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LEONARDAS GUTAUSKAS. RETROSPECTIVE 1957–2018

December 3–31 

The opening – December 4, 6 pm

HEAVEN IS THE COLOUR OF ICE
by Alfonsas Andriuškevičius

Lithuania is a Northern country, where images of cold are expected and unsurprising, even if they acquire quite unusual dimensions. Here, cold, a natural phenomenon, turns into a metaphysical category as it comes to signal culture and eternity. The three aspects – nature, culture and eternity –  were very elegantly united by Lithuanian romantic poet Maironis (1852–1932); in one of his poems, he depicts a frosty easterly wind, whose ingenious fingers are spinning the yarn of stars on cottage windows. The frosty easterly wind obviously means cold in its natural sense, but what about the yarn? Here, the yarn spun by frost is an analogue of culture; the yarn is an artwork, a creation, though not produced by human hands. What do the stars the yarn is made of have to do with this; then? In Maironis' poem, the stars, participating in the activities of frost, represent eternity.

Our recent history has endowed the image of cold with still other implications, and Lithuanians can now read it as a trope of the sufferings and deaths caused by the Soviet deportations which exiled thousands to the Northern seas. A very rich image, is it not?

The colour of ice dominates the late paintings by Leonardas Gutauskas. Such canvases could only be painted by someone who had been attentively watching various shades of ice – and they are indeed endless. On the other hand, even the most intimate knowledge of ice would not be of much help if the artist were not sensitive to the issues of culture, eternity and suffering. Gutauskas did not experience Soviet deportations, but his openness to the painful history of his nation has allowed the icy dust of suffering to fall into the painter's heart. He is not a mystic or a saint, but the constant worry about the human condition in the face of eternity has perfused his soul with starry light. Hence the paintings in which the glowing of ice joins the brilliance of transcendence.

Leonardas Gutauskas' canvases are shot with flowers, similar to those that frost would paint on the windows of countryside cottages, or those that would decorate traditional Lithuanian white linen cloth. And this is by no means the only connection with the ancient peasant culture. Gutauskas' works are pervaded by a solemn, almost sacred atmosphere, reminiscent of the ceremonial, mournful and fearful mood characteristic of Lithuanian burial rites. In the paintings such mood is frequently created by the stories narrated on canvas, the stories of the soul’s departure into the other world, common also in Lithuanian folk painting, sculpture, and graphic arts. The austere atmosphere is further enhanced by minimalist symmetrical composition and, especially, the forms of the few objects that inhabit the paintings: a coffin, a candle, an angel, a book, a corpse, Mother of God. Their forms are marked by three characteristics: they are archetypal, that is, cleansed of all nonessential elements, purified; they are rough, as if axed; finally, though archetypal, they are also simultaneously individual, Gutauskasean.

Two more things need to be mentioned. First, Leonardas Gutauskas is able to connect archetypally Lithuanian forms with Egyptian ones, thereby joining the roots of our culture and ancient civilizations into one virile tangle. Second, due to the colours, the roughness and solemnity of his paintings are endowed with certain sophistication, even luxury, the lustre of heaven. In this context, the question about the colour of heaven could be very seriously answered with reference to the colour of ice – ice is, after all, the mythic water – whereas the answer itself could be grounded in Leonardas Gutauskas' paintings.

Thus, on the map of contemporary Lithuanian painting, were would we situate the work of this artist? Right on the crossroads between history and eternity, ethnicity and humanity, physics and metaphysics. You might say that this is where most talented artists stand. I would then add that in Leonardas Gutauskas' paintings, the multi-layered crossroads find more explicit, more sincere and more accessible expression than anywhere else. And this is precisely what we are longing for after the complexities of the 20th century culture – for this kind of pure, fresh, and glowing mountain of ice.

Lithuanian Art 1975–1995
Vilnius Academy of Art Press, 1997

Leonardas Gutauskas