LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 44, No.3 - Fall 1998
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE HUMAN MYSTERY
Vytautas Magnus University
Irena Kostkevičiūtė, an art critic in Lithuania, has written a book on the sculptor Vytautas Kašuba, 1915-1997: The Human Figure in the Work of Vytautas Kašuba (Vilnius: Regnum Fund, 1997, the book appeared just a few months ago), which is a poem and an homage to the most important sculptor of Lithuania in exile. The study included in this issue of Lituanus, intends to be also an homage to the artist who lived most of his life in Manhattan, 45 years of continuous devotion to his beloved New York and to his art (from 1952 to 1997). To the New York that represents him better than any other place in the world.
Paradoxically, Kašuba (his last name used to be Košuba as well) was neither born nor died in his own country. Born in Minsk, he lived in Lithuania from 1918 to 1944 a short 26 years, of which five were during World War II. So, calling him a New Yorker is not just a metaphor but a reality. I remember him during the decade of the late sixties and early seventies, when he was engaged in a desperate search for human mystery, which is exactly the subject of Kostkevičiūtė's essay.
In the past ten or fifteen years I have written very little on Lithuanian art because I could not force myself to do it. I am not going to provide an explanation for this here, but when asked, I could not say NO to my friend of great memory Kašubą. So here I am again, this time with the help of another friend, Kostkevičiūtė, trying to say a few meaningful words that his memory inspires in me.
There is very little I can add except to relate my personal feelings, when I was the observer of the process of art object in the making. I did not know then that the material used by the artist (hammered lead) was to embark him on a long battle for survival, which he did heroically, with the help of his no less heroic wife, a great artist in her own right, Alexandra. There is no doubt that the last 30 years of Kašuba's life and work was due to the common effort of his whole family.
I may disagree with many art critics of Kašubą, but it won't be the first time. I always admired his small-scale artwork, not the monumental that everybody seems to like, including his last effort, the statue of Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania in the Cathedral Plaza in Vilnius, where the young king (25 years old) seems to be very tired and very old marching in front of his horse, a splendid replica of the Neronian horses of Venice. There always has been a fascination with horses in the Lithuanian tradition. A horse, however, is a significant escort, a friend of the Grand Duke, and a battle participant who has played a significant part in Lithuanian history, (p. 77) says Kašuba.
However, I could not help but think then how fantastic this young king would have looked in the procession of a motorcycle gang! Kostkevičiūtė very cleverly defines the historical man portrayed by the artist in which his last monumental work seems to fit, how he refused to portray the Grand Duke astride a horse, and then, she asks: How can we discuss the aesthetics and the artistic value of this monument. The immediate answer is:
Expressed by a purposefully selected style, developed through an analytical approach, the composition is based upon contrast: the mobile figure against the quiet pedestal emphasizes stability and a dynamic expression of the idea of statehood. The historical account speaks out not through separate elements, but rather through the expression of shapes and planes in a variety of lines and silhouettes. In profile, the open-work composition is especially graceful, the rhythm of nimble empty spaces repeating the dynamic of the Cathedral's columns and other verticals in the surroundings. Having chosen to represent Gediminas as standing rather than riding the horse - the traditional depiction of military leaders - the sculptor presented Gediminas as builder of the city and founder of the state (p. 77-78).
But going back to my subject of smaller scale works of art that Kašubą did with such love and devotion, the ones studied here are precisely the in medias res, that is, not too small like his models, and not too big like his monumental works.
The basic theme of Kašuba's work is the human being. A man and a woman. In Lithuanian art, this was not the most common subject of artistic research. Since 1969, from a three-dimensional, Kašubą turns to a quasi-two dimensional sculpture, not bas relief but indented plates, made from lead, where man is pressed in like a wound - a very good observation by my friend, Vytautas Rubavičius in Literatūra ir menas -, like a part of general creation whose meaning is lost somewhere in the infinite horizons of New York skyscrapers. This is a poetic gesture which all art has to have to be really art. And Kašubą has a lot of it in his little, intimate works that he hangs humbly - yes, that is the beauty of his art -you can hang his sculptures.
Octavio Paz said somewhere that "art survives the societies that create it." I am sure Kašuba's sculpture will be remembered as the work of a man lost in the jungles of New York and who dreamed of his adoptive countries, including Lithuania. I am sure that my impressions of his plates in Upper Manhattan will be different than in a Vilnius museum, probably never anticipated by the artist. It is a new and different experience that is beautiful to attempt.
The poetic vision of Kostkevičiūtė is worth juxtaposing to her preferred poet, perhaps the best of Lithuanian poets, Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, a perfect companion for this trip into the art and life of Kašubą. Too bad that the translator -Lionginas Pažūsis - was not always up to the task of great translation:
Ir pats savo rankomis alpstantį kūną plakiau
Ir spartinau žingsnį.
O aukštų viršūnė kaip tekanti saulė spindėjo,
0 eiti į kalną man buvo kas žingsnis sunkiau.
I myself kept flogging my faltering body
And quickened my pace.
Yet the heights glowed like the rising sun
And each step was harder to take.