of the na?ve love of the world is more important to Jonas Balčiūnas and Vaidilutė Vidugirytė. This spirit is embodied in the shapes, ornaments and figured scripts of their jewellery, created as if by an unsteady hand. The rings and brooches bear inscriptions, and adornments are accompanied with textual comments, mainly Yosano Akiko verses. A sight should touch and admire, and only later should it find out the meaning of each small silver letter, inlaid into amber and written with no spaces. The same words could define the entire creation of Jonas Balčiūnas and Vaidilutė Vidugirytė. Their artworks reveal and bring us closer to the world, contemplated with love and in peace.

Eimantas LUDAVIČIUS, who creates objects and adornments, is a master of metal – steel, bronze, and iron. His artistic language is based on laconic and emphatically not embellished shapes, gained in the heating process, when metals change their colour, wrinkle, and burn through. The design of processes and accidents rather than results; the aesthetization of “ugliness” – these principles of Post-Modernism, are visible in many artworks, created by Ludavičius. The artist can make materials pretend to be what they are not. For example, the brooches, which he presented at his solo exhibition in the Gallery, were made of forged iron. This heavy, prose material was shaped in such a subtle way, that resembled the adornments of a lady of antiquity. Now the artist presents A Little Cow – a joke, juggling visitors. In their eyes, the cow, framed in steel, seems to be carved of amber, whereas in reality it is made of wax. The illusions and secrets have their charm, if you do not want to clue all of them. The jewellery object Stella is an amber plaquette, covered with lines of unreadable drawing, and has a silver key for unlocking secrets. It is designed for fantasizing. While playing secrets, it makes no difference whether some elements were real (such as the original, beautiful amber), and others were “unreal” and did not match in style (such as white motor-paint enamel, and a key string). Looking at the jewellery objects Layout of a Cloister or Saturn’s Quadrate, you do not care whether the numbers, inscripted in the quadrate, really have any magic meaning. It is more important that this knick-knack outdraws your attention. Why? The reason rests in Eimantas Ludavičiaus’ talent to implement the aesthetics of “ugliness”.

Solveiga KRIVIČIENĖ and Alfredas KRIVIČIUS, who have recently participated in exhibitions as co-authors, create objects. There is plenty of valuable amber, beautiful by nature and presented only by masters in Lithuania. You can find it in arts shops or even on the street vendor counters. The idea of amber being beautiful and valuable itself has become a banal truth, which inspired Solveiga Krivičienė and Alfredas Krivičius to make the “cube”. The artists do not present the amber; on contrary, they put it into a concrete cub box and close it tight. Its picture and the description of its chemical qualities – these reliable documents evidence the presence of the hidden object. You should not hope to see everything yourself as you live in the age of virtual reality. More often, you have to believe in what others are trying to convince you. The artists turned to be skilful in reproducing the paradoxicality of this situation. The publicity makes it easy to convince a consumer society in many “musts”, for example, in drinking “Coca-Cola”. No wonder, if future aliens will be puzzled at a lost civilization, which left plenty of “Made in China” and “Coca-cola” signs. Solveiga Krivičienė and Alfredas Krivičius ironically put these and similar signs onto amber disks and suggests to wear them as powerful amulets, protecting values of the consumer society.

Adolfas ŠAULYS also accepts the flash-like nature of the contemporary art. You may protest against globalization or agree with it, but “CHUPA-CHUPS” will anyway be favoured by millionaires children in a developed country as well as by little barefooted beggars somewhere in the world … May this candy has become the symbol of citizens of the future world? Adolfas Šaulys used beautiful transparent light and dark amber to make five “CHUPS” candies, embellished their sticks with silver, and fastened clasps, changing “candies” into the adornments. Then the artist sticked all them into the plate, and wrote there: “CHUPA-CHUPS – military taste”. Nobody knows, whether they taste “military”, but it is evident that they have conquered the entire world.

Redas DIRŽYS’ artworks have a touch of irony. Lithuanian cultural self-consciousness covers the amber with sentiments. The artist mocks at this adoration when he uses a large and rather expensive piece of amber for copying a banal half-cut loaf of bread.

Indrė DIRŽIENĖ is known in Lithuanian jewellery art for her refined ephemeral silver adornments. She rather rarely works with amber. However, you can see here the amber ring, which was prized at design and jewellery exhibition in Japan in 1990.

Laima KĖRIENĖ is concerned with amber. Decorativity of the almost natural amber features her neck adornments. The Morning, Day, Evening, and Night rings have unique black and blue amber eyes and simple classical mountings. Their style suits a lady as well as a teenager. Such universality is an advantage of the adornment.

Saulius GRINIUS made an impetuous debut together with Ąžuolas Vaitukaitis at the Gallery exhibition. He creates decorative plastic arts and objects. In fact, his artworks united both. Saulius Grinius creates cosy things, radiating with romanticism of antiquity and not sentimental at all.

The retrospective exhibition Amber in Lithuanian Art allows us to compare the artwork of the middle and younger generations and to see the changes in their artistic concepts – which is a short but significant “historic” path of bringing amber back to Lithuanian professional art.