Monday evening I went to the Film Center to see a couple movies about artists. The first was a biopic about Egon Schiele, which was very professionally done but which I started forgetting while it was still running; the second was a documentary about Lithuanian photographer Vitas Luckus called Master and Tatyana.
There’s a lot to dislike about Luckus. He was a philandering, careless egomaniac. Anyone involved in the art rackets has known dozens of characters like him. And for many of these guys there’s an adoring coterie of women and sycophantic hangers-on who cultivate and sustain their mythos. In Luckus’ case this entourage was and continues to be led by his beautiful former wife Tatyana. She’s seen frolicking—often naked—through dozens of his photographs. She’s also the keeper of his legacy, having hauled his archive to America, and sitting on it until recent years, biding her time until the right moment to revive the photographer’s reputation.
Giedrė Žickytė’s film shifts nimbly back and forth between Luckus’ ’60s-’70s heyday and present-day. She intercuts interviews with those closest to the great man with shots he took of their younger selves in a way which underscores the ravages of time on the human body and illustrates how many of them are living in the past. Because Luckus didn’t get to grow old, his own image is forever left in a kind of magical youthfulness and vitality which none of his friends do anything to undercut. Even those who criticize the man do so with a measure of envy which serves to build the pedestal he’s on ever higher.
After the screening there was a Q & A with the director and Tatyana. At one point Tatyana’s current husband—a silver-haired American gentleman who looked like an investment banker—stood up and acknowledged the clapping of the crowd. Someone had asked whether her current husband was also an artist and she emphatically answered that he was not. I wondered what it must be like for this nice man to compete for her love with a dead monster like Luckus; a man who had stabbed a guest in their home, told her he loved her, then jumped out the window to seal his immortality.
Much of the film is devoted to shots of Luckus and his gang in various states of revelry. Because these young bohemian types are about the age of my parents, I couldn’t help but draw parallels. From interviews it’s clear that these people’s lives were also severely restricted by the totalitarian society into which they were unlucky enough to be born, but there’s a lot of joy evident in many of those faces in spite of that. Young artsy people seem the same the world over, no matter the century or country they live in. The shambling way they dress themselves, the pretentious facial hair, the decor of their living spaces; all are familiar from the nearly three decades of my own adult life in art land.
I’m not qualified to judge Luckus’ photography, though there were certainly a number of compelling images which have tugged at my coattail throughout the week since I saw this film. The documentary’s title has to be a reference to Bulgakov’s great portrait of life under the Soviet regime, though unlike Margarita, Tatyana is married to her Master. She’s the faithful keeper of his flame. Whether Luckus was the devil, a genius, or just a self-absorbed moderately-talented man undeserving of immortality, he’s lucky to have such a faithful muse and disciple to introduce him to a new generation of potential admirers.