Mr Minister, dear Arunas Gelunas, Madam Ambassador, dear Jolanta Balciûniené Ladies and gentlemen, Dear friends,
I want to talk to you tonight about an Italian novel.
In “If on a Winter Night a Traveler”, Italo Calvino’s novel, there is a strange chapter called “Moving Away from Malbork”. Through a hilarious parody of a social-realistic novel, the reader finds himself transported to a campaign in Eastern Europe. The pages are filled with cooking smells, and one imagines greasy recipes and heavy sauces, typical of a rough country, whose names of dishes transpire of a «fleshy thickness». The reader thinks he is in Poland, before discovering that it is rather a novel written in Cimmerian…
Why are you talking about Italo Calvino tonight? Because he speaks with humour of confused representations, of cuisine too, of geographical and cultural references blurred by history.
The restoration of Lithuania’s independence is now just over 20 years old, as is the restoration of our diplomatic relations on the same occasion, which we celebrated 20 years ago last year.
On 1 May 2004, Europe really came together. Your country, which history had placed in Soviet orbit, was once again integrating its home, the European home.
Twenty years later, however, Lithuanian culture is still not sufficiently known in France. At the very most, we have some images of Vilnius, that Northern Rome which was a little European capital of culture; of the Hanseatic past of Kaunas, your hometown Mr Minister, or of the dunes of the Baltic; sometimes a bookish memory of the deep wounds of the 20th century, or that of the soldiers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky; the perception also of a unique Indo-European language, and of a popular culture marked by the dreams of a late paganism; and the topical images of a proudly reconquered independence. Beyond that, quite often, everything remains to be discovered.
For two decades now, our cultural cooperation has been working towards mutual rediscovery.
From this beautiful green house in the center of Vilnius where Stendhal had for a time tried to coordinate as best as possible the supplies of the Great Army during the Russian campaign, the French Institute offers a flourishing program, with, for example, the French film festival “Ecrans d’hiver”, which is an event expected every January in the whole country – in the capital, but also in Kaunas, Panevežys, Klaipeda… Next March, your
“Seek the Woman” women’s festival will feature Catherine Deneuve. We also actively participate in your many film festivals, whether fiction or documentary; and I am delighted that a co-production agreement is being studied between our country and that of Sharunas Bartas and Jonas Mekas.
We have developed cultural exchanges in the most diverse fields, such as the textile arts with the work of Olga Boldyreff, the Nouveau Cirque français at the Vilnius Arts Printing House, the Institute’s summer conferences that take part in the Lithuanian intellectual scene, jazz festivals, etc. The Junior Ballet of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris is currently in Vilnius, at the prestigious Čiurlionis School.
It is therefore a long work of reciprocal cultural rediscovery that is underway. There were strong moments, as with the exhibition dedicated exactly ten years ago, to the Orsay Museum, to Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis who, inspired by the Lithuanian popular culture in his «painted sonatas», was at the very beginning of the 20th century one of the inventors of modern art; or more recently happy discoveries, like the young singer Alina Orlova at the Festival des Boréales in Lower Normandy.
Mr Minister, it is in order to intensify all this that we thought together of «a trip to Lithuania», during our meeting last October, anticipating your next presidency of the Council of the European Union. The last season of the genre was in 1992, with the other Baltic states.
I am pleased that we are starting with gastronomy, an area that is particularly dear to me. Tonight we’re going to see him later, we’re very far from the pages of Calvino, and we’re going to find out everything we can do with pork and potatoes, beets, cucumbers and mushrooms, smoked fish and rye bread, fresh cream, melted butter, blynai, dairy. Not to mention the zeppelin, or the poppy or apricot buns as they are found in the streets of Vilnius; or the balzam, a liqueur said to have cured Catherine of Russia with a certain secret dosage.
For a little over a year, our two countries will experience a particularly intense program of cultural exchanges. I would like to warmly thank all the institutions that have joined the «journey»: the FRAC Alsace, with the work of the videographer Deimantas Narkevicius already visible at the exhibition «affinities, tears and attractions» ; the Museum of Modern Art in Strasbourg and its magnificent exhibition on «Europe of Spirits or the Fascination of the Occult» with works by Čiurlionis and Simonis; the National School of Fine Arts for Photography; the Fontainebleau Art History Festival with the work of Mekas and Georges Maciunas; the National Book Centre and its literary meetings around the works of these great Lithuanians who illustrated the French language and thought: Milosz, Baltrusaïtis, Levinas , or Greimas; the Marché de la poésie in Paris where the bilingual anthology will be presented with the support of the CNL, to be published very soon, «Boiled Hearts», on female poetry; a retrospective Jonas Mekas at the Centre Pompidou, and a Sharunas Bartas retrospective at the Cinémathèque française; the Festival of Geography of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges with an exhibition in cooperation with the National Museum of Lithuania; the National Archives with an exhibition that promises to be exciting on the cartography of the Grand Duchy in the 16th and 17th centuries and the extraordinary photographs of Buracas and Augustinas that had been awarded in Paris at the 1937 World Exhibition; the Festival Les Boréales in Lower Normandy with a Lithuanian theatrical cycle in preparation - a moment that promises to be important as your theatre, still little known in France, occupies a considerable place in Lithuanian culture; concerts in Vilnius and Paris, or the Louvre exhibition on
prints from Watteau to Vilnius.
We will have the opportunity this evening to carry toast, vodka, Starka or Krupnikas, to all these beautiful meetings that are coming, to celebrate the opening of this season. But first I would like to thank very warmly Muza Rubackyte, who has agreed to join us tonight, to perform three preludes to the great Čiurlionis, and a Schubert Lied transcribed by one of the most European composers in the history of music, and of which she is one of the world-renowned performers: Franz Liszt.