Among the numerous stories about world-famous people in Kaunas, Lithuania, this one is probably the most interesting – and inspiring. The philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre and the writer Simone de Beauvoir stopped in Kaunas during their trip to Lithuania in 1965. It was, to begin with, the Brezhnev era, or the Stagnation Period, of the Soviet Union, a regime Lithuania occupied by at that time.
Sartre was considered ‘a comrade’ at that time so it probably wasn’t that hard to receive a visa for him compared to a ‘regular westerner’. Lithuania was just a short part of a longer trip to the Soviet Union but it was a very big event for the local intellectual elite.
The couple, followed by carefully selected local entourage, including Lena Zonina, a French literature expert from Moscow whom Sartre visited a dozen times, also went to Vilnius, Klaipėda, Palanga and the Curonian Spit during their 5-day trip, famously documented by Antanas Sutkus, a then-26-year-old photographer.
Antanas Sutkus J. P. Sartre in Lithuania. Nida. 1965 / MMC / Modern Art Center
Antanas Sutkus J. P. Sartre and S. de Beauvoir in Lithuania. Nida. 1965, 40 x 50 cm / MMC / Modern Art Center
Interestingly, Sartre only allowed Sutkus to photograph him because he wasn’t aware the Lithuanian man was a professional photographer. 'There is only one photographer who may come close to me and that's Henri Cartier Bresson’, the philosopher told Sutkus when he found out, but he was later pleased with the pictures. You can read an interview with Sutkus reflecting the trip through Lithuania in Baltic Times here. By the way, the best-known picture of Sartre by Sutkus was mistakenly credited as Bressons - just because the naive Lithuanian artist didn’t sign it before sending the pictures to France. The mistake was later corrected and the picture turned out to serve as the basis for Sartre’s statue in the National Library in Paris.
Solveiga Daugirdaitė, a scholar at The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, has recently published a study of the trip, called ‘Flickered like a Meteor’. Earlier, she published an article on the same topic in the institute’s magazine ‘Colloquia’, part of which is dedicated to Sartre and de Beauvoir in Kaunas. Let's hope the book will be translated to English, too!
Among excerpts from local dailies from the 60s, the author quotes de Beauvoir herself: ‘We had the chance to visit an exhibition of a contemporary yet very unsightly stained glass, a weaving workshop and an interesting museum of antiques: I admired a wooden pensive Christ - a lot of ugly reproductions of it can be seen in Lithuania, but this one was particularly beautiful, sitting there, holding his head with a crown of thorns - a true symbol of a lonesome man’. (Simone de Beauvoir, ‘All Said and Done’, 1972’).
It’s recorded that Sartre and de Beauvoir also visited the Ninth Fort, part of the Kaunas fortress that was used as a place of execution during the WW2 and was later converted to a museum. They also stopped by the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum and ‘preferred to observe the paintings without an entourage’.
M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum. Photo by Mantas Matulionis
The sculpture the writer is referring to in her memoirs was created by Juozas Mikėnas for the international exhibition in Paris in 1937. It can still be visited in the Čiurlionis museum today. As de Beauvoir noted, a lot of interpretations of the pose can be seen around Lithuania. More on it here.
A poster of an exhibition featuring the Pensive Christ by Jonas Mikėnas
Daugirdaitė notes that a lot of artists used Sartre as a currency of sorts after his visit, both in intellectual debates and in their later works. As it was mentioned before, such an important person from a Western country spending his time in Lithuania was quite an exception from a very harsh rule in the 60s. The visit and the attention Sartre and de Beauvoir showed to the people they met, whether it was a sincere act or politeness, was also an important recognition to the artists and intellectuals of a Soviet-occupied country.
Getting back to Sutkus, this is most probably the only picture of the visit in Kaunas from his collection. Yes, Sartre and de Beauvoir took a ride in the funicular on July 30th, 1965. You are recommended to do the same during your stay in Kaunas.
Antanas Sutkus J. P. Sartre and S. de Beauvoir in Lithuania. Kaunas. 1965, 50 x 60 cm / MMC / Modern Art center
More works by Sutkus, one of the greatest Lithuanian photographers of our time, can be seen on the website of Modern Art Center here.