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The First Exhibitions of Jewish Artists in Kaunas (1920-1940) from the Art Critic's Perspective - Page 2
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The First Exhibitions of Jewish Artists in Kaunas (1920-1940) from the Art Critic's Perspective
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At the beginning of the twentieth century, Lithuania was still a Russian province. The 1917 revolution in Russia created an incentive for restoring Lithuanian statehood. Between 1919 and 1920, Soviet Russian and Polish forces alternately occupied Vilnius (Vilna), the capital of Lithuania that Jews called Lithuania's Jerusalem. For seventeen years, from 1922 onwards, Poland ruled Vilnius and the Vilnius territory. Although the political and economic situation of that time was confused and unstable, Kaunas, the temporary capital, was noted for the growth in its cultural and educational activities. Synagogues, kindergartens, religious and secular schools teaching in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as theatres and choirs, all began to function.

The abundance of museums and galleries reveals the intensity of cultural life, the course of their activities and the quality of the exhibitions also indicating a tendency towards the modernization of social life and public tastes. In the early twentieth century, Lithuanian art criticism was still taking its first steps. Art-related publications appearing in the press primarily emphasized the social function of art and its moral mission. Most of the early Lithuanian art critics perceived works of art as reflections of reality, being dominated by the concepts of empirical realism and naturalistic art. They were not prepared to apprehend modern artistic language or to accept the new thinking being promoted by certain artists.

Interwar Lithuanian art developed in two directions. Some artists, especially those who lacked the opportunity to complete their training abroad, continued to abide by realist traditions, although often with certain impressionist and post-impressionist features. Others, who did benefit from the opportunity of receiving additional training abroad, adopted the ideas of modernism. While the works of the latter range from Symbolism to abstraction through Cubism and Constructivism, the dominating influence seems to have been Expressionism.

The first exhibition to introduce the works of a Jewish painter took place in Kaunas in the winter of 1920 and presented paintings by the outstanding Vilnius artist Bentzion Zuckerman. Judging by the press release and biographic data, we may conclude that Kaunas at that time could not boast of any local mature Jewish artists. Moreover, information regarding Jewish artists living and creating in Lithuania was very sparse. Adomas Jakshtas wrote: "We have no certainty as to the fact that Mister Zuckerman is the only Jewish painter in Lithuania. In case there are more of them, it's a pity that The Section of Jewish Culture did not arrange for a joint Jewish artists' exhibition to enable a better comprehension of the message and the technical issues of their creation."3 At the time the exhibition took place, most contemporary aspiring painters--such as Arbit Blatt and Lipshitz--lived as exiles in Russia and Ukraine, while others, such as Band and Kulwiansky, had just begun their studies in Western Europe.