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What was it like to be an artist in USSR

What was it like to be an artist in USSR

The powerful and secluded empire of the Soviet Union is already a history. The communist state that held 15 countries under totalitarian regime controlled every aspect of it’s citizens life.

But communists and their spy agency KGB were not able to destroy creativity of the artists, so they used their talents for the purposes of propaganda and brain washing.

Not everyone obeyed the regime and my Father, a painter and sculptor Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis, was one of those who stood against the system.

Here are a few interesting facts from his biography that shaped his creative path while Lithuania was under occupation of Soviets.

Want a good life? Portray the communist leaders

This was the simple rule for the artists. Making sculptures of Lenin, painting the “noble” life of leaders, socialist icons, happy workers and heroic soldiers guaranteed profitable commissions, good studios, necessary materials and tools.

Those, who did not want to serve the system had to make their own way in life.

My father never created a single piece that would serve communist ideals and is proud about it today: “I have never made a Lenin in my life!”, he says.

Artist Aloyzas Smilingis - Elis

Most artist's grew beards as a sign of resistance. Riding a motorcycle was an expression of freedom.

So he did not get anything from the authorities. Most artists were dependent on state commissions and had to serve the system, so they could earn money.

But my father refused to play a part in the occupants theatre. He was what we call a freelancer these days.

There was no way to get good quality tools for stone carving and all granite sculptures were made by hand, using simple tools and a self made hammer. The artists used to make those tools themselves, quite often from spare parts of tractors.

Sculptor Aloyzas Smilingis - Elis

Stone sculpture created with simple handmade tools. Photo by A. Macijauskas.

Studio in an abandoned chapel

Creator of bronze and large monumental stone sculptures is definitely not able to work without a studio, but a creative mind always finds a way out.

Elis heard about abandoned chapel in Didziokai village (Moletai region) and thought that he could live and work there. Religion was forbidden, so a lot of beautiful churches and chapels were tuned into warehouses or abandoned and left to ruin.

My Father renovated the nineteenth century chapel, cleaned it’s surroundings and decorated it with large monumental sculptures. It became his studio, his gallery and the place where our family would spend summers and weekends.

Didziokai chapel - artist's studio

Didziokai chapel, built in XIX century, became artist's studio in the 80's.

Soon it became a very popular attraction. I remember people visiting it everyday, even busses full of tourists came to take a look around.

People came for art and wanted to meet the artist as the rumours about him spread wide and fast. The chapel was an oasis for creative minds, bohemian parties and a meeting place for artists and also a pain in the lower part of the body for the communist authorities.

Artist at his studio in the 80s

Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis renovated abandoned chapel with his hand and it became a massive attraction.

Making money and dealing with KGB

As my father did not get much state commissions, the major income source of our family was from large memorial sculptures. These were commissions from people who wanted to have a nice monuments for their loved ones who passed away.

It was a seasonal work as my father could only work outside only when the weather was warm and dry - spring and summer. Winters were dedicated to painting and skiing.

Our neighbour, related to KGB as it appeared later, could not understand this. Nobody in the family had a decent job, we were skiing the whole winter, but somehow lived in a nice place and even had a car!

Artist family 80s

Our family was not rich, but home full of art looked luxurious. We had old antique furniture, because we were not able to buy new stuff for home as my parents did not have"normal" jobs.

Besides, we had family connections in USA and all this was very suspicious. One day my father got arrested without any reason and was questioned at KGB. The main question during the interrogation was “Who are you working for?”. Luckily my father was a member of the Artists Union, had some recognition and references, so they let him go.

Scandal over a nude torso

Private property and religion were not the only things with zero tolerance in the Soviet Union. Any kind of nudity, even if it was art, was not accepted.

People even joked that sex did not exist in Soviet times. But sometimes, somehow, artists would meet people in the government who had common sense and gave them a chance to create amazing artworks.

This was the case with a 2,7 m granite torso of a “Bather” that my father created for Panevezys city. It was built near the river in 1984 and nicely decorated a cosy park.

Outdoor torso sculpture

Granite torso of a "Bather" caused a scandal and vandalism attacks in Soviet times. 

This is one of the few scandals my father got into, but I think probably the most famous one. Local press called the sculpture vulgar and indecent, people were furious and there was a number of vandalism attacks over the artwork. But the sculpture survived it all and continues to bathe peacefully in the park.

Meeting with the “enemy” - the USA

After establishing a long lost connection with members of our family residing in USA, my Father decided to visit them.

The procedure of getting permits to leave the Soviet Union in the times of Cold War was quite complicated, but the interesting part is not about getting a visa and permission to leave.

Now it sounds funny, but my Dad received strict instructions from a KGB agent how to behave in the land of “enemies”. Everything happened like in the film about spies. He had to meet the agent privately and they spoke in a car.

Elis was told not to talk much about USSR, he could only say positive things about the Soviets and most importantly, was not allowed to talk to the press.

First thing he did in USA? Gave numerous interviews for television and newspapers. The media was really interested to talk to an artist from a Soviet Union. I guess if an artist from North Korea visited the Western world today, the interest would be similar.

The funny thing is, that Soviets never found out about these interviews, because it was not possible to monitor the media at the time.

Wine with Willem de Kooning during the Cold War

The artist’s visit to USA was full on coincidences, discoveries and tension. Visiting museums and galleries in New York had a huge influence towards his attitude to art. But most influential of all were my Fathers meetings with Willem de Kooning.

Artist Willem de Kooning

Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis and Willem de Kooning.

He was visiting his cousin Dorothy Barnes and her husband Clarence Barnes in Long Island and the stay took longer than initially planned.

During the Cold War both USA and USSR fiercely protected their airspaces and number of incidents with planes being shot down happened.

My father was visiting USA when one of such incidents took place, suddenly all flights connecting USA and USSR were canceled and he could not get home. He was stuck in East Hampton for about three months, but this unpleasant situation led to inspiring and interesting meetings with Willem De Kooning who had a studio nearby.

My Father often visited his studio and they discussed art over the glass of wine. These meetings were a source of inspiration and after coming back from USA, my father never painted a realistic painting again. Abstract expressionism remains his major passion until today.

Breaking the boundaries - Guernsey’s auction of Soviet Art

The first time my fathers art was exhibited in the West was after meeting with Mr Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s auction who was travelling around USSR and selecting artworks for the first auction of Soviet art to be held in New York.

Mr Ettinger was really fond of my Father’s work, so he brought 9 of his sculptures to USA and put one of them on the cover of the auction catalogue.

Soviet art auction

The photograph of the same sculpture now illustrates the development of the auction on it’s web site, next to Willem de Kooning’s painting.

It is unbelievable that the auction of Soviet art could take place in New York in 1988 and one can only imagine the challenges that auction organisers had to face. It was a real breakthrough and that is how my Father’s works landed in the homes of USA collectors for the first time.

Auction cataologue

So being an artist in USSR was not easy, but no regime could bend down the creative spirit. Number of artists have made their way without serving the regime, many had to choose emigration in order to protect their families and those who stayed were always at risk and under strict surveillance.

However, isolation from the outer world, shortage of supplies and restrictions on creative freedom made them even more creative. A lot of amazing artworks were created during that time, with coded messages, communicating starvation for freedom.

Contemporary artist

My dad, his art and I.

My dad still paints a lot, he paints every day at his studio near Vilnius (Lithuania). Since I moved to Switzerland, he had three exhibitions in Zurich and has a constant exhibition of his art at my online gallery.

Click this link to discover his art and don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE for more inspiring news!