Teisutis Zikaras (1922–91) was a Lithuanian-born sculptor and graphic artist who arrived in Melbourne in 1949. He was among the postwar migrants that collectively transformed Australian art, introducing new levels of professionalism and an avant-garde approach to materials and subjects. His father, Juozas Zikaras (1881–1944), had been a prominent interbellum sculptor who spearheaded the nationalist revival in Lithuania during that country’s two decades of independence, between 1918 and 1940. Teisutis Zikaras studied in his father’s studio from the age of twelve, modelling in clay and carving in stone, aspiring to meet his father’s exacting technical demands in what may be described as a Lithuanian romantic-realist patriotic style: a blend of Russian academic realism and French impressionism.
From 1939 to 1943, Zikaras studied sculpture at the Kaunas Art School, initially under his father and then, upon the first Soviet occupation, under Juozas Mikėnas and Vytautas Kašuba. Mikėnas and Kašuba introduced him to the work of the French moderns, particularly Aristide Maillol and Charles Despiau, who had turned from the impassioned manner of their own teachers (Bourdelle and Rodin respectively) and championed a calm classicism and exploration of the so-called ‘eternal feminine’. This was part of a wider rappel à l’ordre (return to order), which characterised the art of central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries during the interwar years. Teisutis Zikaras followed this strand of modernism at Kaunas – an escapist idyll that allowed him to circumvent the reality of successive Soviet and Nazi regimes under which he lived during the war.
In 1944, as the Soviet front returned, Zikaras fled west to Freiburg, in the French-occupied zone of Germany. There he joined a significant group of Lithuanian artists – all previously connected with the nationalist revival – in establishing the Fribourg École des Arts et Métiers (Freiburg School of Art and Crafts). Equal-youngest of the school’s teaching staff, Zikaras practised and taught a form of French-derived neo-classicism. In Freiburg, he also visited touring exhibitions of avant-garde contemporary work by the likes of Picasso and Chagall, the impact of which is evident in works he made soon after in Australia.
Zikaras’s Sitting woman demonstrates a continued engagement with the female figure. Her hair pulled back in a simple bun, hands demurely crossed in her lap, facial features delicately modelled in bas-relief, and large (if vacant) eyes, she is the image of chaste and ‘natural’ womanhood. She clearly aligns with another of his works: Motherhood 1952, the plaster cast of which is in the collection of the Newcastle Art Gallery, a bronze version in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. The application of small discs of clay on the surface of both works, resulting in the dimpled texture of the cast bronzes, breaks any illusion of simulated flesh and distinguishes them from his father’s interpretations of this theme. Moreover, the daring elongation of Sitting woman into simplified cylinders and ovoids, and the reduction of anatomical detail moves it beyond inter-war classicism; it instead explores such archaic sources as Cycladic fertility figures, which similarly inspired School of Paris artists such as Picasso, Brancusi and Modigliani.
When Sitting woman was first exhibited in 1953, at the annual Victorian Sculptors’ Society exhibition, Arnold Shore commented on its apparent debt to Modigliani, without canvassing the possibility of shared sources of inspiration. If he had, perhaps the work would not have been deemed an incomprehensible grotesquery when it was next exhibited at the Herald Outdoor Art Show in 1955, where at least one journalist pronounced it ‘deformed’. Zikaras’s engagement with pre-classical and French avant-garde art enabled him transcend narrow nationalist concerns, addressing more universal constructs such as femininity and motherhood.
Dr Jane Eckett is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
 Arnold Shore, ‘Look what they've done to the girls!’, Australasian Post, 3 December 1953, p.28.
‘Art goes to the gardens’, The Herald, 8 March 1955, p.1; H.B. Read, ‘Clayton column’, The Dandenong Journal, 23 March 1955.