Švažas’ painting Eternal Flame is part of his series entitled Ninth Fort, dedicated to the memory of the Jews massacred by occupying Nazi forces in 1941 at a Tsarist-era fortification outside Kaunas. During the Soviet period, there was never any official mention that the victims of the Ninth Fort killings were Jewish civilians. They were simply commemorated as anonymous “Soviet citizens”.
Eternal Flame is one of Švažas’ most abstract works, however, and as such it helps us understand the Holocaust – the greatest tragedy in twentieth century Lithuanian and European history – as part of a larger, shared human experience. The painting raises questions about eternity and the transience of the human body. Some may view the painting and see a fire on a rock, as described by Plato, while others may perceive an altar attended by pagan priestesses. Still others have said they see a blossoming poppy flower. All of these meanings are possible, because the eternal flame symbolizes the force of life that also burns in each of us, our preserved collective memory, and the torch of spiritual energy passed from one generation to the next.
Švažas was concerned with both narrative and form – the harmony of colors and the composition in a work. In the early 1960s he became one of the leaders of the modernist Lithuanian art revival. In the context of that time, Švažas was a bold experimenter who sought to make Lithuanian art more contemporary and multi-faceted, and was interested in Western ideas and trends.
Švažas was known as a uniting figure who inspired younger, aspiring artists to new intellectual and creative pursuits. He discouraged his students from blindly following their teachers, encouraging them to discover their own individual paths – something he did himself. Švažas’ images are flat – he avoided any specific attempt to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space. He used bold color combinations and often outlined details in dark contours. Though the emotion in Švažas’ works was restrained, his paintings were always full of meaning. The vivid colors radiating from his creative flame burn brightly to this day.