A distinguished painter and collector returns to the land of his youth

Laima Kanopkienė

At first the eyes try to resist it. Soon, however, they follow the laws of subtle and playful “tremolo”.

Endless shimmering slowly turns into strange, decorative and repetitive combinations that invoke something close and dear to us, and which is difficult to put into words. This something may look like ingenious decoration on ancient doors, or a kind of carving on shutters, tables or chairs.

There is no distinct centre. The constituent elements pulsate and spread towards the edges. It is a rhythmic, harmonious and never ending movement.

The third dimension

The canvases of the painter Kazys Varnelis shimmer, flicker and move in a wavelike motion. But this is only an illusion. In reality they hang perfectly still and motionless on the wall.

He manipulates masterfully the sluggishness of the eye which causes the secondary image to emerge, that is, the discrepancy between one image and the fading image which the eye has just seen. This creates an effect of endless movement. Optical art comes close to kinetic art.

Three and more decades ago the vibrating monochromes by Varnelis came as a shock to the American art world and showed that this slow-talking man from Žemaitija (the western part of Lithuania) had the courage to reject even some universally accepted truths.

By turning “ornamental motifs of his native land, consciously or unconsciously, into trompe l’oeil mazes of obsessively repeated or permuted stereoscopic forms, [Varnelis] violates the ground rules of contemporary abstract painting,” wrote the art theoretician Jan van der Marck in 1971.

He admitted, however, that “a painter of high professional accomplishment but largely unrecognised, [he] has built an impressive case showing that it is possible to shun fashionable notions about non-referential imagery, non-illusionistic space, a systematic use of form and colour, yet not become deadlocked in this lone course.”

“From this point of view I was quite unusual in America,” recalls Varnelis. “Matisse’s two-dimensional theory that was applied in order to achieve a painterly effect in abstract painting was considered a dogma. If you used three-dimensional techniques, you were a disgrace to the world!

“On the other hand, if, say, in 1940, when I was still in Lithuania, I had dared to paint and exhibit something similar to what I was doing in America in the Fifties and Sixties, the odds are that I would have been seen as a complete lunatic. Nowadays there are many painters who defy the two-dimensional theory.

“When I chose this path, I was driven not by the pursuit of colouration but by optical illusion. Rhythmic effects and architectural balance were the cornerstones of my art. As in Renaissance times, I tried to find a synthesis of the three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting. Hence, the ideas of Le Corbusier were my leitmotif.

“I took up monochrome painting hoping to achieve a greater intensity of colour. I also rejected all types of texture. This enabled me to achieve stronger light effects.”

His works seem to have been made using some kind of machine, a spray or some other mechanical device. This, however, is only an illusion.

“All my paintings were painted with brushes,” he says. “Wide and narrow paintbrushes, and sometimes all I need to finish off the painting with is a couple of bristles. I never sign my work. I do not want to ruin the corner of a painting.”

The formula for art

Varnelis, who will soon be celebrating his 87th birthday, is called by many the most modern Lithuanian painter, without a hint of irony. The reason why he is constantly changing is this inner passion to learn as many forms of existence as possible, and not some special desire to be modern. The worst that can happen to an artist is to fall into a state of inner passivity or spiritual anaemia.

“Not a single day passes without us being exposed to optical objects and images,” he says. “However, times are changing, and optical concepts and styles are changing too.
“The things which fascinated us yesterday may look absolutely boring today, and vice versa. Still, there are phenomena in the art of our times that make me doubt whether we are really on the right course.

“Modern technologies enable us to disseminate new ideas or concepts at the speed of light. A new design that appears in the showcases of Paris is now imitated an hour later in Tokyo, New York or Vilnius.

“There are strange phenomena that indicate that the power of the image is in decline. The reality of the image is being replaced by a desire to surprise people at all costs. But it is very difficult to surprise an individual who has lived through the 20th century.

“And is it necessary? I used to be an ardent supporter of the avant-garde, but now I have to admit that after seeing some perverse manifestations of innovation I began to doubt whether they were really called for.”

He often says that now the time has come for us to save what has been created, and that these efforts and this work will determine to a greater extent the face of the future to come. This is the right moment to mention that Varnelis has one more serious passion. He is a collector par excellence and a museum expert by training.

The Kazys Varnelis House Museum on Town Hall Square in Vilnius became a major attraction soon after opening in 1998. Even before that it had already been well known and popular among painters, art critics, museum curators and bibliophiles.

Now the museum has about 800 exhibits, including 140 modernist canvases by Varnelis himself. However, it did not come from nothing. The collection was started half a century ago on the other side of the Atlantic.

Villa Virginia

Those who had the chance to visit Gabrielė and Kazys Varnelis’ Villa Virginia said that it would never be possible to move away from such a place. This is not only because the small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is a prestigious summer resort among painters and writers, but mainly because of the sheer beauty of the house.

When Varnelis bought it in the late Seventies, it had fallen into disrepair. He restored everything himself: Pompeii-style frescoes, a painted coffered ceiling, marble fireplaces and columns with stucco mouldings. After several years Villa Virginia was restored to a new life and was put along with its spectacular English park on the list of National Architectural Landmarks.

Varnelis turned the mansion into a museum in which he displayed his own private collection created over many years. This is impressive both for its volume and its diversity. The historic interior of the building became an integral part of the collection, which included old furniture (English chests dating from the late 16th century, Italian Renaissance and Baroque tables, chairs and chests of drawers) works of art of different genres and various periods, and books, many of which are considered unique, including incunabula and postincunabula.

The collection contains an elegant edition of the Bible, with an inscription from Kaiser Wilhelm III and Kaiserin Victoria to the Prince of Holstein. It also has original engravings by Piranesi, Vedute di Roma in two enormous folios, of which only two copies are known, the other being in the Uffizi in Florence.

However, one day suddenly Villa Virginia was empty. Its valuable contents had been shipped to Lithuania.

Nothing is more powerful than homesickness
To repeat the words already mentioned about purely technical phenomena and the occurrence of the secondary image, it could be that for the Varnelis family the most painful thing was the realisation that the beauty that surrounded them was going to erase from their memory the image of their homeland. Some call this nostalgia. It forced the painter to draw imaginary mounds that did not exist in reality.

Homesickness proved to be stronger than the pragmatic desire to live a peaceful life in Villa Virginia wandering quietly around the well-tended park, and the couple decided to embark on a risky venture. They made a radical change in their lifestyle and returned to their homeland, which they hardly recognised and which was struggling to recover from the recent occupation.

The return was also important for emotional reasons. Many saw it as a sign that Lithuania had become truly independent, since people who had lived in exile for 50 years were finally coming back.

Varnelis, who in his art often uses images between illusion and reality, between the conceivable and the inconceivable, has in real life demonstrated how to turn the impossible into the possible.