Strona główna/ART (ENG). Cartography of Body and Soul

ART (ENG). Cartography of Body and Soul

Meda Norbutaitė’s Cartography of Body and Soul
Basia Nikiforova, Žilvinė Gaižutytė-Filipavičienė

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
(Anthony Bourdain)

“I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is”
(Walt Whitman)

In contemporary visual culture, the body is visualized as a symbol and image of all crises – migration, pandemics, ecological and other global disasters: It is the vulnerability of the body that has become a major theme and source of artistic activism.


Lithuanian painter is an artist who actively creates and organizes exhibitions. Since 1997 she has participated in more than twenty author exhibitions, many group exhibitions and projects. The album “Meda Norbutaitė” was published in 2010, in which the best works of the painter of the last two decades were collected, accompanied by texts by art critics and art philosophers, and in the summer of 2020, an author’s exhibition was held at the Artists’ Union Gallery. The painter is interested in a material body that has its own scope, shape, texture, color, smell and moods, and at the same time accommodates emotional and spiritual experiences and thoughts. Painters care about the bodily presence in the world and the relationship of the bodily self to the environment.

World Artistic influences

The manner of painting is related to the mastery of old Dutch painting, which can be seen in the works of Jan Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Willem Claesz Heda. We can also mention the 19th century. painters Gustave Moreau, August Renoir, Claude Monet, and the twentieth century. early Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, whose influences can be seen in Meda’s paintings.

Domestic artistic influences

Searching for connections with the Lithuanian painting tradition is also possible to mention the 20th century as one of the visual influences: Lithuanian photography school of the second half – photographs by Antanas Sutkus or Rimantas Dichavičius. On the other hand, the painting style of Meda Norbutaitė is related to the works of Ričardas Filistovičius or partly Henrikas Natalevičius It is characterized by illusory images intertwined with metaphors, paradoxes, symbols, quotes or hints, supplemented by sarcasm or irony. A free stroke that melts the specificity of forms, a play of light and darkness accompanies the scenes of Meda’s paintings.

The object, matter and tool

“The body is the first and most natural human instrument. Or more precisely, if we do not talk about the instrument, the body is the first and most natural technical object of man, and at the same time a technical means”. French ethnologist Marcel Mauss. [1]

“Your body is not for itself. Also, I should add, not just mine. It is shrouded in the world of pharmacy, aerobics, diet, liposuction, calorie-controlled, cyber postmodernism. The body has become a major object in both academia and the wider culture” we see a less aestheticized, crippled, aging, sick, or decaying body. Video culture theorist Nicolas Mirzoeff. [2]

“The body means a living concrete, material, living structure of body, organs, nerves, muscles and skeleton, given unity, harmony and structure only through its physical and social purpose … and harmonious whole. The body is organically / biologically / naturally „incomplete” … and requires social activation, management and long-term „management”. Feminist theorist Elisabeth Grosz [3]

The bodies are not „full” or filled, but like open space … Bodies are places of existence, and there is no place without place, without „here” a „here it is” (voici) for or (ceci). Body-space is neither full nor empty, there is neither external nor internal, there are no more parts, no whole, no functions, there is no finality”. The French philosopher Jean-Lucas Nancy. [4]

This observation that „there is no finality” provides a variety of body imaging options for visual arts creators. The problems of body visibility are explained by the social nature of the body, the performative features of the body, and the abilities that are constantly shaped by the social environment.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter … and spring again

In Meda Norbutaitė’s work we see various stages of human bodily development and developmental cycles – babies („Connection”, 2018), children and adolescents („Porcelain”, 2018) flowering and mature male and female bodies („In Public”, 2019), and images of the aging human body (Virgin Butterfly, 2019). The works unfold the beginning of a person’s bodily connection with the world, the physical change of the body, the changes in the relationship with the world and oneself become a counterweight to the prevailing consumer approach to the body. The attitude towards the woman’s body and its visual research brings Meda closer to those Lithuanian artists for whom reflections on personal experience and aspects of a woman’s identity are important – research on birth, maturation, maturity, motherhood and her own body.

Obraz: cztery nagie noworodki.

Meda Norbutaitė. Relation. Oil on canvas. 2018.

Art critic Virginija Vitkienė emphasizes that “works analyzing the world of women and problematic works in this field were created and exhibited in both group and personal exhibitions of artists, but feminism as a long-term and conscious or politically engaged strategy of creative thinking and action was not chosen by any Lithuanian artist or group of artists”.[5] In general, the features and problems of Western feminism in the works of Lithuanian artists (the position of a female creator, other than male female self-expression, gender equality, professional discrimination, the creation / shaping of a woman’s image in classical art and contemporary art) are not clear. One could only recall that in recent years this issue has arisen in the film industry and has been linked to the Me Too movement.

The formation of a refined body, attention to physical beauty and external elegance is determined by the norms of modern society and culture on which the aestheticization of social life is based. Men is „encouraged” to engage in sports activities, forced to improve the body and woman strives for the ideal of leanness, as well as to continually combat the aging of the body – „signs of aging” – and the demonstration of the old body, which boldly reminds everyone of its fragility and completeness.

„A well-shaped and disciplined body reflects a successful person who has the will, energy and self-control – a person whose attitudes are appropriate, who takes care of himself and what he looks like to others,” Meda Norbutaitė (M. N.) [6]

The flow of images of a beautiful and aesthetic body, flooding in from various media, “causes greater dissatisfaction with one’s body. The visual image is becoming predominant in Western culture, where youthful appearance is especially valued.” These social and cultural images and norms affect women more than men, as the „value” of a woman’s body is determined by the economy of admiration and seduction. Although a man seems to be freed from this worry – the aging of his body does not obscure or suppress personal charm, many scholars note that in recent years the aesthetic criteria of a beautiful woman and a man’s body have become similar and the images of masculinity have changed.

„I like every kind of body, I like to paint it, the body is visually attractive, textures, shapes … It is interesting to draw and paint the body, but with the body I express a message about the soul and spiritual personal experiences. My circle of friends is very diverse from the age of twenty-seven to eighty-four – we touch personal topics of the body with them <…>, but this topic touches mostly personal inner world”. (M N.)

The sensuality of painting

Meda Norbutaitė’s painting has special sensory properties. We can perceive the bodies of men and women depicted in her works not only with a glance, but also feel the warmth, vibration or smell they emit. One could mention such works as “Three Beloved” (2020), “Gray” (2018), “Virgin Butterfly” (2019), “Schoolgirl” (2018), “Artist’s Nude” (2019), “Three” (2019).

“Painting is probably the most sensual of all the arts. And not only because we see a painting (after all, in a sense we see both poetry and even music that evokes in us some images visible through the „eyes of the soul”), but also because the painting is a sensually individualized, objectively existing object. In addition, it depicts sensually individualized objects.” Arvydas Šliogeris. [7]

Meda 's plastic expression is characterized by a special tactility, in which the stroke and texture are important – the moment of the artist’s touch with the canvas. The painter depicts real and unadorned bodies in the works “Blue Blood Bearer” (2019), “Gray” (2018), “Contact” (2019), “Virgin Butterfly” (2019). For her, human age is an individual, an experience and an opportunity for wisdom, and an old, wrinkled and flabby body is the visible and fixed history of the individual’s soul. The bodies of babies, children, teenagers, adults and the elderly emerging in Meda’s paintings are like islands of authentic existence and experience.

Cztery dojrzałe nagie kobiety.

Meda Norbutaitė. Virgin Butterfly. Oil on canvas. 2019

She, using the mastered Rembrandian chiaroscuro technique (light changes), opens the human body emerging from darkness. The radiant figure reveals the individuality of the depicted model and tells the story of her life. It can be said that it is the opening of being and life experience through the special prism of optics.

“Being is always material. The problem of being coincides with the problem of man’s openness to the object. The materiality of being is determined by the metaphysical nature of man. Because man is a finite being, he is himself an object, and at the same time, opening to what is not himself, he is also attached to things.” Arvydas Šliogeris.[8]

Leaving to the Imagination

Meda Norbutaitė’s body images are characterized by a special emotional and emotional expression, in which the images are like mediums. The image of the body becomes like a mediator between the artist and the viewer. Of course, always talking about the naked body and its image in art leads to questions of sensuality and eroticism. Looking at Meda 's works, we see that the painter does not follow the path of straight eroticism. The works express the sensuality and emotions of the model itself. The painter does not try to depict the model in an attractive or aesthetic pose or to portray it beautifully because, first of all, she chose exactly that model and such a body, which is like an emotional object.

Naga kobieta tyłem z wbitymi w ciało gumowymi przepychaczami do rur.

Meda Norbutaitė. Artist’s Nude. Oil on canvas. 2019

It is impossible not to notice that the connection between eroticism, love and the body as one of its means of expression in the media age is the idea of ​​his „constant inner activity”. In “Love and Other Technologies: Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age” (2006), Dominic Pettman explored the „tectonic” shifts in modern culture by discussing Eros. The relationship between love and the body, in his view, means the articulation of the technique of belonging: a way of responding to the basic multiple identity of each individual – a process that, like mediated communication, is becoming increasingly complex.

Obraz olejny: Pięcioro półnagich osób tylko w podkoszulkach.

Meda Norbutaitė. In Public. Oil on canvas. 2019

Meda Norbutaitė’s acts and paintings depicting naked bodies do not contain a certain aggression characteristic of the genre of eroticism (for example, in literature or photography), an aggressive, provocative look, which is often associated with eroticism. Artistic language is interesting, it doesn’t need to sort everything out exactly, neither eroticism nor aggression. More sarcasm, for example, in the work Erotica of Conscience (2017) opens up with rats flying through the body. For her, aggression as such is important in the works of many contemporary artists depicting naked bodies. Aggression, eroticism, pain – attract the attention of a modern person – is a common component of modern visual culture (photography, cinema, advertising, etc.) or literature, which attracts the viewer’s attention. These are the most touching human themes: „A lot of open, vulgar bodies are the most hooked, the most noticeable, the most exciting or nervous …” (MN).

Meda’s artistic expression is characterized by the principle of non finito (it is incompleteness) and a unique dynamic that is reminiscent of old cinema – a human figure gradually moves from one frame to another. In the bodies painted by the artist, it is as if this possibility of movement is felt – it would seem that the head will turn soon, the body will move immediately. Such painting expresses the most essential things with the incompleteness of the artistic form, aesthetic hint and non-expression, which becomes an important means of emotional impact for the viewer. As A. Šliogeris aptly observes, “the mission of the great work is to capture, preserve that incredibly delicate goes into formlessness, never going into it.” [8]

Dwie nagie stare kobiety bawią się szmacianymi lalkami przy okrągłym stole.

Meda Norbutaitė. Face to Face. Oil on canvas. 2019

We can also relate to this non-finito principle that torsos are highlighted in the acts of the people the artist paints, and they are often depicted as “faceless” or “headless”. The face, which testifies to the authenticity and identity of the person being painted, disappears („Captain of Passions, 2017,” the faces are covered by shadows (in” Publicity „, 2019), faces turned away from the viewer (” Artist’s Act „, 2019). The model’s face and gaze do not provoke the viewer. Here you can find the spiritual commonality of Meda Norbutaitė’s work and with the thoughts of the French philosopher Emanuel Levin that there is an element of monsterism and inhumanity in art – especially in the representation of the face. Art gives the face a plastic form, first of all, it imprisons it and inevitably turns it into a caricature. Second, the face in artistic form loses its temporality. The vibrant and expressive one becomes not changing, static, and inviolable. It is not the ethical face of the Other.

Non finito is seen in paintings depicting male bodies. The painter seems to be trying to soften the eroticism that stands out in works of this nature. The male body is completely open to „inspection”, observation, but incompleteness gives the male figure dynamics. In recent years, Meda Norbutaitė has added elements of irony or grotesque to her compositions, which contain references to social issues and themes of city life. For example, Hipsters (2019) ironically depicts a trio of bearded and goggled naked men who associate them with the composition of Eduard Manet’s Breakfast on the Grass. Another work with this unique dynamic is the work in Publicity (2019), which depicts the bodies of teenage girls as a promise of femininity. This piece seems to lead and evoke associations with the problem of ideal, lean body, anorexia and fashion industry models. The old canons of female beauty have disappeared in models, and the depicted body is the promise of femininity. Models that walk on the catwalk show not femininity and bodily beauty, but rather aggression and indifference.

Obraz: Trzy nagie osoby w okularach.

Meda Norbutaitė. Vilnius Hipsters. Oil on canvas. 2019.

Looking at Meda Norbutaitė’s works, it can be seen that the painter chooses a model that would seem to be „problematic” in itself – full, large, aging, wrinkled or radiating with corporeality. Obviously, the model is very important for this genre, its external and internal relationship.

„It’s an interesting and important model for me, a different relationship [emerges] with everyone,” the painter emphasizes. “But the body becomes a symbol to say the thought. I make sketches, then I take them, I compose and then the body becomes a symbol to express an idea: I take them from sketches, a person no longer acts as a person, he becomes a symbol. Sometimes a small mark on the body of model is a symbol of „broken life” (M N.)

Conclusion: the meta-physical reality

The meta-physical reality created in Meda Norbutaitė’s paintings reveals the most essential transformations of human life and being, the main symbol of which is the human body. We can say that the artist is connected with the work of art in many ways: first, she/he is determined to obey the creative impulse and second, give a being to something that did not exist before. For the viewer, the work of art opens up as an already created, ready-made and materially frozen reality, which, captured by amazement, joyfulness or loss of promise, which opens up to it as an absolute, never-ending beginning.

December 2020

[1] Marcel Mauss. 1934. Sociologie et anthropologie: “Les techniques du corps”, p.10[2] Nicolas Mirzoeff.2005. Bodyscape.Art Modernity, and the Ideal figure. London: Taylor and Francis Library, p.1.[3] Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham, London: Duke University Press, Durham, London, p. 6.[4] Jean Luc Nancy. 1992. Corpus. – A. M. Métailié, Paris, p. 16.[5] Virginija Vitkienė. 2013. Moteriškieji meno istorijos perrašymai XXI a. kuratorystės praktikoje Lietuvoje / The Women’s Transcriptions of Art History in the 21st Century in Curation Practice in Lithuania // Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis. – Vilnius: Dailės akademijos leidykla, t. 68, p. 95.[6] Author’s two interviews with Meda Norbutaite (2020.08.01 and 2020.09.22).[7] Ibid, p. 311.[8] Arvydas Šliogeris. 2009. Melancholijos archipelagai: žodžiai ir vaizdai/ Melancholy Archipelagos: Words and Images. Compiled by Giedrė Kadžiulytė, Gintautas Trimakas.Vilnius: Apostrofa, p. 31.

Basia Nikiforova
(Lithuanian Culture Research Institute/Department of Contemporary Philosophy)

Žilvinė Gaižutytė-Filipavičienė
(Lithuanian Culture Research Institute/Department of Comparative Cultural Studies)

Žilvinė Gaižutytė-Filipavičienė is PhD in the Humanities (Art Criticism, Art History), Assoc. Prof. (Vilnius University), Chief and Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies in the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute (Vilnius). The areas of research are comparative cultural studies, sociology of culture and art, contemporary visual and media culture, aesthetics. The author of more than 40 publications, including monographs Pierre Bourdieu and Social Games of Art (2005), Trajectories of Memory and Glance: A Reflection of Visual Culture (with Odeta Žukauskienė, 2018).

Basia Nikiforova is Doctor of the Humanities (philosophy), Associate Professor, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Contemporary Philosophy in the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. The areas of research are European cultural and religious borders, tolerance and the image of body in Lithuanian visual art. The author of more than 100 publications.

Kultura Enter
2021/01 nr 99

Portret kobiety.

Meda Norbutaitė. Photo by Eugenijus Barzdžius. Courtesy of the M. Norbutaitė.