The image of two melancholy characters with forlorn faces bent over a café or bar table is part of a tradition in modern art that is more than a century old. Before us here is a Soviet Lithuanian version of that tradition. Even if we don’t know the name of the painter or haven’t looked at the year it was created, we might easily guess the time period depicted here. The main characters of the painting, two glass, funnel-shaped containers placed in the foreground, were an essential feature in Soviet-era delicatessens or cafés.
The containers usually held juice, but in some vegetable stores they also dispensed cheap wine. This banal, quotidian and unromantic detail was never meant to be included in the noble canon of Soviet art. Much like the man here, suffering so unheroically through his hangover. But this is exactly why the painting became a work of Soviet art.
Arvydas Šaltenis was one of the most innovative artists of his time – among the first to begin portraying the city and life within it in the 1970s from a less-façade like perspective. Šaltenis liked to say that reality should be depicted as it is. At the time, this simple aspiration resounded like a challenge to official art, since socialist realism demanded the portrayal of reality not as it actually appeared, but as the regime wanted it to appear.
Did the man in the painting drink juice or cheap wine? Is he, in his thirst, contemplating another round? Has he resolved never to drink again, or has he succumbed to temptation after all? The work’s inherent tension is suppressed by an atmosphere of contrasting colors and restless, in places almost sketch-like and incomplete brushstrokes that shape the mood of the painting. Many of Šaltenis’ paintings display a sense of somber, cold melancholy that exposes human solitude.
Šaltenis is not shocked or morally offended by the everyday subject of a hangover – he merely captures the moment of sadness and desperation that comes after the joy of a drunken binge. His is a multifaceted, painful and forgiving, dramatic and playful irony – all captured in one word scribbled on the back of the canvas by the artist: pachmielas, a Lithuanian rendering of the Russian word for hangover.