Characters is both painting and Phoenix – arisen from the ashes in the true sense of the word. Born in Kaunas, Mikalojus Šalkauskas was a merciless critic of his own work, often bringing canvases he disliked to an island in the Nemunas River to burn them. He never regretted torching any of them, except one: Dvi teatrinės figūros, Two Theatrical Figures. So, sometime later, he painted another, second version on the same theme – Characters, the painting we see here.
Šalkauskas disliked talking about his work. He would say that his part of the work was finished – now it was up to audiences to do their part. Because we know very little about Šalkauskas himself, viewers of his work have endless freedom to interpret his paintings but, at the same time, they should pay careful attention to what appear to be insignificant details at first glance. In Characters, such details include the nearly imperceptible mouse in the lower left corner of the canvas or the artist’s message (“Painted by Mykolas”) in the lower right corner, rendered in the style of classical painting masters.
Or, perhaps the key to understanding this work can be found in the theatre, mentioned in the name of the first version of this painting? Šalkauskas had studied at the Moscow Theatre Institute. Though he never graduated from the institute, he forged a bond with the world of theatre that endured for the rest of his life. Šalkauskas taught drawing to members of the Modris Tenisons pantomime company in Kaunas and wrote a play for director Jonas Vaitkus that was never staged. Šalkauskas’ wife, Janina Malinauskaitė, worked as a set designer at the Kaunas Drama Theatre. The domestic look of the scene portrayed in this painting might be viewed as a performance of life itself. Šalkauskas reminds us ironically: “Our life is theatre and we are but characters within it.”
Small details in the painting lead us to think that the characters depicted here might have actual names. It is sometimes said that the painting portrays a conversation between two famous Lithuanian pilots, Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, who died tragically during an unsuccessful trans-Atlantic crossing attempt from New York to Kaunas in 1933. The character on the right has infinity symbols for eyes and wears something resembling a pilot’s cap, while a bird or an airplane flies above both figures. After all, everything is possible on the stage of theatre and life – just as is it possible for a painting to rise again from the ashes.