Thursday, March 18, 2010
In the City of Devils
This is the only city in the world, they boast, that has a Museum of Devils. It began with the private collection of the landscape artist Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, who painted in classical style and appears from his portraits to have been a cheerful, apple-cheeked fellow. Yet he was fascinated by how Old Nick is depicted, especially in folk art; a sculptor friend contributed a carving of a devil fleeing in terror from Antanas, who is pursuing him to add him to his collection. The artist liked the number 13 and eventually assembled 20 times 13 images: 260 devils.
Popular motifs are the devils of addiction, riding drunks and leering around the edges of drinking cups. The splayed body of a devil makes an ashtray, inviting the cigarette smoker to keep puffing. Here's a devil forcing a bottle down a drinker's throat. A cute commentary instructs us that alcohol originated with she-goat urine. It's okay to have one drink for God, then one for yourself, but after that your drinking is for the devil and your throat (for starters) is going to burn.
The devils in the core collection are twisted and ugly, but generally fairly stupid - there are many images in which a smart fellow tricks a devil - and not especially scary. However, there is one piece that evokes a dark time when it seemed that most of Europe was possessed by true devils. This is the 1975 sculpture by Kasys Dereskevičius titled "My Lithuania". It depicts the devil Stalin flogging the devil Hitler across a field of the dead (see the graphic above).
On the top floor of the museum are devil images from far and wide. Slavic countries are strongly represented, but there are also Rakshasas from India, Tibetan "wrathful deities", and capering skeletons from Central America. Foreign visitors are politely informed that if they have a devil they'd like to unload, they may leave it here. As I walked the museum, I felt more and more acutely that something essential was missing. While most of the devils were shown with little horns, these were not actually horny devils. Not a single one had even the faintest suggestion of sexual equipment. Finally I had to ask one of the curators: "Why don't the devils of Kaunas have sex organs?"
Blushing and smiling, she said, "But some of them do. Even very big ones."
"Then where are they?"
She explained that the sexy devils are kept in a storeroom under lock and key. Because of the school groups that tour the museum. How very silly, I thought. Children are curious about sex, just as they are curious about death, and well-meaning adults do no good at all by trying to push either theme under the tablecloth. It's even possible that we create devils, and magnify their power, when we try to repress or deny primal forces and feelings. "The Devil's greatest art,"said Baudelaire, "is to make us believe that he does not exist." I found it impossible to believe in the devils on display in the Kaunas museum (except for Hitler and Stalin) but it was possible to not-quite-disbelieve in the devils locked in the basement.