Thursday, March 18, 2010

In the City of Devils


Kaunas, Lithuania

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.

9 comments:

Wanda said...

Those sexy devils in storage might also be creating and stirring mischief in the larger context of the Lithuanian mind. Can you imagine what they are all cooking up together in the closet.

In my first job in an arts center in the early 70s a juried art show winning painting featured a nude male figure sitting on a sofa reading a newspaper. The painting was quite large and the museum director placed it at the end of the gallery facing the entrance door. The first group to visit that day was a girl scout troup. The leader literally ran from the room with her girls. The girls were not flummoxed at all - just curious. Interestingly enough that was the only real incident. The painting generated discussion, well written letters to the editor, and some serious dialogue about what we keep from people and the damaging results of hiding what is natural until we give it an aura of evil and "unnatural."

So, I agree, they need to get the real devils out of the closet and give them air so people will recognize them and know how to deal with them when they create serious difficulty.

Alla said...

Well, they are Catholics now... :-) I saw a lot of pietism and hypocrisy while living there. Also, when the conflict with the Soviets began, the priests instructed people what to do, where to go, what to say. Once during the 1st Lithuanian election, I was in one of the Roman Catholic churches of our city as an accompanist of Music College's students' choir, which was participating in the service. (We did it many times, "rehearsing" important programs before exams and concerts). The church was mobbed like usually. I was amazed, when the priest began to tell very persistently and firmly for who to vote. It sounded rather like an order, than just an advice. The country is open now, they have satellite antennae with the TV programs from all over the world, the web is on every single desk... Yet the masses seem to remain close-minded, being very hard-working, having a lot of national pride, and carrying bad memories from the past. Also they tend to blaim only the Big Brother in all of their misfortunes, which is not really true. I left Lithuania in 1993, and still go there in my dreams very often. It's a beautiful country with a very monolite nation, from which I learned a lot and am still very grateful.

Worldbridger said...

20 x 13 = 260 same as the Tzolkin, the sacred day count of the Mayan calendar.

Carol Davis said...

The Hebrew Scriptures contain a beautifully sexual, sensual book called the Song of Songs. It is well accepted in the Catholic Bible.

I don't know if the sexy devils hidden in that museum closet are really sexy or just lewd. It is possible that pretending they don't exist is just adding to the pile of denial that contributes to all sorts of problems. Addictions, for example, flourish in a climate of denial. And what we deny can take on a destructive life of its own and proliferate distorted thinking until what is denied is brought into the clarity of the light.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda - That's a great story idea: what happens when devils are kept in the closet and have lots of time to plot together in the dark. I may work that into a comic novella I wrote after my first visit to Lithuania in 2004 but have not (yet) sought to bring to the public :-) Thank you!

Robert Moss said...

Alla - Yes, I was aware of the influence of the Catholic Church when I noticed that the great Bull of Kaunas (the bull is the symbol over the city) that dominates the skyline when you are looking from Laives aleja (Freedom Avenue) has also been "clipped". No sign whatever of a bull's most celebrated endownment, but with a cross over his head. Of course, as you know, the old dievas (gods) and spirits of Lithuania are also very much alive. This was the last officially "pagan" country in Europem and the old ways never died out in the countryside. Here the old Earth-centered Goddess tradition survived side-by-side with the "new" religion of the Indo-European sky and horse gods, and both make their presence felt in many ways in the imaginal life of the country.

Robert Moss said...

Carol - Yes the Song of Songs is indeed a lovely celebration of the sexual in the sacred as are (for example) the poems of Rumi.

Thanks for your wise comment about how denial contributes to addiction. Whenever we demonize something and then refuse to talk about it and pretend we can't see it, that is surely going to exacerbate a problem situation. I suspect those horny devils in the basement of the Kaunas museum get out and about at nnight...

Alla said...

There was a hilarious story in Šiauliai - quite the opposite, when they created a monument of a famous general (sorry, I don't remember who). The metallic hero was sitting on the back of a horse, and its statue was supposed to decorate the central square of the city (and still is). All the merits of the brave animal were right there. :-) The monument was stately opened to the public. Next day a big delegation of Lithuanian generals came to the city administration with a complaint that the statue was not historically true. They told, that a military general of those times never had a horse, he had a mare! A horse could never be as reliable as a female, because he could unexpectedly neigh in an ambush feeling the smell of a mare, and the enemies would hear him, thus the general could be in a big trouble. That particular famous general never had a horse, they said. - Next night a crew of workers with jackhammers worked hard a few hours, trying to extesticulate the bronze horse and making hell of a noise, so that the intire downtown couldn't sleep. :-)))))) They never succeeded! The thing they were trying to get rid of was too tough, and after half a night of hard work the crue had to give up on that. The administration decided to let it go... :-)

Robert Moss said...

Very funny story about the horse of Šiauliai, Alla. I was close to Šiauliai in my travels over the past week, but missed the statue!