Here, bold, dense and dark colors replace the light and soft tones more commonly found in officially-sanctioned Soviet-era art. Instead of easily recognizable human figures and imagery we see radically distorted bodies and other shapes; instead of feigned, numb innocence – open pulsating eroticism; and in lieu of heroic, joyous and optimistic propaganda – an embracing of grief, restlessness, drama and irony.
This is how Vincas Kisarauskas shattered the socialist realist standards of official Soviet art. As a result, many of his paintings where never publicly exhibited during the Soviet period. But they nevertheless drew many admirers, particularly among younger audiences. In 1963, the KGB even added a note to Kisarauskas’ official file, stating that his work “exerts a negative influence on youth, particularly among students at the Lithuanian Art Institute.”
Kisarauskas’ work developed a following because it spoke about what was real and suppressed. About fear, for example – the fear to take initiative, to speak out, or to think. In the dismal Soviet days fear was a constant companion – many had to hide their thoughts and protect their fragile spirits to survive government repression and endure the absurdity of Soviet life.
Such was the frightened society, and such is The Frightened City. It shines like a vividly illuminated theatre set, where each detail is static and immobile: a female figure partially fused with a column and shackled in armor, a city gate resembling the Arc de Triomphe, and a row of buildings in the distance. Each of the painting’s elements is displayed as if it were separate from the other and viewed from different angles, and each object can be examined as if one were moving through a staged scene.
But the imprisoned breast and buttocks appear to be struggling to escape the armor and the prison of fear. The human body, desire and sex (even mentioning the latter was frowned upon in those days) are all expressions of freedom for Kisarauskas – a freedom which didn’t exist, but to which he aspired. Human existence, the crushing force of the state and the regime’s fear of the liberating power of the will to live were all things that intrigued Kisarauskas, and for which he sought out his own means of expression. As he once wrote: “I have always wanted to say something strange – something tragically, severely and unpleasantly strange.”