The Ars students of the Art School of Kaunas


A. Samuolis. Self-portrait with gramophone, 1929.

V. Vizgirda. Men with yellow book. 1934.

V. Vizgirda. Gods. 1935.

A. Galdikas. No name.

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The Ars pupils of the Kaunas School of Arts

Kaunas School of Arts, nationalised and officially established in 1922, was the first such school in the city of Kaunas and the independent Lithuania as a whole. In addition to all the accolades (being a special place, where the history of fine arts in Lithuania of the XX century was being created) the glare of modernistic painting, sculpture, graphic arts, cherished by both Justinas Vienožinskis and his students, who comprised the Ars group, is also attributed to it. Only the representatives of Kaunas School of Arts who would develop the themes of the new fine arts in their work could expect to be included in the Ars exhibitions. 

The first Ars exhibition saw the release of a publication that became the manifesto of the Ars members. It was signed by painters Antanas Samulevičius (Samuolis thereafter), Viktoras Vizgirda, Antanas Gudautis, Adomas Galdikas, sculptor Juozas Mikėnas and graphic artists Telesforas Kulakauskas, Vytautas Kazimieras Jonynas, Jonas Steponavičius. Biographies of these artist were very different, however, their rise to fame in the 1930s was equally as powerful and very much related to the exhibitions of the Ars group. These painters had a commanding influence and later, during the Soviet years, a lot of other Lithuanian painters, searching for an alternative to an enforced style of social realism, would come to rely upon the ideology of the Ars group of the interwar period. 

Senior colleagues and teachers also took part in Ars exhibitions alongside the painters who signed the manifesto. They were clearly linked by the desire for change in fine arts, the aspiration for new winds in fine arts. What could have these new winds of fine arts been in the 1930s? The manifesto that was kind of a summary of the exhibition reveals a lot, with its function becoming even more general and important afterwards. 

The Ars group began their manifesto thusly: “We appear in a bare, painful, desolate soil. We can see a grand art culture through the ages. Pensive Christ, fairy tales, songs. Small remains of art already hidden in the walls of museums, almost picked clean by an ordinary wind of our dusk, that have accumulated such great examples for us”. Hence, the young painters recognised the reality – the complicated fine arts situation of that time and emphasised an important source for them – Lithuanian folk art of old. 

Their young maximalism is expressed with a self-critical confession, hinting towards more experimentation and searches on a new path, however, the conditions of the time didn’t allow for anything different: “Persistent desire to start the work over. We can’t hide from ourselves the fact that the work is hard and our strength is young, not yet summoned up”. 

Most Ars members, who received scholarships to study abroad (mostly in Paris), would start considering themselves as representatives of European fine arts upon returning home. It was not unusual in an independent state: “The World and especially our nation started a new era. After five entire centuries we are once again a part of the great European cultural race. Looking around we can be sure that our art is being killed by the absence of a deeper artistic investigation or the imitation of old worn out art forms”. 

Although the members of Ars first took a fancy to new expressive art forms, they were also among the first to announce their social and political engagement, to express their devotion to a new young state and a wish to become its art envoys abroad: “We are determined to serve our reborn motherland and create the style of this era. A work of art is a new reality of life. We wish to enrich our lives with new values. We aim to work together with other nations, thereby including the works that represent the spirit of our nation in the common treasure trove of art”.

Finally, the Ars manifesto offers the common objective, characteristic to any real artist – to sensitively respond to the environment, despite opposing opinions and criticism, to discover and create their own individual worlds: “Our condolences to anybody who follows established tastes without as much as a grumble. We are unpleasantly surprised by the indulgence of different ideas that have nothing to with art. We have a clear idea of the looks we are going to get. And yet, here we go”. 

90 years after the publication of this manifesto, some sentences are not only modern in a literary sense, but are also fairly relevant with their brave postulates. 

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