October 30: Alfonsas Budvytis died in 2003. You may not have heard of this Lithuanian photographer, but his work of the 1980s and 1990s explains what it was to live in his country; it involves a radical shift in perception.
To take a small sample, let’s consider the old chestnut of photography courses; the assignment to photograph ‘Hands’. Where others might seek out a pair of weathered artisan’s hands Budvytis photographs by the the credo “If you are doing something do it to the utmost, or don’t do it at all, to the extent that when you slam your fist against the table…everybody else will shut up.”
These pictures are from 1980, at the beginning of Budvytis’ photography career. Unmistakably, these are no-one else’s hands but his own. The viewpoint is subjective, we are he, at the end of the arm that extends away from us, the one slashed by the razor, his/ours is the wedding-banded hand tentatively reaching into the airmail envelope for a memory of Vilnius, and as the light is flicked on, his is the hand that transparently materialises there, but only his eye sees what is in the room.
These ‘brutalist’ photographs date from just the year after Budvytis joined the Lithuanian Photographic Art Society (now – Lithuanian Union of Art Photographers), and after his encounters with the work of Ralph Gibson, which he admired.
Born in 1949 in Balsėnuose in the Švėkšna district in Western Lithuania near the Baltic Sea, he studied pharmacy 1967-1971 at Kaunas Medical Institute (now – Lithuanian University of Health Sciences Medical Academy) in the centre of the country.
Set the work against the weight and might of Lithuanian history; in the 1230s the Kingdom of Lithuania was created on 6 July 1253 to become the largest country in Europe, when it comprised present day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. From 1569, Lithuania and Poland formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth which lasted more than two centuries, until neighboring countries systematically dismantled it from 1772–95, with the Russian Empire annexing most of Lithuania’s territory.
As World War I ended, the independent modern Republic of Lithuania was proclaimed, but from 1940, Lithuania was occupied first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, before the Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania in 1944.
On 11 March 1990, a year before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare itself independent, resulting in the restoration of an independent State of Lithuania.
To see these images of the 1980s is to gaze into the period of Soviet stagnation in which the Lithuanian was characterised, by the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov in his novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (1980), as the mankurt, who “did not know who he had been, whence and from what tribe he had come, did not know his name, could not remember his childhood, father or mother – in short, he could not recognize himself as a human being. Deprived of any understanding of his own ego, the mankurt was, from his master’s point of view, possessed of a whole range of advantages. He was the equivalent of a dumb animal and therefore absolutely obedient and safe. He never thought of trying to escape.” The audience knew, in 1983 when the novel was translated into a play, that the mankurt was they, Homo Sovieticus, who because they had lost their memory, stumbled about in blind obedience to the regime, forced to live an ever-edited and revised history in which everything led to the great and glorious soviet revolution.
The flat-tyred Moscow bus, shuttered like a wounded blindworm, the bog-standard Volga car parked on an anonymous Vilnius street, the women shopping in front of a strange landscape mural, are symbolic of this period of ennui and frustration.
The pictures themselves bespeak neglect with their apparent technical shoddiness which is clearly intentional, given Budvytis’ knowledge of chemistry as a trained pharmacologist. Their melancholy, degraded flatness is achieved, in the bus image, through the ‘forced’ developing and brown toning of an overexposed negative, and similarly in the Volga but with the addition of some meagre hand colouring in a washed-out blue. Other images become even more boldly coloured, but there the colour only serves to heighten the drabness.
While the authorities could control what was photographed, they could not control how it was done, and how much of the ‘incorrect’ present would be stored in photographers’ archives. Exhibitions in public showed only what was approved by the Glavlit (The Supreme Bureau of Literature and Publication Affairs) censorship but images that reached the public were only a small fragment of recorded and still ‘latent’ reality. Budvytis relates his story in his 12 October 1998 letter to filmmaker Dalia Kutavičienė, who was making a film about him:
While my parents were cutting he larches of Siberia, I was growing up on the bank of the Balsé River in the Klaepéda District with my grandparents. In 1949-1961 the environment and lifestyle were like that of the beginning of the century as in the books of Krve or Zemaite. Cutting the flax, drying it in the bar – it seemed like real devils lived in the oven. Threshing grain, the neighbour’s leg was pulled of by that machine, like the nasty spine-chilling stories of the village gossips. From summers of following cows tails and of nights in the light of the bonfire came the feeling of infinite freedom. Later came several winters spent in the school dormitory which was the former headquarters of the Soviet exterminators. I dreamed about becoming a cinematographer, but unexpectedly entered studies at he Kaunas Institute of Medicine and work in the pharmaceutical system until 1980. In 1979-1984, together with like-minded friends, we started the ‘New Wave’ in Lithuanian photography. Later, I plunged into the landscapes of Vilnius and other Lithuanian towns. I stopped at mists, puddles, sticks. I am trying to find the solution of world harmony and all global themes in the space of just ten centimetres. I am trying to rise above the characteristic environment, leaving the primordial essence of the object. I don’t mind joking.
Budvytis’ most significantly photojournalist early project is Men’s Division No. 7 (1984), but with Fashion and Vietnam (1986), Lithuanian villages (1988-1992), he gradually abandons a ‘straight’ documentary approach and like others in the ‘New Wave’ he had come to regard photojournalism as propagandistic, an optimistic representation of Soviet values. Later series including Images of Vilnius (1986-1992), Silent Nature (1991), Jurassic Park restitution period Goniūnų village (from 1998), become more conceptual.
Most successful are Budvytis’ photographs of the everyday, invested with the ‘aesthetics of boredom’ (see Agnė Narušytė’s The Aesthetics of Boredom: Lithuanian Photography 1980-1990), a poetry of ennui, a visual psycho-philosophy.
Budvytis work received recognition in 1995 and in 2001 he was awarded State art creator scholarships and in 2002, the Lithuanian Government Art Prize. He is as yet surprisingly little known outside Lithuania, though in March, 2015 a retrospective of his work “Eloquent silence” opened at Klaipeda Culture Communication Centre, curated by Danguolė Ruškienė, which has brought the artist wider exposure at least in his own country.
Budvytis died in 2003 at age 55 in an apparent accident in Goniūnų village near Klausučiai, Lithuania.