Kazys Varnelis (artist)

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Kazys Varnelis
Born (1917-02-25)February 25, 1917
Alsėdžiai, Lithuania
Died October 29, 2010(2010-10-29) (aged 93)
Vilnius, Lithuania
Nationality Lithuanian-American
Education Institute of Fine Art, Kaunas, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna
Known for Painting
Movement constructivism, minimalism, and op art.

Kazys Varnelis (February 25, 1917 in Alsėdžiai[1] – October 29, 2010 in Vilnius[2]) was an abstract painter from Lithuania. He lived and worked in the United States of America for fifty years, between 1949 and 1998. His distinctive painting style demonstrated optical and three-dimensional illusions based on geometric abstractions and minimal forms. His style combined elements of constructivism, minimalism, and op art.[3] His work is sometimes described as a modernist interpretation of Lithuanian folk art and is owned by Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, Currier Museum of Art, and other museums.[4][5] Varnelis was also an avid collector of antiques and bibliophile – his collection is now housed at the Kazys Varnelis House–Museum in Vilnius. His son, also named Kazys Varnelis is a noted architect, art historian, and theorist.

Early career[edit]

Born in Alsėdžiai in the Samogitia region to a father who was a religious wood sculptor and painter, Varnelis graduated from Institute of Fine Art in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1941.[6] He briefly worked as director of the Museum for Ecclesiastical Art before starting post-graduate studies in the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 1943.[1] Two years later he was awarded the degree of academic painter (German: Akademischer Maler).[3] Varnelis did not return to the Soviet-occupied Lithuania and emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Chicago. From 1949 to 1963 he worked on ecclesiastical art and church interiors.[1] To make a living, he owned a stained glass studio.[6] He produced stained glass windows, bronze and marble works. In 1963 he switched his focus to private painting and sculpture.[1] Recognition came in late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968 he was invited to teach at the Olive–Harvey College where he later became full professor.[7]

Rise to fame[edit]

Varnelis presented his works at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1967, 1969, 1971, 1974 during biennial exhibitions by Chicago artists, winning the Vielehr Award in 1969 and 1974. He held one-man shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1970), Milwaukee Art Museum (1974), Corcoran Gallery of Art (1973).[1] In an 1971 article in Canadian art magazine Artscanada Dutch art historian Jan van der Marck attributed abstract decorative quality of Varnelis works to the ornaments found on traditional Lithuanian crosses that his father used to make. Van der Marck also attributed structural complexity to the complexities of the Lithuanian language.[6] Varnelis used limited range of colors and relied on technical execution for transitions between the colors.[6]

Varnelis's early works tended to display unitary designs that could be repeated endlessly. As his works evolved, Varnelis broke away from endless repetitions and square canvas, shaping his paintings according to the subject matter. In late 1970s he experimented with abstract architecture.[8] Later works show elements of deformity borrowed from Surrealism and emphasized realism from Photorealism.[9]

In 1978 he moved to Villa Virginia in Stockbridge, Massachusetts which he extensively restored and where he had a private gallery for his works and collections.[10]

Return to Lithuania[edit]

With Glasnost improving ties between East and West, Varnelis began to visit Lithuania and exhibited his work In the Art Exhibition Palace in Vilnius in 1988.[11] He exhibited his works in Europe throughout the 1990s in the Palace of Art in Budapest (1995), Tampere Art Museum (1996), and the Museum of Modern Art in Riga (1997).[3]

In 1993, the Vilnius City Council gave two historic buildings on Didzioji Gatve in Vilnius, the houses of the Small Guild and the Masalski family, to the artist for his works. Varnelis moved back to Lithuania in 1998 where, with assistance from the Ministry of Culture and Vilnius Academy of Art, the Kazys Varnelis House–Museum was established in Vilnius. In 2003 it became a branch of the National Museum of Lithuania.[3] The museum was established in a 15th-century building of former Merchants' Guild. The collection includes some 7,000 books and 150 maps, dating from the 16th century. The museum also houses paintings, sculptures, Renaissance furniture, Oriental art, and works by Varnelis.[12] For merits to Lithuania, Varnelis was awarded the Knight Cross of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas (1998) and the Commander Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania (2007).[13]

Varnelis died on October 29, 2010 in Vilnius after a long illness.


  1. ^ a b c d e Simas Sužiedėlis, ed. (1970–1978). "Varnelis, Kazys". Encyclopedia Lituanica. IV. Boston, Massachusetts: Juozas Kapočius. pp. 63–64. LCC 74-114275. 
  2. ^ "Mirė išeivijos dailininkas, kolekcininkas K. Varnelis" (in Lithuanian). Delfi.lt. 2010-10-30. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Apie dailininką Kazį Varnelį" (in Lithuanian). National Museum of Lithuania. Archived from the original on 2010-10-17. Retrieved 2008-09-25. 
  4. ^ Levy, Clifford J. (April 29, 2007). "After a Dark Era, a City Looks West and Sees a Future". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ "Currier Collections Online - "Metaphor" by Kazys Varnelis". Currier Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 2010-10-17. Retrieved 2010-10-17. 
  6. ^ a b c d Haydon, Harold (Winter 1972). "The Unity of Multiplicity in the Paintings of Kazys Varnelis". Lituanus. 4 (18). ISSN 0024-5089. Archived from the original on 2010-10-17. 
  7. ^ The National Faculty Directory. Gale Research Company. 2000. p. 2276. ISBN 978-0-7876-3373-8. Retrieved 1 July 2013. 
  8. ^ Haydon, Harold (September 1977). "Kazys Varnelis ir jo kūryba". Aidai (in Lithuanian). 7. ISSN 0002-208X. Archived from the original on 2010-10-17. 
  9. ^ "Kazio Varnelio rinkinys" (in Lithuanian). National Museum of Lithuania. 2006-03-28. Archived from the original on 2008-04-17. Retrieved 2008-09-25. 
  10. ^ Kanopkienė, Laima (October 2004). "Seize the Fading Image". Lithuania in the World. 12 (2). Archived from the original on 2010-10-17. 
  11. ^ Lithuania, National Museum of, Painter Kazys Varnelis, retrieved 2013-07-01 
  12. ^ "Creation and Collection Exposition of Painter Kazys Varnelis". National Museum of Lithuania. Archived from the original on 2010-10-17. Retrieved 2010-10-17. 
  13. ^ "Apdovanotų asmenų duomenų bazė" (in Lithuanian). President of Lithuania. Retrieved 2008-09-25.