Pranas Domsaitis (1880 - 1965)
The son of a peasant farmer, Franz Domscheit was born on 15 August 1880 in Kropinas, on the edge of the Baltic, into the rural Lithuanian culture of East Prussia. Growing up in this environment, the prevailing traditions and peasant religious sentiment had a formative influence on his artistic development, style and subject matter. Domsaitis was an artist influenced by the cultures of two peoples living next to each other – the Germans and the Lithuanians – and affected by the two World Wars which occurred during his lifetime.
While working in Germany and Lithuania, and among the farming communities of Bavaria and Austria between 1914 and 1918, he developed the religious themes which would later dominate his oeuvre. Despite his father’s opposition, and with the encouragement of his mother and the assistance of Max Liebermann, Domsaitis began studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Art at Köningsberg in 1907. Before his studies, he had been a farmer, and only painted part-time. After completing his studies at the Academy, he started teaching architecture and painting there, and in 1910 continued his art studies under Lovis Corinth in Berlin.
Domsaitis furthered his knowledge of art on study-tours to Paris, Florence, Amsterdam and London. In 1912 he met Edvard Munch in Norway, and combined with early influences of Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Georges Rouault and Lithuanian folk art, this gave way to more simplified forms and deeper emotionalism in his work. According to Elsa Verloren van Themaat, Munch inspired him to move towards Expressionism.
Between 1914 and 1918 he worked in Germany and Lithuania, painting under the name Franz Domscheit. He exhibited with the Berlin Seccession, holding his first solo exhibitions in Gallerie Möller in Berlin and then Breslau in 1919. He started building a successful reputation in Germany, and was strongly influenced by the German Expressionists. Participating in many group exhibitions, he exhibited alongside artists such as Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oscar Kokoschka, Max Liebermann, Jules Pascin, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff. Given Domsaitis’ exposure to the works of artists such as Marc Chagall, it is not surprising that there are distinct similarities in style and presentation – particularly when handling religious themes.
Between 1925 and 1933 he travelled widely and exhibited in East Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. In 1929, Domsaitis met the young singer Adelheid Armhold, who he would later marry. Despite the fact that he was part of the group of artists whose work was declared ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis in 1935, he continued to live and work in Germany until 1944, when he felt compelled to leave Germany for Austria. He had changed his name to the Lithuanian Pranas Domsaitis in 1920, but only began signing his works under this name around 1938, after his works had been removed from several German museums.
Domsaitis arrived in South Africa in 1949 at the age of 69, after his wife, the opera and concert singer Adelheid Armhold, was offered a lectureship at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music. At this stage of his career, Domsaitis’ work was dominated by two distinct themes: still life paintings of mainly flower pieces, and religious works usually depicting the life of Christ. To these two themes, the artist added the elements and influences of his new experiences in South Africa. He worked actively and exhibited frequently, gaining wider recognition in the latter years of his life.
Domsaitis found his new environment stimulating and painted prolifically. Travelling throughout the country, he painted rural scenes reminiscent of the peasant culture of his homeland, with indigenous farmers working the fields and tending to their livestock. He also painted several atmospheric views of the Karoo, emphasising the spaciousness of the local landscape. These themes were painted repeatedly with slight variations, becoming more expressionist and abstracted over time.
In a review of an exhibition of Domsaitis’ paintings in September 1962, Graham Watson wrote, his work possesses something of Chagall’s enchanting visions, the guileless piety of Rouault, the resonant colour of the Expressionists and the intuitive wisdom of the peasant (Verloren van Themaat, 1976). Mykolas Drunga writes of Domsaitis’ work: Although the artist never formally allied himself with any specific school, he moved from the romantic realism and what the well-known art critic Karl Scheffler called the ‘spiritual impressionism’ of his youth towards an ever more personal Expressionism.
Domsaitis’ contribution to South African art after the Second World War was significant, as he introduced the latest expressionist influences from Europe and thus brought another dimension to the local art scene. According to Berman (1996), he is unique among South African painters in that much of his subject matter was devotional in spirit, and even his interpretation of the vast South African landscape was infused with a spiritual intensity. His expressionist approach, in which subjects were simplified in form and colour combinations, were effectively used to provide the desired emotional effects, resulting in a unique style that had a lasting influence on artistic development in his adopted country.
In 1964, Pranas Domsaitis won the Artists of Fame and Promise competition. He passed away on 14 November the following year at the age of 85, in Rondebosch, Cape Town. In 1966 the National Gallery in Cape Town held an exhibition with around two hundred of his works on display. In 1989, a large number of his works began to be transferred to the Lithuanian Art Museum, and in 2001 the Pranas Domsaitis Gallery opened in Klaipeda, Lithuania. A large number of works were also acquired by the Lithuanian Foundation in Lemont, Illinois, in the United States.
Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 115-117.
Drunga, M. (1981). “Pranas Domsaitis: Rediscovered Scion of Expressionism”, in Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, 27 (4).
Bialopetravičienė, L. (2001). “Artist Pranas Domsaitis: 1880 – 1965” (Pranas Domsaitis Gallery online) http://ldmuziejus.mch.mii.lt/PDG/P_Domsaitis_en.htm
Verloren van Themaat, E. (1976). Pranas Domsaitis, C. Struik Publishers: Cape Town.
© Johans Borman Fine Art