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Salkauskas, Henrikas (Henry) (1925–1979)

by Gil Docking

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Henrikas (Henry) Salkauskas (1925-1979), artist and house-painter, was born on 6 May 1925 at Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, only child of Henrikas Salkauskas, army officer, and his wife Ona-Anna, née Sidzikauskas. His father and other patriots were taken away by the Russians in 1940 and never seen by the family again. It was not until 1958 that young Henrikas was informed that his father had died in the Vorkuta concentration camp, Siberia. He and his mother fled ahead of the advancing Russian army in 1944. They settled at Freiburg, West Germany. Henrikas studied at the university and at L'Ecole des Arts et Métiers, specializing in the graphic arts; Ona-Anna graduated in medicine. On 31 May 1949 they reached Melbourne in the Skaugum. Henry, as he was known in Australia, worked under contract in a stone-quarry in Canberra for two years. He began to exhibit his linocut prints.

Moving to Sydney in 1951, Salkauskas lived at Kirribilli from 1954. In the mid-1950s he painted stations for the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways. He worked as a house-painter for the rest of his life. In 1958 he was naturalized. A friend of many artists, he was a committee-member (from 1957) of the Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia and a founder (1961) of the Sydney Printmakers. He eagerly promoted printmaking and helped to organize exhibitions of graphic art, nationally and internationally. In 1960 he met the Lithuanian-born artist, Eva Kubbos. They worked together and showed in group exhibitions and competitions. Of his one-man exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries in June 1961, the Sydney Morning Herald critic commented: 'Salkauskas proves himself one of Sydney's best graphic artists'.

Salkauskas represented Australia in major international print exhibitions at São Paulo, Brazil (1960), Tokyo (1960 and 1962), South East Asia (1962) and Ljubljana, Yugoslavia (1963). Yet in 1965 he turned his attention to painting large watercolours in the abstract-impressionist style. He thought that most water-colourists were too cautious. His method was to place a large sheet of Stonehenge paper on the floor; then, using big brushes, sponges and rags, he manipulated the flow of the dense washes of blacks and greys across the paper until his eye was satisfied with the result. In 1963 he joined the Australian Watercolour Institute and proceeded to revitalize the medium.

The reasons why Salkauskas used blacks and greys extensively in his paintings were complex. They involved his anguish at what had happened to his father, the influence of the Lithuanian winter landscape with its sharp contrasts of black silhouettes against snow, and the Lithuanian graphic tradition of printing in black and white. Despite this restricted palette, his tonal paintings were full of vitality and often involved an expressive use of symbols.

In Australia, Salkauskas won over sixty art awards, among them the Perth prize (1963), the grand prize for the Mirror-Waratah Festival (1963), Sydney, and the Maude Vizard-Wholohan prize (Adelaide). The 'big, blond, amiable Lithuanian' never married. He died suddenly of myocardial ischaemia on 31 August 1979 at his Kirribilli home and was cremated. His work is represented in national, State and regional galleries in Australia. The Art Gallery of New South Wales held a retrospective exhibition in 1981 and established the Henry Salkauskas Contemporary Art purchase award.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Ratas (ed), Eleven Lithuanian Artists in Australia (Syd, 1967)
  • G. Docking, 'Henry Salkauskas' in Art Gallery of New South Wales, Henry Salkauskas, 1925-1979, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1981)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1956, 27 June 1961, 4 Mar 1964, 9 May 1967, 8 Sept 1979
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 10 Oct 1963
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7 Mar 1971
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 29 Oct 1971
  • H. de Berg, interview with H. Salkauskas (transcript, 1962, National Library of Australia)
  • J. Gleeson, taped interveiw with H. Salkauskas (1979, National Gallery of Australia)
  • naturalisation file, SP1122/1/0, item 57/64313 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Gil Docking, 'Salkauskas, Henrikas (Henry) (1925–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/salkauskas-henrikas-henry-11604/text20719, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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