Contemporary Art in National Collections: Integration of Vilnius Art into the Lithuanian Artistic Heritage in 1939–1944 (Summary)

Giedrė Jankevičiūtė (PDF)

The article deals with the acquisition of artworks by Lithuanian and non-Lithuanian artists for the collections of Lithuanian museums in Kaunas and Vilnius during the Second World War, i.e., from 1939 to 1944. The article provides new information and aims to show that artworks of non-Lithuanian artists were perceived and assessed as part of the Lithuanian national cultural heritage, thus intending to integrate Vilnius art into the common cultural heritage. A small nucleus of Vilnius art, created by Polish and Jewish artists, was formed in the Vytautas the Great Culture Museum in Kaunas in 1940. From a political perspective, it was a significant act. Unlike the Kaunas Museum, the Vilnius Art Museum purchased artworks from local, primarily Polish, artists. The purchase of Polish and Jewish works, as long as it was possible, for the collection of the Vilnius Art Museum was prompted by the aim to bring together and represent the work of the city’s artists. Due to political conjuncture, works by Jewish, predominantly left-wing artists deposited in the museum were purchased or were about to be purchased in the period of Soviet occupation in 1940–1941. The acquisition of artworks by Polish artists for the collection of the Vilnius Art Museum during the period of Nazi occupation became a form of professional solidarity and material support for marginalised colleagues, as the rules of the National Socialist racial policy barred Polish artists from having a part in public artistic life.

Works by Lithuanian artists who moved to the historical capital in 1940 were a priority in the acquisition policy of the Vilnius Art Museum. It could be explained by the fact that their works were crucial for building a canon of the national art heritage, which was extremely important under both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. However, the price difference clearly shows that the museum’s board favoured Lithuanian artists also because of personal contacts and affinities. In the case of Vilnius, the special attention to Lithuanian art should also be related to the attempts to Lithuanianise the cultural life of the predominantly Polish city, which came back to Lithuania in the autumn of 1939. It is interesting to note that the collection included a large number of non-Lithuanian works. Another noteworthy circumstance is that these works have remained in storage until now and did not exist in the Lithuanian art discourse.

Keywords: nationalism, Nazi, Second World War, Soviets, occupation