The Peculiarities of the Iconography of Jonas Basanavičius

Jolanta Bernotaitytė (PDF)

From earlier research, it is known that the basis of the early iconography of the Lithuanian national awakener Jonas Basanavičius (1851–1927) consists of photographic portraits made on his initiative. From the last decade of the 19th century, Basanavičius started cooperating with painters and sculptors in his memorialisation. Thus, his iconography included works of art.

Today, depictions of this historical figure in painting, sculpture and graphics are numerous. However, the works are characterised by a remarkably narrow scope of artistic expression. The reasons for this become clear when one examines how the tradition of Basanavičius’s portrayal developed.

Basanavičius was immortalised in the artworks of the last 30 years of his life. At first, these portraits were based on photographs taken while he was living in Bulgaria, and from 1905, when he returned to Lithuania, his portraits mostly were painted from life. After coming from Vilnius to the temporary capital of Kaunas in 1924, this esteemed physician sat for nine famous artists. That was an exceptional event.

Most painted and sculptural portraits, half-length or head-and-shoulder portraits against a neutral background, were rendered realistically in the second and third decades of the 20th century. These have served as the basis for how Basanavičius is depicted and have significantly influenced the later development of his iconography.

Following Basanavičius’ death, new portraits were an attempt to immortalise him in monumental art pieces. Thus, new solutions for portraying him were developed. However, due to financial problems and the war that followed soon after, only a few modest monuments were raised, and only several compositions of the subject paintings were completed.

During the illegal occupation of Lithuania by the Soviets from 1944 to 1990, Basanavičius had not been represented in Lithuanian art for nearly three decades. Starting in the 1970s, Basanavičius was most frequently depicted by the creators of medals, although the iconography of Basanavičius did not undergo significant changes. The process is still evolving, and it is too early to assess the course of artists of recent decades. One clear thing is that portraits produced before his death during Lithuanian independence constitute one of the most valuable, though relatively uniform, parts of the iconography of Basanavičius in painting.

Keywords: Jonas Basanavičius, iconography, portrait, image, tradition of depiction