A Vilnius Diary: Lithuanian Fine Crafts during the First World War (Summary)

Lijana Šatavičiūtė (PDF)

The patron of Vilnius crafts, Fr Pranas Bieliauskas (1883–1957), recorded in the diary his personal experiences and important events of social and cultural life between 1915 and 1919. The article presents the most important facts about the development of crafts, the conditions of economic life, the activities of the organisations that promoted crafts, and the fine craft workshops and their products. At the beginning of the war, the local authorities tried to continue the prewar policy of promoting crafts, which had become even more relevant after the outbreak of the war. Before the German occupation, articles promoting folk building, traditional crafts and calls to take up crafts appeared. Despite the extreme conditions, society meetings were held, raising current economic and cultural issues. On 8 March 1915, the Lithuanian Art Society organised its annual meeting. The meeting decided to organise the 9th Lithuanian art exhibition (if the war ended in 1915) to address the problems of national architecture and the preservation of folk heritage and publish a collection of model Lithuanian homestead projects. The German 10th Army was stationed in Vilnius. Despite the wartime restrictions, its government supported fine crafts, was fascinated by Lithuanian folk art and gave it wide press coverage. The new city government, seeing the economic and ethical benefits of the development of fine crafts, aimed to centralise the spontaneous activities of the craftsmen by merging the existing workshops into a single House of Labour (Wilnaer Arbeitstube), to organise centralised supplies and to ensure the permanent exhibition and sale of works produced.

On 30 June 1916, an exhibition of fine arts and crafts from the Vilnius workshops, with chapters of four Vilnius national communities, Lithuanian, Polish, Hungarian and Jewish, was opened in the former Pac Palace (43 Groβe Straβe, now 7 Didžioji St.). The exhibition functioned throughout the occupation. A year later, a German section was opened, where artists-soldiers of the German army stationed in Vilnius could exhibit their works and exhibitions of German artists were organised. The demand for souvenirs among German soldiers stimulated the development of sashes, woodcarvings, toys, embroidery and other products. Works by Vilnius craftsmen were exhibited at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1917 and at the Lithuanian Exhibition organised by the East Prussian Goethe Society in Königsberg in August 1918.

The interest of the German government in folk art stimulated its development. The occupation authorities contributed to creating the Vilnius House of Labour, an organised multiethnic craftsman institution that did not exist in Lithuania.

Keywords: Wilnaer Arbeitstube (House of Labour), sash-weaving workshops, St Zita Society of Maids, Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, Pranas Bieliauskas.