A long-running exhibition was opened in the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery, called “Memory Code: Legacy of the Tillmanns in Kaunas”. Before getting to the current state of affairs, let’s read a brief story behind the family name.
In 1893, a German businessman Richard Tillmanns started a company in Kaunas called “Br.Tilmansai ir Ko”. The company produced various metal goods. The business went well, so, in 1906, Richard’s nephew Kurt and his wife Mary relocated to Kaunas. More brothers and sisters joined them and soon became one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Kaunas – all in all, three generations of the Tillmanns’s family linked up with the life of the temporary capital, joined political, cultural and social activities. Tillmanns also provided electricity for the city, produced chocolate and provided entertainment for their workers, among other activities.
Kurt and Mary Tillmanns lived in a beautiful wooden house in Smėlio street, just a stone’s throw from the company’s office (today part of Akropolis mall) and not far from the factories. As many successful stories, this one was cut off by WW2 (the residential house itself didn’t survive it). The Tillmanns were repatriated to Germany, but their estates and wealth were nationalised by the Soviet government. Luckily enough, the wealth, including furniture, paintings and other valuable items, were given to the local museum – today the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art.
It took a few decades to put the catalogue codes and the exhibits – more than five hundred of them – together. The tremendous job was done by Dr Aldona Snitkuvienė, an elegant lady who’s been working in the museum for 55 years now. She’s the main mastermind behind the new exhibition showcasing the picturesque everyday life of a wealthy family at the beginning of the 20th century.
The exhibited interior values of the villa of Mary and Kurt Tillmanns comprise one of a few collections of such kind in Lithuanian museums. The collection is significant from the historical point of view as it reflects the self-awareness, artistic interests, spiritual needs and interests of the hosts. The Tillmanns ranked among the wealthiest townspeople, and, although they were not collectors, they shaped the interior of their homes and offices according to their taste, and pioneered a particular fashion to the aristocracy in Kaunas.
Fast forward to 2019… Two Tillmanns actually made it to the opening of the exhibition! We had the privilege to meet cousins Gisela Margarete Tillmanns and Michael Tillmanns who are both grandchildren of Rudolf Tillmanns, one of the six brothers of Kurt. Both of them weren’t aware of the kaunastic part of their family history until a few years ago when dr. Snitkuvienė emailed them. In fact, the guests were humbled by the size of the collection and the exhibition.
“We had heard some family stories about Kaunas, but nothing specific”, said Gisella Margarete, a retired sociology professor. Her favourite piece at the exhibition was a vintage folding screen – we loved it, too, as well as a carpet the size of an average one-bedroom apartment. Her cousin Michael, a lawyer, assured us he was fascinated by the fact the old office building of the Tillmanns was so creatively incorporated into a contemporary shopping mall.
Well, the truth is many visitors of Akropolis have no clue the house contains so much history. As the mall is just a couple of blocks away from the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery, we guess a neat marketing trick would help to connect the two kaunastic dots.
You can visit the Tillmanns exhibition until October 20, 2019. As a bonus, there’s a Lithuanian-language book by Dr Aldona Snitkuvienė available for purchase.