While its national art museums celebrate native-born artists of the past, Vilnius also has a clutch of contemporary galleries revealing more recent talents.
The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius is a fine looking city which wears its mixture of late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture well. Its old town, the largest in Eastern Europe, has witnessed dramatic and traumatic events over the centuries, changing hands between Poland and Russia, and enduring the dual oppressions of first the Nazis and then the Soviet Union before gaining independence from Russia in 1990.
view in the state-run art museums are largely by native-born artists. Since the country regained independence, a number of fine contemporary galleries have sprung up to both fill the gaps in the knowledge of Lithuanian art in the first half of the 20th century and develop international activities.
National Art Museums
The Lithuanian Art Museum is an umbrella organisation responsible for several Vilnius museums of interest to art-lovers.
Overlooking the Old Town from the opposite bank of the River Vilnius is the National Gallery of Art, home to an extensive collection of 20th and 21st century Lithuanian painting, sculpture, graphic art and photography. These are arranged in chronological order, each room examining the styles and influences of a particular period. The building, formerly the Museum of the Revolution during Soviet times, was extensively renovated for the city’s turn as the European Capital of Culture in 2009. The result is a modern, multi-level, ten-room showcase. The vast lower floor, the Grand Exhibition Hall, hosts special exhibitions by international artists and there are fine views of the river and old town from the terrace cafe.
In the reconstructed Old Arsenal standing at the confluence of the River Vilnius and a tributary, the Neris, the Museum of Applied Arts & Design has a fine collection of furniture, tapestries, jewellery, ceramics and other objects from the 15th century onwards. Originally one of the buildings of the Lower Castle (the main castle tops the hill behind it), the building is entered through a high, pointed ‘gate’ with the remains of the 14th century foundations visible from the stairs leading down to the reception hall.
In a building modelled after the Luxembourg palace in Paris, the Baroque Radvilas Palace Museum has a permanent exhibition comprising Western European Art and Graphic Art and featuring over 300 16th to 19th century works reflecting the change in styles from Gothic to Renaissance and Romanticism to Realism. Older works include 15th century Gothic altar wings and 15th and 16th century German and Dutch engravings.
Housed since 1994 in a former 17th century palace built for one of the city’s ruling families (and more recently used as flats during the Soviet era), the Vilnius Picture Gallery has a permanent collection of Lithuanian art from the 16th to the 19th century. Here the emphasis is on historical, religious, mythological and rural scenes and landscapes as well as depictions of Vilnius through the ages and portraits of the great and good (men, that is) over the centuries. Concerts are often held in the beautifully restored rooms.
In a tastefully modernised early 20th century neoclassical-style building, the Vytautas Kasiulis Art Museum has a permanent exhibition of 950 works by the Lithuanian emigre artist Vytautas Kasiulis (1918-95), donated to the state by the artist’s widow and son. Kasiulis spent the WWII years in Vienna and latterly Germany before settling in Paris, never to return to his then Communist-held homeland. Kasiulis particularly liked painting studio and cafe scenes in his unique style suggestive of a film negative, an effect achieved by light brushstrokes, resulting in a strange balance between reality and fantasy. The collection of paintings, drawings and book illustrations represents the totality of his prolific output. The museum also shows work by other Lithuanian emigre artists and is currently conducting a search to find and present lesser known local work from the first half of the 20th century.
Further info: www.ldm.lt/en
Just off the main square near the Town Hall, the Contemporary Art Centre is the biggest of its kind in the Baltic states, staging up to six large scale exhibitions a year as well as smaller projects. Although it has no collection of its own, it is the permanent home of the Fluxus Archive, commemorating the work of the Fluxus movement’s Lithuanian co-founder George Maciunas.
The lucky students of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, the oldest and largest art university in the Baltics, have their own exhibition space in the Titanikas Gallery, where you can see a changing exhibition of work in multiple disciplines.
Republic of Uzupis
Symbolically separated from the rest of the Old Town by the River Neris, the main crossing a small bridge festooned with ‘love locks’, the self-declared Republic of Uzupis is an artists’ enclave with its own anthem, president, constitution (including the clause ‘People have the right to be happy’) and even bishop. Its streets and courtyards are dotted with art galleries, studios and artisan shops and its honorary citizens include the Dalai Lama. Find a seat on the terrace of the riverside pub Uzupio Kavine (Republic of Uzupis) and watch the river drift by past stone pile ‘sculptures’ dotted along its course.
Where To Stay
The Comfort Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel is not nearly as raucous as it sounds. The decor in each room is dedicated to a band, singer or musician (Louis Armstrong, Madonna, The Beatles), while as the lift opens on each floor, you may be greeted by a mural of Elton John, Michael Jackson or Ray Charles.
Along from the National Gallery of Art overlooking the river and the old town from the opposite bank, the 291-room Radisson Blu Hotel Lietuva is a modern tower block with all the amenities of an international four-star brand.