I attended an amazing gallery tour by Laima Kreivytė, the curator of the exhibition of Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė’s work. I had seen some works by Rožanskaitė at the National Gallery of Art earlier, and I thought that she was among the most interesting Lithuanian artists of all times, but the current exhibition gives a full picture of her genius. Rožanskaitė (1933-2007) started her career under Soviet censorship, when artistic expression was carefully monitored and abstract art was treated unfavorably. However, her ‘progressive’ topics (modern medicine, space exploration and industrial cities) allowed her to get through the censorship. However, being a child of political prisoners and a progressive artist, she was largely ignored in the USSR. When Lithuania became independent, the artist continued producing innovative art, creating spatial assemblages and installations, addressing ecological and political topics, adored by the young generation. And yet I never studied about her work at art history lessons, and I heard nothing about her death in 2007 from the mainstream press. It’s a typical way to treat women artists.
There is a Youtube video of Laima speaking about a recently published book on Rožanskaitė’s work (in Lithuanian, but some of her ecological installations are showed):
Rožanskaitė was born in Linkuva, but her family was exiled to Siberia when she was a child. Siberian landscapes left a noticeable imprint on the artist’s creativity, but being sent away from home and eventually returning there to find that their house had been destroyed and her father killed, Rožanskaitė was inspired to explore the idea of home and of a Lithuanian village in a series of landscapes and portraits.
On the other hand, cities and modern technologies were more interesting to her. She inherited rich colors from her teacher and mentor, Gudaitis. But exploring nuanced colors was not so interesting for her. She decided to look for synthetic, cold, ‘industrial’ colors and complement them with photographic images. Yet it was not only a journey into the exploration of shapes and forms. Unlike most artists at the time, Rožanskaitė looked into the deepest existential issues, such as birth, illness and death. In the 60s, when the world was going crazy about space exploration, she created impressive paintings with astronauts or simply with her idea of space as the mythical cosmos, which is born out of chaos.
Her journey into exploring the complex relationship between the human and the machine was in line with the ideas of Foucault and Harraway, but she had no access to their philosophy at the time. By focusing on this topic, she was way ahead of her time and often misunderstood. She painted people as framed and imprisoned in hospital beds – not out of imagination, but on the basis of long hours of talking to patients, photographing and sketching in hospitals. She made friends with elderly abandoned women patients, and once, finding that some of them had lice, she drew the staff’s attention to the problem, and the patients were immediately shaved. Rožanskaitė then painted these elderly women, hairless and dressed in greenish-yellow clothes, looking like Buddhist monks. In another series the artist explored the question what it means for a person to go through a medical check-up, to undress in front of a doctor and his/her students, and to enter an X-ray machine (late 70s).
Religious iconography also interested Rožanskaitė, and she offered modern interpretations of the stations of the cross. Of course, there was no question about showing religious paintings in the USSR, so crosses were only hinted at. One of her most impressive paintings is a modern, confident Maria Magdalena in a red dress and purple hipster leggings.
In the early 2000s, with her creative expression not limited anymore, Rožanskaitė painted a female Lithuanian anti-Soviet guerrilla fighter with a gun, but looking like Virgin Mary of the Gates of Dawn. In another painting, named “The Chechnyan”, she drew a woman dressed in black and wearing a niqab (2003). She didn’t avoid political topics either. In one of her paintings from the “Mafia” series, the nickname of the mayor of Vilnius (Abonentas) is written in Cyrillic alphabet. The mayor was convicted for corruption. She also painted near-abstract Siberian landscapes and put various installations in nature. According to Laima Kreivytė, she was loved by Lithuanian young artists.
There is a video that briefly presents the current exhibition:
The exhibition will stay at the National Gallery of Art until the 19th of May.