Having strong opinions isn’t always a sign of strength. But having strong ideas about who women are and what they are supposed to do is often misleading. Strength is being able to escape the shadow of your talented family and create your own identity as an artist. Strength is being able to genuinely dig deeper into feminism and discuss the issues which you, as a woman, consider necessary. And power is only one among the many topics I had the pleasure to talk with Ruta Jusionyte – a Lithuanian-born, Paris-based, well-known sculptor and painter, whom you can meet at the art fair Art Vilnius this June.
Ruta, why is the cause of women so important to you and your creative work?
I believe there are still many misunderstandings and loopholes in the image of women that is being projected. In France, I see a lot of examples of men winning better positions and getting better job offers. It’s really hard for a woman to break the glass ceiling and reach the top. We will rule, and you, women, can do your best at being secretaries.
There are many exceptions of course and we have women leaders in Lithuania. I guess one of the reasons that could explain this phenomenon is that feminism has never been totally eradicated in Lithuania because we were pagans for so long, and matriarchy was at the core of it. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has an interesting hypothesis. Try to imagine those ancient clay sculptures and ceramics, which portray women. The angle from which these sculptures are made could only be seen from a woman’s point of view – how she sees herself from above. It’s a guess, but a man would have chosen a totally different perspective to make such sculpture, it would have various forms.
Restrictions on women, barring them from creating and voicing their opinion came later, I think. Royal families, religious institutions had artists – like Diego Velazquez for one – living and working by their side. These artists got orders to create pieces that worship power, beauty and divinity, also war. Women never lived and created by the king’s side, they were eliminated from all the political and religious matters. They had no voice in it. Not until the beginning of the 20th century when they were allowed to create and study arts. But even then, these few job positions were created only because men decided so. And while men were painting nudes, it was still not appropriate for a female artist to do that.
In the 20th century, urbanization and industrialization made a path for women to work, earn money and not to depend on a husband or a father financially. The Soviet system integrated women into the working class and they were slowly able to express their creativity too. My grandmother was one of the first women to give lectures at Vilnius Academy of Arts. But there were other restrictions, of course.
So, historical context and social trends are very important regarding the way women could start to create, to work, and express themselves. And as I have said before, there are still so many gaps we need to fill.
What gaps bother you the most?
On the one hand, a woman who is an artist and who has an opinion, a wish to create and act, who discusses politics or any other topic, can do it freely and equally as a man. I think that women and men have the same amount of creative energy; there is no difference between them. But on the other hand, all the biggest artists in today’s contemporary art scene are men, no matter what they do – installations, conceptual art, painting. There are only a few women who are equally acknowledged. They do have some women at Centre Pompidou now, but the first pieces by female artists were presented not such a long time ago.
If a woman wants to be recognized in society, she has to do and work double as a man. It is easy to forget the battle they had to fight and the barriers they had to overthrow. Time flies, some women themselves start to criticize their fundamental liberties, so the solidarity, which is so essential, is receding.
It’s hard to win an argument and then later a battle when your support team happens to play for the other side.
Everything is changing nowadays; for example, our understanding of a family is changing, divorces have become the norm, and woman as a single mother is a common rule. And then add all other roles society expects you to play smoothly: a woman is expected to be beautiful, successful at her job, a great chef for her husband and so on. And also, it has to be done perfectly. This is the image of a Multiple Woman, which, I think, is an impossible thing to accomplish in real life. At some point, you have to choose your priorities in your 24 hrs a day and to stick to them.
And what are yours?
When I was young, and my daughter was born, I was trying to put everything into specific boxes. I was trying to be a mother, a painter, a wife, a friend. As time passed, I understood that there is no need for those boxes. When you finally find your identity, you get rid of all the walls and combine the most important things.
Realizing who you are, doesn’t seem like an easy task you solve in 15 minutes.
Philosophy and psychology helped me. Carl Jung speaks about anima and animus – we all have our feminine and masculine sides. It’s unavoidable. The masculine side comes through energy, strength, confidence. The feminine side is based on empathy and tenderness, the ability to listen and to understand. It’s all connected in one person.
So, could you name if anima or animus is more influential in your creative life?
I think that in art, empathy plays an equal role as egocentrism, and desire is equal to construct. The balance is crucial here. Following Jung, French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois speaks about it: she says that women usually have more femininity in the beginning. Still, later maturity and life experiences change these proportions, strength comes to women, and men become more empathic.
I used to think that art has a lot of masculine attributes, especially painting. For me, the painting was equal to a man speaking about his energy. A woman has different energy; it is more about patience.
Maybe there are some artists whose art is holistic and represents both sides, the ones who feel the harmony you are speaking about?
There are many, of course. Germaine Richier is an excellent example of that harmony. Jonas Burgert, a German painter, combines masculine and feminine sides of his. A huge contrast of femininity and manly strength is seen in the works of Paula Rego.
You were talking about the strength a lot. Let’s go back to the days and years when you left Klaipeda, your hometown, and then Lithuania. I guess it took a lot of guts to do that. Leaving a huge army of artists in your family and moving to Paris. Were you trying to escape their shadow?
Yes, a huge wish to run from my dynasty full of artists. It is a gift to have such a family, but also it can be a very big burden for a young artist because you have to work hard to create your own identity and to pull away from this background. There is this saying that small trees don’t grow in the shadow of big ones. So, leaving was initially about understanding myself without being followed by the shadow of my family. When I came to Paris, nobody tried to compare me to my grandmother or my father. I was Jusionyte, not a sister or a daughter of Jusionis. Just a painter, that’s it. When I found my identity, after ten years or so, I understood that I could come back and present myself as a mature painter. It was a really warm and nice homecoming.
What defines that artistic identity of yours which you were pursuing so hard?
I was studying French culture, The Louvre was near, one gallery in Paris decided to represent me, I befriended very talented people, so our discussions were really interesting. I had many gaps before, and I filled them.
Despite these experiences, I think we Lithuanians are closer to the Germanic colorist. In my paintings, I create light through color, not through shadow, and I see how it reflects Lithuanian character too. These strong contrasting colors are dominant in North countries. In the South, France, pastel is more common. So, Germany, Austria, Switzerland feel closer, as parts of my identity. People in France, who are closer to Luxembourg, understand this very well.
But my sculpture is universal: I just put emotion into the figure, and it gives birth to that special relationship between the statue and the viewer where the person can see himself as in a mirror. Sculpture only starts to live when it creates a bond with a viewer.
What bond will your art creations with visitors of Art Vilnius?
I am presently working on the Human-animal relationship, so the sculptures display many archetypes, but there is also the figure of the angels the ones living between us, creating a shield and protection. Yet, they can be seen as a symbol of freedom, just think about their wings. People interested in human relations and intimacy will have some space for their interpretation of what cozy family gatherings and dinners can be about.
Interview conducted in collaboration with Simona Gribulyte, the Arts Bridge gallery, Vilnius, Lithuania.
Those who won’t be able to visit Art Vilnius this June and want to discover the many facets of Rūta Jusionytė’s sculpture and painting can visit Normandy, where the artist is the guest of honor in a special event dedicated to the end of World War II. Also, you can see her art in Reims at the end of June as her works will be exhibited in an art festival along with poetry and music. And the best news for those in Lithuania, a solo exhibition in Vilnius, is coming ahead of this November. Enjoy.