New fonts help reinterpret canonical work by 300-year-old Lithuanian writer

Kristijonas Donelaitis
DELFI (I.Saukienės nuotr.)

With 2014, the Year of Donelaitis, winding down, the tally of commemorative events is being counted, but in the mass, a digital exhibition reviving the Lithuanian great’s work in new typographic and calligraphic fonts, laid out by Vilnius Art Academy’s (VAA) Graphic Design students, have been especially endearing to many as a new approach to the canonical literary work. The Lithuanian Tribune spoke to Aušra Lisauskienė, the dean of the Academy’s Graphic Design Department and spearhead of the digital exhibition E-METAI.

To what extent had Vilnius Art Academy (VAA) and your personally dealt with Kristijonas Donelaitis until the exhibition?

I’d say that the personality of Donelaitis is rather forgotten in today’s cultural life, so no wonder that the Lithuanian Government and Lithuanian Parliament have decided to commemorate his 300th anniversary on the state level this year. UNESCO has also paid its tribute to Donelaitis’ heritage – his birthday has been included in the list of UNESCO and its member states’ commemorative anniversaries.

The Academy’s Graphic Design Department (GDD) was invited back in 2012 to join preparatory works for the commemoration of the jubilee – to create a logo that would signify the anniversary. For that, a competition was announced and it was won by our graduate student Gražina Komarovska, who came up with a very nice logo. I believe that many recognize it today – a sideview of Donelaitis put in the letter D; the logo was posted on the website of the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture in the beginning of 2013, and since then all events related to the anniversary are identified with the distinctive logo.

Did your students readily embrace Donelaitis’ life and oeuvre as a source of inspiration, realizing his significance to the Lithuanian culture? Or did you have to nudge them a little bit?

I believe that the strongest nudge from aside was calling 2014 the Year of Donelaitis. Certainly, many artists and some of our students had been interested in the subject well before that. There were books written and artwork, representing different genres, created. But only in the jubilee year was the theme completely overwhelmed with many exhibitions, conferences and creative workshops dedicated to the prominent writer’s life and literary heirloom. It has become an important part of Lithuania’s cultural life in 2014.

How much do you find Donelaitis’ ideas and heritage relevant to the modern generation?

For the current young generation of Lithuanians, just like to all the others, the culture of national remembrance and pride has always been important. It is so despite the geographical latitude, wherever young people happen to stay now.

Donelaitis’ epic poeam Metai is definitely a prominent monument of Lithuanian pastoral art for everybody, regardless of where one lives or studies. Many countries, in fact, have similar monuments of pastoral art. The 16th century’s Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, encompassing legal codes of the-then law, are also the same kind of the phenomenon in the European feudal law.

Donelaitis’ Metai has become a canonical artwork of Lithuanian literature and is on par to the Finns and Karelians’ Kalevala or Latvians’ epic Lačplėsis.

With his heritage being very important to the modern generation in a general sense, it is very important who and how presents it.

I reckon the worst thing to Donelaitis and his Metai would be making the young generation learn the poem or some parts of it forcibly and by heart, which is something that the past millennium’s generations had to do.

I really believe we have to think very well as to how to synchronize his signature literary work with the rhythm of life, mentality and the social media that modern generation has or uses.
I wish we learned to read and analyze it as a piece of canonic 18-century writing in the context of the 21st century.

How did the exhibition E-METAI come about?

Along with the GDD third-year students, we’ve been creating various typographic fonts for quite some years now. They can be used both for the traditional publications and e-media outlets. So first there came an idea of creating new professional font which, in the future, would be used in typesetting Donelaitis’ texts. While we were preoccupied with this, professor Rimvydas Kepežinskas and his second-year students were working on illustrations for the poem. So combining both projects has led to the virtual exhibition E-METAI.

What was the goal of the exhibition?

It was obviously use our students’ design works in order to have the public acquainted with different forms of dissemination of information about Donelaitis life and his oeuvre in the 21st century.

Moreover, we sought to exhibit how modern typographic and graphic art tools created on the Web can reintroduce our canonic authors and their cultural heritage.

Another thing that we pursued was bringing up the issues of intellectual property and copyright protection as far as the use of typographic fonts is concerned.

For the anniversary, the GDD students have created 12 patent, original typographic fonts that future publishers will be able to use in the future e-editions of Metai.

Do you find those digital expressions equivalent to the conventional forms of art when it comes to the remembrance of an author who worked nearly 300 years ago?

I always wonder what we regard as a conventional form of art? Are, in that sense, the first drawings of the early Paleolithic period more or less traditional compared to the engraved letters in the Trajan Arc of the Roman Empire?

I reckon that the term of traditionalism reflects best within framework of a certain period. So to answer your question, digital forms of art have become traditional since the 1980s. And they are successfully employed to reinterpret present artworks, as well those from the past. Metai is not an exception.

What were the exhibition‘s biggest surprises and discoveries?

It was really enjoyable to see how two projects by separate student groups got combined into the entirety of the e-exposition. Lithuania has age-old book illustration traditions. Those typographic posters that showcased original typographic fonts by the students hint at strong prospects for Lithuanian typography.

Was there anything that surprised you in the students’ works?

The creative freedom that most of the works emanated and the will to jazz up such a canonical subject like Donelaitis’ poem Metai when creating really “jazzy” illustrations perhaps surprised me most. I was also amazed how free and unfazed students were in coming up with the new fonts for future editions of Metai.

What is the link to you between the 300-year old creator, his canonic poem and the modern generation of artists?

The fixing material in the triad is definitely the young people’s creative challenges arising from the will to do something that others have never done. The case of new typographic fonts that our students created is just what I mean. The new fonts, already labeled as 21-century products, show the young generation’s graphic designers’ peculiar approach towards typography and esthetics, and their expressions definitely broaden our understanding of what is usual and, therefore, right.

Sometimes in our life really valuable solutions do not get proper attention just because there’s an opinion they do not fit into the category of what I call “rightly perceived phenomena”. We just sometimes tend to forget that what is being created today will become the “right thing” only after a decade. And, furthermore, it will be accepted and used by future generations without any stipulations.

How did you get interested in letter art?

I disagree with the way you put the question. I didn’t get interested in letter art. It has been, as a matter of fact, part of my life. So no wonder that in all my works – even without any prior planning – there appears, quite naturally, letters, graphic signs and typographic compositions. Frankly, I am surprised myself that my letter artworks find a spot in the exhibitions both in the West and the East.

I really regard letter art to be the most conceptual art and the most “voluminous” form of expression.

For an art beginner, can you tell what letter art is all about?

Letter art is about graphic characters – letters, symbols, calligraphic and typographic fonts – which, along with textual information, transmits important visual messages. Innovative interdisciplinary creations in letter artwork reconstruct real values in the artful conceptual context of letters and submit them to the public’s perception as tantamount to other artworks, through which the creative message can be ciphered and read once one uncovers the textual and visual meanings.

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