AN INSIGHT INTO LATVIAN CULTURAL CANON. VISUAL ART

Latvian National Museum of Art

Just like in other European countries, the Latvian Cultural Canon is compiled as a treasure trove that contains the most important cultural achievements of all times. The Canon  include the treasures from various branches of culture: ones that are characteristic of it; that are for us a source of pride, and that should form the basis of cultural experience of every Latvian resident, fostering his or her sense of belonging.   The Canon discourse is related to the notion of cultural memory, which can be considered as knowledge shared by a group of people, representatives of a certain culture, at a particular time. Thus Canon can be said to represent a means for creating and disseminating such common cultural memory.

Artwork fascinates with its inwardness, augmented by the position of the figures against the light, as if encasing the small bodies that seem to have lost their materiality in a light halo and turning them into a part of the ornament of reflections.

In this sketch you can see delicate balance between the triangle of figures on the right side of the painting, the moving reflection of the water in the upper part and the shiny reflections to the left.

The vibrations of water and light seem to translate into the tender pulse of life, with the figures of children lending it spirituality and warmth. The laconic, slightly abstract vision of nature has transformed the trinity of water, sun, and a young body into an effective painterly vision whose melody penetrates the emotional memory of the viewer, making this masterpiece one of the highlights of LNMA collection.

At the time the painting was created, it was important both to Janis Rozentāls and the Latvian society at large to augment the awareness of the Latvian nation as a multifaceted whole. The artist carried out this task by depicting people coming out of church in his native town of Saldus, actually creating a dynamic gallery of portraits of his contemporaries.

There are people at the height of their physical strength, youths, children.

And old people...

There are farmhands and well-to-do farmers; the successful and the poor – the entire congregation gradually returning to their everyday lives.

An indirect confirmation to the importance of the identity of place was Rozentāls’s excited reference to his fellow student Johann Valters’s diploma work as "a piece of real life and particularly Jelgava life." Echoing the social realism of the Russian peredvizhniks, yet without the emphasis on the negative characteristic of them, Rozentāls used the recent reform at the Academy that now allowed him to use his native town and its inhabitants as the subject matter for his diploma work. Several of the people portrayed in this work made it also to "From the Cemetery" (1895, LNMM), which was painted a year later; here, however, he is more interested in the chiaroscuro effects than in the composite image of the local society.

Vilhelms Purvītis (1872–1945) is widely considered one of the most important late 19th and early 20th century artists and founder of art institutions in Latvia. His most outstanding contribution was a neo-Romantic, strictly structured, multiform in terms of the color palette image of the national landscape.

At the turn of the century Purvītis created his typical landscape: usually he painted birch groves or pine stands, snow drifts and ice floes in early spring, blooming trees of May or the colorful foliages of autumn. He contemplated the eternity of nature and its diurnal and seasonal changes, the dynamics, of water, wind, and light. The selection and arrangement of the motifs allowed for a characteristic and at the same time majestic composite image of the national landscape. The variations in the color palette, the softened contours and the technique of the brushwork render Purvītis’s landscapes freely painterly, yet the compositional structure is strictly maintained.

After a sojourn in Tallinn between 1906 to 1909, Purvītis became director of the Riga Art School, activating the local art education. Having spent the war years in Petrograd and Norway, Purvītis returned to Riga to become the president of the newly established Academy of Art and director of the Art Museum. At the Academy, he chaired the Landscape Workshop whose graduates, in Latvian art history, are called Purvītis’s disciples. He organized many exhibitions of Latvian art in European cities and, during the interwar period of independence, was considered a living classic and indisputable authority in art.

Painter Jēkabs Kazaks (1895–1920) was one of the founders of Latvian classical modernism whose central subject matter was the tragic fate of Latvian refugees in World War I. Son of a Riga janitor, Kazaks’s studies at the Riga City Art School with Vilhelms Purvītis at the helm were interrupted by the war. He continued in Penza where he already showed himself as a mature and independent artist.

Rejecting trivial everyday details, Kazaks in his vertical painting included the figures of one refugee family representative of the entire nation. The sharp angles of the irregular forms, the dominant gray tones are evidence to the organic unity of Kazaks’s style with his tragic theme.

The psychological drama of the figures is directed inward; the vertical grouping of figures culminates in a standing refugee against the background of the gray sky. Kazaks’s compassion does not find expression in sentimentalizing or pity, his is a monument full of restrained pathos to the resilience of the nation.

Jāzeps Grosvalds (1891–1920) was the artist who introduced Latvian art to classical modernism and was outstanding at depicting vitally important themes in the period of war and political change in the history of the Latvian nation. In 1916 Grosvalds was drafted into the tsarist army, first serving among the Latvian riflemen at the Riga front and then in the artillery department in Petrograd. At this time he made a series of works (about 70) in a variety of techniques depicting the battles of the Latvian riflemen. Avoiding the traditional theatrical battle or triumphant victory scenes, Grosvalds put his emphasis on the everyday tragedy of war and the heroism of the riflemen, drawing on his own experiences.

This is one of Niklāvs Strunke’s most original artworks. Its basic focus is on a depiction of movement and space, as borrowed by the artist from representatives of the Futurism school when he spent time in Rome and Florence in the 1920s. The Futurists believed that endless movement was the driving force for all that exists. They were interested in finding ways of materializing time in art so as to create the impression of spatial movement.

Niklāvs Strunke has seemingly depicted two moments in a single painting. We see a man’s silhouette at the door...

...but we also see the room which he is going to enter.

It is semi-empty and uninhabited with only a small table lit by the warm light of a lamp.

In order to create the impression of unfinished and uninterrupted movement, Niklāvs Strunke has purposefully left irregular white bands around the central story line. When the painting is hung on a light wall, the white bands optically blend with the surface of the wall, thus eliminating the impression of the painting’s rectangular form. In the result the painting seemingly projects from the wall and enhances the sense of spatiality.

The painting contains the abstractions and geometrics of Cubism...

The metaphysical movement focused on the world of subconscious visions, and in Strunke’s painting this surrealistic mood is seen in the depiction of the empty and uninhabited room. The artist seems to be posing the question: What will happen once the man enters the room? What will he do there?

In the 1930s, Latvian art came under the influence of an affirmative, positive national school that emphasized rural scenes. Though it reflected the nationalism of an authoritarian era, life on the farmstead was an intimately familiar wellspring for the inspiration of many artists in that period, memories of their boyhood swine-herding and the rich tapestry of the pastoral still fresh in the minds of countless painters, writers and musicians. The countryside was ripe for patriarchal idealization and provided rich material for stylistic exploration. In terms of atmosphere and an energy that retains the emotional power to transcend time, wedding painterly mastery to eternal themes and expressing an enduring conception of the Latvian mentality, the work of Ģederts Eliass (1897–1975) stands out.

Pie akas" ("By the Well") painted in 1935, presents a typical Semigallian rural scene. A woman in a farmstead courtyard prepares to take water to well-fed cows, their udders bursting with milk under a sky threatening a storm. The farmstead depicted is the one he was raised on. Eliass’ depiction is not idyllic; it is suffused with vitality, the intertwining of nature and human life presented with drama, the difficult physical labors of the farm is nearly tangible. The odor of lush grass, sweat, and the flanks of the cattle is almost palpable. The brushwork recalls the texture of the rich, heavy soil of the region. Coarse, strong brushstrokes accentuate the emerald green he often employed for foliage and grass, here in stark contrast the bright red of the woman’s blouse that is echoed on the rising angle of the tile roof.

In 1930-1931, the young artist Kārlis Padegs (1911–1940) was inspired by Russian writer Leonid Andreyev’s story "The Red Laughter" (1904) to create a series of black-and-white India ink drawings, which, using the elements of hyperbole and grotesque, commented on the horrors and senselessness of war.

When in the spring of 1940, the 28-year-old artist succumbed to tuberculosis, the European history had already made the lines he had written on the other side of a drawing acutely topical: "And especially you, you reasonable ones, you with your cold calm – you should know what war means and also that it can surprise you unawares." Very soon his warning came true in Latvia, where, under conditions of Soviet totalitarianism, Padegs’s legend for many years was just that. Only in the 1970s a serious research of his legacy was begun and the 1981 exhibition returned Padegs to the cultural awareness of the Latvian society.

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