Visual Art in Latvia
Latvian visual art has undergone various transformations over time, as the territory of Latvia has been an important trade route, and thus has often been included in the spheres of interest of other nations. Because of this, Latvian art displays the influences of many other cultures. The development of Latvian art has been closely associated with that of art in other European countries, but it has always preserved its own essential character. Latvia’s visual art has a harmonious worldview: its sculpture, painting and graphic art display a certain proportionality, a feel for stable composition and a finely nuanced range of colours, which manifests itself in the use of many earthy tones.
The Beginnings of Visual Art (7600 Bc to 12Th Century Ad)
The beginnings of visual art within the Latvian territory are related to the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age (7600-4500 BC). Although at this time there was no differentiation between the various art forms, artefacts made from wood, bone, horn and amber were made. There was also an appearance of small-scale sculpture (humans or animal totemic figurines in both schematic and realistic styles), as well as magical markings, which are the beginnings of graphic art. These works demonstrate early man’s concept of the spiritual world: his soul, totemic beliefs and cosmology. During the second millennium BC, the present Latvian territory was settled by Baltic tribes, which can be regarded as the ancestors of present-day Latvians. Jewellery made an appearance at this time, as well as domestic objects with geometrical decoration representing the sun, moon and fertility symbols - with circles, slanted and vertical crosses, triangles and wavy lines.
Art of the Middle Ages (12Th to 16Th Centuries)
At the end of the 12th century, the Latvian territory became of interest to the Holy Roman Empire. During the times of the crusades of the 13th century, German crusaders imposed Christianity, the local tribes lost their independence, and a confederation of feudal kingdoms, called Livonia, was created. Starting with the Middle Ages, art in Latvia conformed to that of Western Europe, although retaining its earlier principles. Art within the territory of Latvia retained its vivid uniqueness due to this region being one of the last to be affected by the processes of Christianization. One can recognise, embedded within the Romanesque and Gothic styles characteristic of the Middle Ages, many of the ethnic characteristics stemming from a still pagan culture.
The 13th century saw the first rapid development of towns within Latvia, of which the largest was Rīga, which was a local centre of art. Stone and wood sculpture developed significantly in the Middle Ages. Mostly these carvings were intended for use by the church, while some were used for building embellishment. The principles of interior arrangement of medieval churches changed over the centuries, which also led to a change in the principles of sculpting. During the Romanesque period of the 13th century, statues retained a rigidity, being roughly carved, while during the Gothic period of the 14th and 15th centuries they became more graceful and refined. Within churches, altar and chancellery sculptures were mostly carved in wood, a material suiting the Latvian mentality. The works were painted and gilded, thereby attaining elegance and splendour. Developments in painting at this time were also closely associated with the church, but there are markedly less paintings than sculpture in existence. Several palace and church pieces reveal the influence of Western European art trends. Developments also took place in folk culture: ornamentation was placed on both jewellery and domestic items, which provides evidence of the survival of local ethnic traditions.
Renaissance Art and Mannerism (16Th – Late 17Th Century)
The 16th and 17th centuries in Europe were a period of continuing warfare, which was unfavourable to the development of art. In Latvia, the influence of the Renaissance in art was somewhat delayed. Developments in art as experienced in 15th century Italy never arrived. In Latvia, traditions of the Renaissance became intertwined with Gothic elements. The population, exhausted by war and its aftermath, embedded these experiences in the sculpture, painting and graphics of the time. The hallmark of this period is ostentation, although the complexity of each artwork reflects inner tensions created by these times.
The abundance of artists in the larger art centres of Europe stimulated migration in search of work. Artists travelling to the territory of Latvia carried with them the artistic traditions of their native land. The most significant links are those with the Northern European Renaissance. The most vivid examples of Mannerism can be found in church interiors, commemorative statuary and house facades. Wood remained the preferred material, which was often carved with remarkable filigree detail. The main aim of decoration in art was seen to be the creation of a mystical ambience and to reveal the turmoil and tragedy of the times. Examples of this can be found in altars, organ decorations and elsewhere in churches around Latvia.
A number of altar sculptures have been preserved - small and elegant with curvaceous hips swaying in linear rhythmic patterns. The altars themselves are fantastic accents on the background of simple church walls. Stylistically similar developments occurred within painting. Mainly the works of itinerant artists, a number of altar paintings and other religious works have been preserved that also reveal local influences. The vestments of the people in the paintings are appropriate to the period, while the Virgin Mary is frequently shown in 17th century clothing. Works depicting secular themes can be found and portraiture became popular. Official portraits were painted, to attest to the genealogy of the local aristocracy. The most significant are those depicting the Duchy of Courland. In the 17th century, wealthy citizens also commissioned portraits, and the demand for artists increased, which stimulated a growth of opportunity for local artists.
The beginning of book graphics can be found in the 16th century. While earlier books were brought in from Europe, the first book was printed in the territory of Latvia in 1589. It is significant that most were richly decorated in the lavish style of other European nations, but nevertheless they also displayed local traits. The panorama of Rīga was often depicted in graphic art.
Art During the Baroque and Rococo (Late 17Th to Late 18Th Century)
The 17th and 18th centuries saw Latvian lands come under the influence of other foreign peoples. In art, the Baroque and Rococo styles were introduced: although adopting the external traits from Europe, in essence Latvian art retained a much simpler and more restrained character. This period is one in which local traditions in art were effectively transmitted. In sculpture, not just European itinerants but many local artists were employed, particularly in woodcarving workshops. Many works were commissioned by the church, the court of the Duchy and also individuals, including decorative ship carvings, etc. The centre for Baroque art was the port city of Ventspils where several woodcarving workshops were active. Sculptures of the time incorporate the vivid forms characteristic of the Baroque period, although their execution is lighter and more playful than, for example, those in the Italian Baroque.
In the works created in Latvia, there is a retention of modesty and moderation typical of the Latvian concept of the world, although the interiors of palaces are decorated in vivid Baroque and Rococo. The most beautiful examples of both Baroque and Rococo style decoration can be found in the Rundāle Palace, which can be considered to be the most beautiful palace of the Duchy of Courland. At the time, the Duchy was in its heyday with colonies in African Gambia, and South American Tobago and Trinidad. This was a particularly fruitful time for cultural development as a whole.
During the Baroque period, particularly significant developments took place within monumental decorative painting. Ceiling and wall paintings richly decorated many palaces, churches and private interiors. Increasingly more artists strove towards reality within paintings, gave more emphasis to space, copied the sculptural and architectural decor. Owners of palaces in Latvia strove to keep up with the great examples of European Baroque and Classicism. Often artists from abroad were invited to decorate walls and ceilings, as for example the Rundāle and Jelgava palaces were decorated by artists invited from Italy.
Developments in portraiture continued, and significant progress was made in both professionalism and artisanship. A typical Baroque era painter was Friedrich Hartman Barisien who worked within the Duchy of Courland. In his portraits of the Duke of Courland Biron family, the pompous forms of Italian Baroque are absent; they rather possess a kind of subdued melancholy. There is little exuberance and the faces seem to convey in silence and rigidity their tragic life stories. The style of 18th century French Rococo also appears implicitly with the use of subtle pink and gentle pastel tones.
Art During the Era of Classicism and Romanticism (Late 18Th to Mid 19th Century)
At the end of the 18th century, the territory of Latvia was joined with Russia. At this time, Classicism and Romanticism replaced traits of Baroque and Rococo. The main centres of art were Rīga and Jelgava, in which foreign artists’ exhibitions were held, and from the mid 19th century, exhibitions of artists working in Latvia were also held. The amount of sculptures by local masters was reduced, because sculptural decor was mainly imported from Germany and Russia, but the significance of painting increased. The majority of artists were local Germans. The number of professionally educated artists increased: those who had studied at the Art Academies of St Petersburg, Dresden and Munich etc. Artists took creative tours, mainly to Italy. It was also possible to gain the first professional skills in the territory of Latvia - in Jelgava, at the Courland Province High School. After the addition of the Duchy of Courland to the Russian Empire in 1795, aristocratic court culture disappeared, which had attracted artists from abroad, and therefore local traditions were restored.
Portrait painting continued to develop, and began to show the rigidity and clarity of form typical of Classicism, with hints of Romanticism. The numbers of wealthy citizens and demands for decorative interior art continued to grow. Artists themselves began to turn to landscape painting and representations of mythology. The number of artistic dilettantes began to proliferate, making the art scene more colourful. At this time, the first native Latvian painters also emerged, who turned towards anonymous representation of the Latvian rural existence. There are signs of healthy humour in these works as these artists made ironic statements about their own lives and times. There were also numbers of itinerant artists who visited farms and decorated cupboards and dowry chests with ethnic Latvian symbols.
One of the most popular painters of the 19th century was Johan Heinrich Bauman, who was of German ancestry but who spent most of his life in Latvia. He painted hunting scenes in the Dutch manner. A fusion of Romanticism and Classicism can be seen in the works of Johan Leberecht Egink and Carl Gotthard Graβ, who had gained inspiration from Italian artists.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the development of graphic representation, and particularly original were the drawings in ink and watercolour by Johan Christoph Brotze. His “Collection of Various Vidzeme Monuments, Brochures, Coats of Arms” includes a variety of themes of rural life. In this collection it is possible to trace developments in architecture, art and ethnographic artefacts of that time. Occasionally there are also representations of Latvian folk costumes.
Art in the Latter Half of the 19th Century (Eclecticism, Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Impressionism)
The latter part of the 19th century saw the formation of a class of prosperous Latvian farmers, and an increased number of Latvian artisans working in towns. Their prosperity was on the rise through favourable geographical factors, which led to increased foreign capital investment, creation of significant metal works, machine building and textile production. Rīga had become the fourth most influential city in the Russian Empire.
Although then a part of the Russian empire, the Latvian territory had remained contiguous. The numbers of educated Latvians swelled. Several educational institutions in Rīga offered art training. The 19th century was the period of nation building and creation of a new kind of Latvian, who proved to the world that the term “Latvian” denoted nationality and not simply farmer. Tartu and St Petersburg became centres for gathering of increasing numbers of young educated and nationalistic Latvians. Moreover, educational opportunities also spread to the less wealthy.
Artists became inspired to form societies with the main purpose of creating national art. They succeeded in both fitting into the broader field of European art while retaining their national identity.
The earliest stage of development in modern art is Eclecticism (1860-80) which initially appeared in Latvia through architecture, although elements were also noticeable in painting and sculpture. Eclecticism characteristically combines elements of various earlier styles of art.
One of the most distinguished personalities in Eclectic sculpture was German artist August Volz, who set up a workshop in Rīga. Volz’s masters created sculptural decorations for most buildings constructed during 1860-80. They also made several decorative sculptures for parks, including the Nymph fountain (1888) in the square outside the Latvian National Opera. Historicist sculptors often employed mythical images that typically utilised the sharply defined forms of Classicism as well as the gravity of the Baroque period. Nevertheless, these figures still essentially retained the German art tradition.
Significant changes occurred in painting. The new genres included portraiture, historical representation and landscapes.
One of the most notable Latvian painters was portraitist Jānis Staņislavs Roze who studied at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, in Paris, Dresden and Munich. His portraits are of wealthy German and Russian aristocrats, but several are also those of Latvians. His paintings are restrained, compositionally simple and photographically precise. His collection of works conformed to the demands of the time, for a precise likeness to the sitter. Dark backgrounds were often employed to emphasize the paleness of aristocracy.
One of the early exponents of the historical genre was Carl Huhn, a master whose art was rooted in the Russian and French schools. His best figurative paintings and portraits gained recognition even within the salons of Paris, which did not allow the display of postimpressionists. Huhn was a follower of the Classical school: he was attracted to academicism and the realist worldview of the 19th century. His greatest recognition was for his works in a historical genre with a romantic treatment, a style highly prized in the 19th century. The third painter of note was Jūlijs Feders who laid foundations for the genre of landscape painting. The most active period in his life coincided with the flourishing of French Impressionism, although his talent had developed under the influence of Russian and German traditions. He became the first to begin paint en plein air. His paintings are distinguished by their vivid colours and freer composition. The artist was fond of painting Latvian nature, infusing it with both an air of serenity and majesty.
During the last decade of the 19th century, Latvian painters increasingly began to attempt to define Latvian art. In the development of Latvian national culture, important roles were played by the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, St Petersburg Conservatory and students from the Stiglitz Central School for Technical Drawing who participated in the “Rūķis” (Gnome) study group.
The ideologist of this group was Ādams Alksnis, who turned to national historical representation in his work. His scenes and realistic style of expression were adopted by several members of the study group, including Arturs Baumanis. Mainly, however, these artists were still restrained by the influence of traditional or academic art.
The beginnings of Art Nouveau in the visual arts can be found during the late 1890s, while its universal acceptance occurred between the turn of the 20th century and the First World War in 1914. The basic idea behind Art Nouveau was the integration of art. Art Nouveau can be regarded as the last in-depth, all-embracing style, expressing its influence in all fields of art. The influence of Art Nouveau is particularly noticeable in architecture and applied arts, as well as in painting. Exponents of Art Nouveau were inspired by flora and fauna, and the dynamics between the organic and inorganic in nature. Art Nouveau art works are characteristically asymmetrical, have wavy lines, and often depict a mythical fantasy world. Impressionism, which had peaked in France in the latter part of 1870s, arrived in Latvia at the end of the 19th century, almost simultaneously with Art Nouveau. Latvian artists adopted the light, vibrating brush stroke, fragmented composition and clear, light colours characteristic of the impressionists. In sculpture, they avoided static and frozen compositions, paying more attention to movement, and a partly worked, seemingly rough finish.
At the end of the 19th century, Rīga had become a European city. Exhibitions were frequently held, including those of foreign artists. These included showings by Baltic Germans, Germans, Russians and Scandinavians. This contact encouraged local artists not to fall behind other European nations while retaining their individuality.
The possibilities of gaining an art education in Rīga were enhanced with the founding of the Venjamins Blūms School of Arts in 1895, the Rīga City Art School in 1906, and the opening of the City Art Museum in 1905.
The general elevation of cultural activities and the establishment of national schools marked a turning point in Latvian art. The new generation of professional artists at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts gave the initial impetus for traditional expression within the bounds of academic and realist styles. Upon graduation, most of the young artists headed to Western Europe to augment their learning, thereby coming into direct contact with the latest directions in art. The styles of the first professionals were varied, and often many years passed before individual identities were established. It is significant that this generation of artists is associated with the further activities of the “Rūķis” study group.
The leading lights and most influential painters at the turn-of-the-century were Jānis Rozentāls, Vilhelms Purvītis and Jānis Valters, who elevated Latvian art to European levels by setting high quality standards.
Rozentāls, Purvītis and Valters, having graduated from the St Petersburg Academy, searched for new forms of expression, and their works cause a sensation there to some degree. Rozentāls with his diploma work “No baznīcas” (From the Church) (1894) dared to portray a national theme. The artist presented, with photographic accuracy, churchgoers from all classes leaving church: from the rich farmer to the beggar. Valters’ diploma work „Tirgus Jelgavā” (Market in Jelgava) (1897) bravely uses impressionist brush strokes, flowing areas of light and shadow and fragmented composition. The diploma work of Purvītis, “Pēdējie stari” (Last Rays) (1897) gained recognition not only on the Russian art scene but internationally at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris. While going their separate ways, all three maintained their affiliation with the St Petersburg Academy throughout their lives, being jury members for the spring exhibition.
Rozentāls and Purvītis became the first art critics to describe the development of art within both Europe and Latvia. This laid the foundation for serious and well-informed art appreciation amongst Latvians. Artists organized personal exhibitions in Rīga, and participated in exhibitions held by the German Rīga Society for the Arts, and they established their own art studios. In 1909, Purvītis opened the City Art School, where both Rozentāls and Valters taught painting.
The search for individual style and the use of impressionist brush strokes can be seen in Rozentāls’ portraits (e.g. “Zem pīlādža” (Under the Rowan) 1905). The portraits reflect emotional and spiritually rich people. Rozentāls employed curvaceous line rhythms typical of Art Nouveau, and borrowed Eastern decorative themes (“Princese un pērtiķis” (The Princess and the Monkey) 1913). Following a visit to Paris and Stockholm, the artist’s work acquired other symbolic elements - figures rooted within biblical and especially folklore traditions (“Saules meitas” (Daughters of the Sun) 1912).
Vilhelms Purvītis pioneered the nation’s landscape painting tradition. His favoured themes included spring floodwaters, melting snow, ice, sludge, reflections of trees. Whereas in his younger days his work indicated a worldview grounded in realism, his turn-of-the-century paintings display typical impressionist brushwork. Not infrequently the trunks of trees are gracefully curved in the manner of Art Nouveau (“Pavasara Ūdeņi” (Flood Waters) around 1910).
The works of Jānis Valters are examples of perfection in their use of colour. After graduating from the St Petersburg Academy until 1905, he painted in a typically impressionistic style. The artist was fascinated by lighting effects, the vibrations of light and air, stylization of nature and a vertical rhythm. Often Art Nouveau lines are discernable (“Pīles” (Ducks) 1898). After 1906, the artist emigrated to Germany and successfully integrated into the German art scene by conforming his work to the principles of German impressionism.
There was a rebirth in monumental painting. The most typical are the frescoes created by Rozentāls in 1910 on the facade of the newly built Rīga Latvian Society house. The painting style is typically Art Nouveau. The scene depicts mythological Latvian images ofPērkons (Thunder), Pīkols and Potrimps.
The intertwined plant and ornamental motifs of Art Nouveau were widely employed in the decoration of interiors of public and private buildings.
The artist Voldemārs Matvejs initially espoused modernist or avant-garde ideas in painting and its theory. While a student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts around 1910 the artist became enchanted by Cubist, Fauvist and Futurist ideas, and he founded the artists society ”Sojuz molodjoži” (Union of Youth). It is due to Matvejs that exhibitions of European modernists were organized in Rīga. His most persuasive modern ideas were expounded in his theoretical treatises “Principles of creative work in the figurative arts. Texture.” 1914; “The Art of Easter Island” 1914; and elsewhere. Matvejs was one of the first in the world to investigate African sculpture, their shapes becoming part of the revelations of the 20th century modernists.
At the end of the 19th and early 20th century, there was an upsurge in graphic art. With the development of several graphic techniques, the most important became not the subject but its artistic merit. The popularity of Japanese graphics encouraged finesse in detail: the graphics of this time are aesthetically enjoyable.
Latvian artists entered the field of graphics alongside the Germans. As in other artistic fields, in graphics Art Nouveau merged with symbolism and realism.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the first specialized exhibitions of graphic art were held in Latvia, several associations of graphic artists were formed, and book graphics and poster art gained favour, and the creation of ex libris became popular.
The beginning of the 20th century was also a time for development of sculpture. The progress of Art Nouveau architecture required master craftsmen to manufacture facade decorations. The artists involved in these sculptural decorations encoded a symbolic content within them, depicted the properties of water, and used tree motifs that represented life and fertility. A common feature is the representation of a range of vegetation: water roses and lilies, chestnuts and irises. All of these sculptural decorations characteristically have curved lines and fine graphic design. The first professional Latvian sculptors Gustavs Šķilters, Teodors Zaļkalns and Burkards Dzenis, cogniscent of the Russian and Western European art traditions, still used mostly national images in their sculpture. Most of the young artists had supplemented their training at the workshop of famous French impressionist sculptor Auguste Rodin. For this reason, a variety of art directions briefly appeared at the beginning of the 20th century - Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Realism.
Increasingly the younger generation of sculptors abandoned the decorative function of sculpture, and created freestanding sculptures that contained specific philosophical and emotional ideas (Fig. Zaļkalns “Ludmila”, 1913).
VILHELMS PURVĪTIS. LATVIAN LANDSCAPE
JOHANS VALTERS (JOHANN WALTER)
Art in the 1920S-40S (Modernism and Neorealism)
The first decade of the 20th century was a complicated time - the territory of Latvia was involved in the events of the First World War (1914-18). Many young Latvian artists went to war, and it was precisely the tragic events of the war that helped Latvian art to be reborn, and to rise to a new level. As a result of the First World War, using the disagreement between superpowers, an independent and free Latvia was proclaimed on 18 November 1918. This event caused Latvians to become aware of themselves as a unified nation which was equal to other European nations.
The University of Latvia, the Latvian Academy of Art and the Latvian State Conservatoire were established in 1919. The tendency for modernism was interwoven with the wish to retain national identity in various cultural fields of the new nation. After the coup of 1934, when Latvia came under authoritarian rule, the most important ideas became “a Latvian Latvia, unity and leadership”. The creative activity of artists was partially suppressed.
The first modernist in Latvian painting was the artist Jāzeps Grosvalds, who completed his education in Munich and Paris, for some time studying under the artist André Derain. After he returned to Latvia in 1914, like-minded people gathered around him to form “Zaļā puķe” (The Green Flower), which included artists who were still studying at the City Art School, but were open to the new trends of modernism. Not directly influenced by one trend, Grosvalds attempted to combine a synthesis of new forms with the traditions of the old masters.
At the beginning of the First World War, the Rīga City Art School was evacuated to Penza and Kazan in Russia. A number of artists went to war; Jāzeps Grosvalds was also in the front line and continued to rally young artists. Fighting as an officer, Grosvalds depicted both refugees and the everyday life of a soldier. Grosvalds’ laconic and simultaneously synthesizing style is demonstrated in the painting “Vecais bēglis” (Old Refugee), (1917). His works are characteristically monumental, using stylization, stable composition and a repetitive rhythm.
Striving for the essential and heightened forms of expression, artists gradually gave up reflecting reality and copying nature, and generalization became popular, as did the simplification and synthesis of forms, which was adopted from early cubism, in which objects did not completely lose their original appearance. This often involved deformation of figures, verticalism, and a seemingly restless line rhythm. This type of composition emphasises perspective, and particular colour combinations were used. The search for a means of expression was not an end to itself, because Latvian artists accented content. The war and refugees became nationally significant themes in the visual arts.
The first trends of modernism can be observed in work by Jēkabs Kazaks, who, similar to Jāzeps Grosvalds, continued the refugee theme. His signature is more expressive.
Ģederts Eliass worked slightly at a distance from the other modernists. He had graduated from the Brussels Royal Academy of Fine Arts and practised for a short time in Paris. He was particularly influenced by fauvism and the works of Henri Matisse, which manifested in bright, decorative colours and the accenting of two-dimensionality.
The “Rīga Art Group” became a strong influence on the art world between the wars. The members of this group not just familiarised Latvian art lovers with the trends of modernism, but also showed their art abroad and gained recognition in exhibitions at a European level.
Members of the “Rīga Art Group” were carried away with cubism in the early 1920s. Latvian modernists were inspired by the trends of the new technological era, the clear and decorative geometry of forms. A large number of Latvian artists in the 1920s regularly added to their knowledge in Paris and Berlin, which were the centres of Cubism and Constructivism at that time. As distinct from French cubists, the connection to the real world was not lost, and the stability of composition was retained.
Oto Skulme exhibited the first Cubist composition in Rīga (“Kompozīcija” (Composition), 1920); soon after he was joined in his interest in Cubism by other members of the “Rīga Art Group” - Romāns. Suta, Konrāds Ubāns, Valdemārs Tone and others. These artists not only painted still lifes, but also depicted cafes, bars, scenes from the circus, vagrants and musicians. Through this a new range of the themes was introduced to Latvian art - motifs, images and the atmosphere associated with an urban environment and lifestyle. A new generation of art critics was formed. The most active mouthpiece for the spirit of the new era through his publications was Romāns Suta, who collaborated with Parisian modernists. He published his findings in not only Latvian magazines, but also in the Parisian journal “L’Esprit Nouveau”. Uga Skulme also applied himself seriously to modern art theory, and was the only Latvian artist to explore Pablo Picasso’s Neoclassicism parallel to Cubism.
Around 1925, the trends of modernism began to decline and artists turned to Neorealism. Other European artists also returned to this classic art heritage. Neorealism in Latvian painting is often related to the trends of New Objectivity, which was topical in German painting and which characteristically has a removed, but perfectly detailed depiction of objects. A number of members of the Rīga Art Group (Aleksandra Beļcova, Uga Skulme etc) were interested in this kind of experimentation.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Neorealist artists considered the pictorial aspect of their work to be primary, turning to tonal painting. Richly textured surfaces looked scarified, which created a dynamic feel. Here an influence could be noted from the works of Belgian and French artists, special authorities were Maurice de Vlaminck, Isidoor Opsomer and others. In Rīga in 1927 an exhibition of Belgian artists was held. These new influences are most directly reflected in works by Oto Skulme, Ģederts Eliass, Valdemārs Tone, Konrāds Ubāns and other artists.
Influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, the master of intimate portraits, Valdemārs Tone paid particular attention to issues of light, colouring and texture in his works. A similar approach was discovered by the master of still life, Leo Svemps, and the landscape master Eduards Kalniņš. His works display bright colour schemes, dynamic and artistically light brushwork.
Traditional Realism also developed, which became particularly significant in the 1930s, when attention to modernism lessened.
Official policy encouraged traditional realism after Kārlis Ulmanis’ coup in 1934. Artists were required to have a moral stance characteristic of the “leader’s era”, to have nationalistic content in art works, monumentality and positivism, and turn away from the influence of European art. Ideas of positivism and national art were expressed in the publications and art works of artists Jēkabs Bīne and Ernests Brastiņš. Painters preserved their closeness to nature, accenting the mythological and historical genre. Mythological themes mainly interested painters who were involved in the dievturimovement (based in mythology); they studied traditional motifs and folk art. Decorative stylization and at times naïve expression were used in representing folkloric or mythological subjects, and an ornamental rhythm was emphasised. The founder of thedievturi movement, Ernests Brastiņš, painted symbolic works in a primitive style; the world of legend was painted in a stylised manner by Ansis Cīrulis, Jēkabs Bīne, and Hilda Vīka.
The historical painting genre featured the First World War and War of Independence and scenes from Latvian ancient history; in these one can discern an overemphasised sense of pathos and glorification. A number of artists turned to praising Kārlis Ulmanis’ authoritarian regime. The volume of commissions for decorative monumental painting increased.
Monumental decorative art reflected the differing perceptions about contemporary national style. Influenced by the ideas of the French architect Le Corbusier, a modern interior and monumental style was instigated by Romāns Suta, who combined the clean forms characteristic of European constructivism with national elements. The artist called his newly created style “national constructive”. An interest in folklore and ethnography was featured, alongside scenes of celebrations and rural work. Traditional Latvian ornaments were often used. In turn, the artist Ansis Cīrulis developed his own “national style”. Cīrulis studied Latvian ornaments and folk art traditions, which he freely paraphrased into individual stylizations.
Irrespective of official policy, outsiders were also creating art. Jānis Tīdemanis and Kārlis Padegs employed deformity characteristic of expressionism, increased the use of colour, and widened the range of themes.
Jānis Tīdemanis, who graduated from the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, had a similar style to the Belgian expressionist painters. Through painting, he uncovered the tragic life of the modern metropolis. The city’s feverish rhythms were depicted in bright colours - boulevards at night, carnivals, masks, carousels. Tīdemanis, using bright, even shocking colours, deformed shapes and impasto brush strokes, reflected the complicated essence of the era.
Tīdemanis was influenced by the life of the city, while Kārlis Padegs turned to the depiction of the tragic era. He was the first to include a grotesque message in his works, to connect the unconnectable, to try to shock the public.
Similar to painting, modernist trends appeared in graphic art around 1920. Artists who expressed their talent through painting also did so through graphic art - including Jēkabs Kazaks, Jāzeps Grosvalds, Romāns Suta, Niklāvs Strunke and others. A good example of modernism can be considered to be the linocut folder from 1919, “Expressionists”, which portrayed experiences from the War. The works contain an acute view of events, characteristic of Expressionism: shapes are deformed, the line work is restless, even robust.
From the 1920s, a professional diploma in graphic art could be obtained from the Academy of Art in Rīga, and from the National College, which worked from 1923 to 1934.
There were a number of active graphic art societies, which intensively exhibited their work abroad (Paris, Florence, Warsaw, Krakow, etc) and received international awards.
Book illustration flourished, as there were many publishing houses that cared about the artistic design of their publications. The work of the joint-stock company “Valters un Rapa” was significant: it published fiction, albums of art and scenery.
Poster art developed, which was a good aid in political campaigns.
In the early 1920s graphic artists played with formal approaches used by both cubism and constructivism, in the late 1920s trends from New Objectivity and Art Deco were introduced (a style from the 1920s-30s which has a decorativeness influenced by Art Nouveau and early modernism).
One of the best graphic artists was Niklāvs Strunke. The artist gained his education in St Petersburg at the School of Imperial Art Society and worked in Berlin and Rome, where he returned repeatedly. The artist worked with pen-and-ink, graphite, watercolours, gouache, made woodcuts and lithographs. His most significant genre is book graphics, in which Strunke used visual techniques characteristic of constructivism, which he supplemented with ethnographic elements.
The most notable representative of Art Deco in Latvian graphic art was Sigismunds Vidbergs. His works typically have filigree line work, a balance of black and white fields, and an outer decorativeness. The artist focused on many varied themes - the War of Independence, a depiction of work in the fields, life in the city, erotic themes. His work does not contain tragedy or the grotesque; often the influence of Aubrey Beardsley can be discerned. The artist chose an appropriate style of line work for each theme. Lithe lines dominate the love scenes. The contrast between black and white areas is used in historical scenes.
Wide stylistic variation can be observed in the works of the artist Romāns Suta. His first works were produced around 1919, heavily influenced by the expressionists. The imagery of war dominates. In the early 1920s, the artist experimented with the spirit of Cubism and Constructivism, and in the late 1920s, trends of the New Objectivity can be seen. Suta often visited Paris, where he collaborated with modernists of the time: Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, Juan Gris and others. These contacts gave him the chance to introduce French readers to Latvian art in the journal “L’Esprit Nouveau”. Suta is the author of the first book about the history of Latvian professional art to be published abroad, in Leipzig in 1923.
At the end of the 1920s, Suta developed his own graphic style, the basis of which was a free line painted with an ink brush. The form can be discerned according to the contrast between areas of black and white. Suta divided his graphics into three cycles: “Work”, “Social Life” and “The Street”, where the artist depicted the life of the “common person”.
Features of expressionism and New Objectivity can be observed in the works of the most original graphic artist, Kārlis Padegs. He often utilised the grotesque. Padegs explored tragedy in real life and in that of books. The artist often drew illustrations for his favourite literary works: those of Oscar Wilde, Knut Hamsun, Gi de Mopasan. The artist found inspiration in the contemporary world of the docks and in bars; he often depicted dandies, drunks, prostitutes, and foreign sailors. Works that depicted the horrors of war had a particularly tragic flavour. Similar to the German expressionists, Padegs tried to shock the viewer, frequently using natural, expressive techniques. The works were often given paradoxical titles.
Some Latvian artists worked in Soviet Russia during the 1920s and 30s. The Latvian artist Gustavs Klucis became one of the most well respected constructivists and a founder of contemporary technical design. In Soviet Russia, he created spatial constructions, book designs, in posters he used photo montage, type montage, which at that time was a totally unique artistic method. This artist is considered one of the creators of avant-garde.
Sculpture also displays similar tendencies as painting and graphic art. In the 1920s, Latvian sculptors became carried away with modernism, in the 1930s they returned to the depiction of more concrete reality. The proclamation of the independent Republic of Latvia encouraged the development of monumental sculpting. State commissioned works were created, because it was necessary to immortalise the memory of the freedom fighters that fell during the war. During the war, the Brothers’ Cemetery (Brāļu kapi) began to be built in Rīga. A whole series of monumental works were created alongside these memorial sculptural ensembles, which expressed the idea of the Latvian nation and acknowledged its main value - freedom. All Latvians were involved in the creation of these monuments: donations were collected; the opening of each monument became a national celebration.
In the time from 1920-40 around 100 monuments were erected, which were dedicated to the heroes of the War of Independence. The most significant monuments erected in Rīga were the Brothers’ Cemetery ensemble and the Freedom Monument, by sculptor Kārlis Zāle. The artist gained his education from the Kazan Art School, the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, and for some time he added to his knowledge through experience in Berlin, mastering techniques characteristic of modernism. In his works, Zāle successfully combined artistic methods displaying a Latvian mentality (using folkloric characters, clear shapes and neat composition) with elements of European constructivism (a generalisation of form; functionality).
The Brothers’ Cemetery ensemble (built from 1922-36) is the most impressive memorial ensemble not just in Latvian, but also in European art. The architects Andrejs Zeidaks, Pēteris Feders and Aleksandrs Birznieks were invited to participate in the creation of the memorial. The Brothers’ Cemetery was created as a three dimensional requiem for the fallen, and simultaneously a place of worship for the people. The Brothers’ Cemetery corresponds to the design of Egyptian temples - a three-part structure with a clear horizontal symmetry. At the same time, Baltic funerary tradition is taken into account; the gates of the cemetery are accented with a guard of honour of ancient Latvian riders. These serve as a boundary between the current world and eternity. Behind the gates a processional path begins, which is lined on both sides with national trees - oaks and linden. At the end of the path the eternal flame is burning, behind which the graveyard begins. The complex is supplemented by the statues of archaic soldiers-riders, which suggest eternal peace. The main axis of the complex is completed by a symbolic statue - Mother Latvia with her fallen sons. The ensemble was not just unusual on a national level and at the same time romantic, but also relevant and modern, because it conformed to the architectural language of the Modern Movement of the time.
The other significant work of Kārlis Zāle is the Freedom Monument (built from 1931-35). The artist collaborated with architect Ernests Štālbergs in the design of the monument. The overall dimensions of the monument are reminiscent of an Egyptian obelisk with allegorical sculptures. The verticality of the composition is accented by the obelisk with the allegorical image of freedom at its apex. If the sculptures of the Brothers’ Cemetery suggest eternal peace, then the sculptural groups of the Freedom monument symbolise creative energy, work, and freedom. Zāle also used images from ancient history in this work, as the lifeblood which helped regain freedom.
A number of monuments from the 1920s and 30s were dedicated to cultural workers, the number of commissions for tombstones ordered by private individuals increased.
Sculptor Kārlis Zemdega also created significant monuments. His works are laconic, usually single or two figure compositions. Zemdega’s works also use allegory, which express a concrete idea and simultaneously also a universal one. His most prominent work is a tombstone for poet Rainis (1935), which provides an artist’s interpretation of creative activity and the human spiritual aspiration for freedom, through an allegorical image of a young man.
Teodors Zaļkalns also worked in sculpture. His works possess a more quietened intimacy, hope and peace. When creating tombstones, Zaļkalns often used the image of a young girl, which expresses contemplation of the mystery of life and death, and death as a link in the eternal chain of life.
Statue sculpting also developed, mainly portraits and figurative sculpture. The artists actively involved in statue sculpture were Teodors Zaļkalns, Burkards Dzenis and Gustavs Šķilters. In the 1920s artists were more interested in the modern styles of Europe, particularly constructivism. In turn, in the 1930s an interest in classic art was reborn, particularly in the work of Michelangelo. The most common materials used were bronze, granite and marble.
Woodcarvers occupied a special place in the context of Latvian sculpting. They did not have any academic training, they worked as if ignoring the general trends. Their works often possess a sincere naivety, although ancient folk art traditions can also be seen in these woodcuts. These artists often received international recognition. For example, the self-taught artist Līze Dzeguze, who had worked as an assistant in a fruiterers and began to create figures from vegetables, and later, from wood, received a gold medal in the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris. Her successes encouraged her to gain a professional education.
"BALTARS" WORKSHOP CHINA 1925–1928
Art in the 1940S-80S
After the Soviet occupation in 1940 Latvia was incorporated into the USSR. Mass repressions began, where artists also suffered as a result. Part of population was deported to Siberia; artists who remained in Latvia, fearful for their lives, did not freely show their works. During the years of the Second World War occupying powers successively replaced each other and repressions shook the spiritual life of the people. As the front line neared Rīga, a large part of the Latvian intelligentsia left for the West as refugees. Art in Latvia was forced to adjust to the official soviet ideology, while the art of Latvian refugees in exile developed in close relation to the art of the world.
The development of culture in Latvia was very isolated from the European context. Ideological censorship was particularly actively implemented during the time of Stalin. The USSR Academy of Art formulated a theory of socialist realism - an outline of standards with a hierarchy of themes and genres (the priority was given to figurative art, the themes - revolutionary history, the rise of socialism, work heroes, collective farm workers, etc). In 1941 the Latvian SSR Artists’ Union was established. In the beginning, this institution monitored and re-educated artists. Later the Artists’ Union became the organisation through which artists could sign pan-union contracts, receive commissions and gain the opportunity to exhibit in the entire Soviet Union. In the early 1960s the repressive system was relaxed, and ideological influence became more nuanced. Artists attempted to adjust to reality, undertaking official commissions and simultaneously attempting to take refuge in the world of ideals. In 1959 the “Days of Art” tradition was begun, which gained particular significance in the 1970s. This was a national celebration. Art was the only way in which people could be free, at least spiritually. In the 1960s-80s, artists carried a great deal of authority. Artists helped to retain the notion of beauty.
Changes in the political regime were reflected in painting, which had its most gloomy period in the 1940s and 50s. Artists were forced to adapt to socialist realism, to reflect a naturalistic view of the world, which is foreign to the Latvian mentality. In the 1940s and 50s the persecution of artists from the previous generation of modernists occurred. Many artists who had been earlier recognised were banned from exhibiting their works. Some artists changed their style according to the official requirements, but in secret often continued to create works that could not be exhibited to the wider community. However, there were also artists who were able to create high quality works by using canons of socialistic realism. For example, painter Eduards Kalniņš made “Jaunās buras” (New Sails) in 1945, which employed the new principles of painting, however the artist was able to combine these with tonal painting and plein air traditions, for which he had received recognition in the 1930s. Monumental painting also needed to conform to totalitarian requirements. A large number of social buildings were decorated with grandiose images of leaders, collective farm workers, etc.
In the 1950s a new generation entered the art world, which had been educated post-war, which included Indulis Zariņš, Edgars Iltners, Boriss Bērziņš, Rita Valnere, Džemma Skulme, Ojārs Ābols and Biruta Baumane. They began the ‘Harsh Style’, which occurred as a reaction to the post-war naturalistic realism. The artists introduced generalisation of content and form, metaphors, gaining their inspiration from French post-impressionism, and works by Jāzeps Grosvalds and Jēkabs Kazaks. Particular colour combinations became popular, simplified dimensions, monumentality was emphasised, and figures looked as if they had been brought closer to the foreground. (Edgars Iltners “Zemes saimnieki” (Masters of the Land), 1960). The characteristics of the “Harsh Style” dominated in the late 1950s and 1960s. At this time, Latvian painting became a source of inspiration for other Soviet peoples.
In the mid 1960s, information about Western European art trends was gradually made accessible in Latvia. Artists began to become interested in abstractionism, to experiment with colour and texture, but preserved the depiction of reality. Signature styles became more diverse. The works of Rūdolfs Pinnis and Jānis Pauļuks included elements of abstraction. Features of abstract expressionism appeared (Jānis Pauļuks, “Bulduru dārzkopības skola” (Bulduri gardening school), 1968).
In the 1970s the pressure of restrictions and controls lessened. Society gained a more pronounced interest in national and world culture. The philosophical idea encapsulated in an artist’s work became important. Ojārs Ābols became an influential modern art theorist, who was interested in the phenomenon of modernism in Latvian 20th century art, as well as in Western Europe’s contemporary avant-garde. In his own works, he began to synthesise techniques characteristic of non-representational painting with elements of representational painting. Traits of minimalism, pop art, op art and photo-realism can be discerned in the works of the artist.
Painters who started actively working in the 1970s purposefully rejected the principles of the “Harsh Style” and took their inspiration from the works of Paul Cézanne, the fauves and the expressionists. An artists group was established which searched for romantic elements in the surrounding world (Vija Maldupe, Juris Baklāns).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, parallel to the flourishing of hyperrealism in Western Europe, a photographic, dispassionate view of the world appeared in Latvian painting (Imants Lancmanis, Bruno Vasiļevskis, Līga Purmale, Miervaldis Polis). In this way, an anonymous documentary style was achieved (Image: Miervaldis Polis “Pirksti” (Fingers), 1974).
Part of the new generation of artists of the 1970s developed a form of expression that was expressive or geometrical, more and more abstracted from reality (Ivars Heinrihsons).
The relaxation of the totalitarian regime in the 1980s caused significant changes in thinking in society. The exchange of information with centres of art in Western European quickly gained pace. Artists rapidly began to acquire the principles of modernism and postmodernism, and to cross the boundaries of traditional art forms. Exhibitions-campaigns were organised. Painting began to lose its primary function.
The last Soviet decade became a time of a paradigm shift or of trespassers, when earlier demarcated boundaries were crossed and important changes occurred in all fields of art and culture. These changes included the introduction of new artistic methods, art forms, expression and content, with the embracing of post-modern principles, the synthesis of genres, experiments and the search for new principles oflanguage. At this time the interplay and combination of a number of fields occurred, for example, visual art was influenced by and crossed over with music, publicity, architecture and design. The dialogue with the community in the triangular relationship between culture, power and community became a lot more active - culture shifted from being an instrument of propaganda for the system to being a herald of a new era. A new, active generation of artists began work in the early 1980s. Their body of work accents the theme of a person’s loneliness in a destroyed, chaotic world. The artists of this generation maintained a metaphorical approach, and utilised mythological, biblical images, which were used as coded signs. The following artists announced themselves in 1984 in an exhibition of new generation artists in St Peter’s Church “Daba. Vide. Cilvēks” (Nature. Environment. Man.): Ieva Iltnere (b.1957), Sandra Krastiņa (b.1957), Aija Zariņa, Jānis Mitrēvics (b.1957), Edgars Vērpe (b. 1958) and Ojārs Pētersons (b.1956). These were all creative individuals, who through the process of art created a social dialogue between the individual and society.
In this exhibition, interdisciplinary works were also displayed for the first time (authors - Leonards Laganovskis, Hardijs Lediņš, Juris Boiko, Zaiga and Juris Putrāms, Ivars Mailītis and others). The exhibition was closed early, but it became a turning point for the development of Latvian art history. The exhibition “Daba. Vide. Cilvēks” effectively demonstrated how painting developed parallel to the conceptually and stylistically diverse new avant-garde, which became significant for painting in the 1990s.
A common trait which characterises new avant-garde art is the rejection of style as an individually specific gesture or signature, frequently utilising various readymade transformations or occasionally also transforming an object itself into a demonstration of purely intellectual, thought-provoking activity. Installations and objects were often created for a particular event, therefore they possessed a short-term, ephemeral nature, which allowed an artwork to partly free itself from the status of a commodity to be bought and sold. The pioneers of new avant-garde were the above-mentioned participants of the exhibitions, and the „Nebijušu Sajūtu Restaurācijas Darbnīca” (Restoration Workshop for Never-before Felt Emotions) or the NSRD, directed by Hardijs Lediņš, Juris Boiko and Andris Grīnbergs. Shortly after, Andris Breže, Oļegs Tilbergs, Vilnis Zābers, Kristaps Ģelzis and other artists also announced themselves.
The theme of melancholy and loneliness appears in paintings by Ieva Iltnere. In turn, in Aija Zariņa’s works, one can sense a sharp critique; her works remind one of the expressive character of Picasso or the “wild beasts” in which the interest of modern art in primitive cultures and children’s drawings can be seen.
The works of Kristaps Zariņš, Kaspars Zariņš, Vija Zariņa, Normunds Brasliņš and Aleksejs Naumovs display aspects of figurative art, reminiscences of various styles, and the combination of abstract and concrete images.
Sculpture also displays the same trends. After the war, artists had to conform to the requirements of socialist realism. Naturalistic, detailed depictions were common. Artists who had graduated from the Latvian Academy of Art before the war preserved the tradition of stone sculpting. This older generation of sculptors mainly worked in the genre of portraiture. Obligatory characters of the new era were front line troops, revolutionaries, partisans and red pioneers. Busts of Stalin and Lenin were frequently made. During Stalin’s era decorative sculpture was popular: parks and gardens were decorated by figures of red pioneers or sportsmen. A large proportion of these sculptures were made from plaster. In the late 1950s the style of sculpture changed - the image of a dreamer, an impetuous hero became popular.
Monuments gained a particular significance in the post-war period: they were erected in honour of the 1905 Revolution, the heroes of the Second World War, the Riflemen, etc. A Lenin monument was erected in almost every town. These were often placed in those sites, where monuments made in the time of Latvian independence used to stand. Many works of art that had been created at an earlier time were destroyed. One of the most prominent monuments, created in 1967, is a memorial ensemble at Salaspils at the site of a German fascist concentration camp (Sculptors: Ļevs Bukovskis, Oskars Skarainis and others). This ensemble can be considered as one of the most outstanding works of sculpture of the time, which combines the conception of the contemporary space with sculptural expression. The complex leaves a harsh and tragic impression. In its time, the Latvian red riflemen monument in Old Rīga also gained recognition (sculptor Valdis Albergs, 1971). This monument is simple, monumental, linking the forms of three riflemen.
The flourishing of the genre of portraiture in the post-war years can be linked to the activities of Lea Davidova-Medene and Marta Lange. These artists often sculpted portraits of well-known figures in society. The works are characterised by clear composition and a bright characterisation of the person. Genre sculpture also developed successfully, with which it was possible to diverge slightly from the canons of socialist realism. Sculpture of the 1960s, as opposed to the 1950s, possessed a subdued, unassuming pathos, a geometrical generalisation with heavy dimensions was usually employed. The sculpture of the 1960s was more diverse: it was often linked to nature and subjective experiences.
In the 1970s and early 1980s sculpture developed a diverse range of signature styles. Exhibitions of sculptures in the open air became popular in the 1970s. In 1967, a sculpture garden was opened by Rīga castle, and in 1972, Indulis Ranka began work on the Dainu Kalns (Folk Song Hill) at Turaida, creating sculptural monuments inspired by folk songs.
In the 1970s and 80s artists turned to a new range of themes, often depicting contradictory, split personalities. Works became meaningful. Folkloric images became popular; one of the first to use these was Indulis Ranka. Vija Mikāne interpreted folklore as a source of strength.
There was active use of the sculptural opportunities offered by bronze casting (Aivars Gulbis). Medal art also became popular, and some masters working in this genre gained international recognition (Jānis Strupulis and Bruno Strautiņš).
During the Soviet era, graphic art became a powerful ideological weapon. Irrespective of strict State control, a number of artists were able to preserve a high artistic level. Aleksandrs Junkers and Pēteris Upītis depicted landscapes of Latvia. In book illustration, naturalistic drawings that illustrated the plot were important. In the 1950s, artists who had completed the Academy of Art during the Soviet era began work (Gunārs Krollis, Jāzeps Pīgoznis, Zigurds Zuze, Valentīns Ozoliņš and others). New artists gradually found their own individual signature styles, however maintaining their collective traits - simple geometrical shapes, which were suited to the technique of linocutting.
In the 1960s, watercolour painting became popular. Kārlis Sūniņš created landscapes and still lifes, which were dominated by a romantic mood. Kurts Fridrihsons accented his philosophical contemplation of the world in watercolours. The artist composed images as monumental architectonic elements.
In the 1960s “harsh monumentalism” gradually disappeared. Series of work that were dedicated to one theme became popular. Graphic artists turned themselves to traditional spiritual heritage (Gunārs Krollis, Arturs Apinis, Jāzeps Pīgoznis). The new style also extended to book illustrations - phantasmal illustrations were replaced by philosophical generalisations. Artists expressed their reactions to the text, by using allegory and symbols. During this time, the world’s classic literature was being published, and it is in the illustrations of these works that the new trends can be noted.
In the 1970s decorativism entered graphic design, the reflection of individuality and personal experiences became pronounced. Colourful graphic art became popular. A new generation of graphic artists began work (Inārs Helmūts, Lolita Zikmane etc). Representatives from other fields of art created significant works alongside the graphic artists. The stage designer Ilmārs Blumbergs addressed the themes of genesis and existence of the nation through symbolic images, which included monumental shapes. Painter Boriss Bērziņš reflected this folk theme through a social atmosphere.
Latvian poster art flourished in the 1970s. Stage designers, painters and interior designers worked alongside graphic artists in creating poster art. Artists turned to producing socio-political posters. These gained artistic value as advertisements for cultural events, posters were apportioned a special place in community buildings and in apartments. The signature style of each individual author was strongly developed in this field. Perfectionism and proportionality are characteristic of Laimonis Šēnbergs posters, while philosophical generalisations dominate works by Ilmārs Blumbergs. A paradoxical world view, as if from a set designer’s vantage point, can be seen in posters created by Juris Dimiters.
In the 1980s, graphic designers commented on negative aspects of society more and more openly: authoritarianism, the degradation of society (Juris Putrāms, Kristaps Ģelzis and others). The tendency to romanticise was also preserved - Ilze Krūmiņa fused characteristics of Latvian folk art with her fairytale worldview, while Lilija Dinere gained inspiration from Indian philosophy.
Art in Exile
In 1944, the mass departure of people from Latvia began, from uncertainty about the future and fear of deportation. Refugees hoped to return to Latvia shortly - unfortunately, this was practically impossible until 1991. The aim of refugees was to preserve national identity, which also included the development of Latvian art. Many of independent Latvia’s most distinguished artists fled the country.
A majority of the refugees of 1944 ended up in displaced persons camps in Germany or Sweden. In 1949, when the camps were closed, Latvians began to emigrate to Great Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia.
In exile Latvians aspired to preserve Latvian tradition over successive generations, although overall their culture was associated with processes occurring in their new home countries.
Painting became the dominant art form in exile. During the time of the DP camps until 1949, there was already heated debate about the specificities of national art. During this time, the old and new generations of artists were united. After emigration, the artists’ community was fractured, and artists associations were founded in each country of destination. Members of the older generation, who had gained popularity in the 1930s, continued to work in the styles they had developed pre-war. Artists painted their homeland and refugee experiences, mostly with nostalgic, tragic themes (Augusts Annuss, Niklāvs Strunke etc). The new generation of exiled artists assimilated even more over time and gained recognition in the international art world. However, a number of the new artists consciously accented their Latvian ties in their work. In the 1950s, the centres of modern art in Europe and America significantly influenced the progress of exile art. Abstract art and abstract expressionism had a strong influence, while manifestations of surrealism, pop art, op art, hyperrealism and conceptual art can also be seen.
Many exiled modernists were influenced by abstract expressionism that dominated after the Second World War. They developed a characteristically spontaneous, expressive style of painting, accenting colour interaction and texture. The creative work of the internationally acclaimed Latvian artist, Edvīns Strautmanis (USA) is particularly significant. The artist painted large format compositions, which are filled with turbulent, expansive, colourful brush strokes. A number of artists who graduated from the Chicago Art Institute worked in a similar style: Ojārs Šteiners and Vitauts Sīmanis.
Geometrical expression was also developed under the framework of abstract art. Laimonis Mieriņš (UK) works in this style. In turn, Laris Strunke (Sweden) in his large format works reveals the tendency to minimalize his means of expression. A geometrical approach also interested Juris Soikans (Germany), who devised the theory of cybernetic aesthetics in the early 1970s.
Pop art and new realism were created as a reaction to abstract art. Often artists who were interested in non-representational painting in the 1950s and 60s returned to traditional art forms. For example, after a period of abstract expressionism, Voldemārs Avens (USA) became interested in the representation of simplified architectural elements. Reinis Zusters (Australia) combined the abstract and pictorial reproduction. The work of Daina Dagnija (USA) outwardly referred to pop art effects, because the artist creates simplified, two-dimensional shapes, although within these she included metaphorical ideas.
The graphic artist Vija Celmiņa (USA) and post-modern painter Imants Tillers (Australia) have received the most recognition from the western art world. Tillers creates works from small painted and numbered panels, from stand-alone compositions, text, symbols, quotations of the works of various artists, which are then arranged into larger works.
Graphic art was comparatively less popular in exile. Interest in this art form occurred in the 1970s, when graphic art broke out of its traditional boundaries: artists began to use techniques to produce colourful graphics, collages, monotypes similar to watercolours, and to combine various techniques. The most recognised master was Nikolajs Soikans (UK) who used the techniques of linocut and woodcut to create a poignant effect. His works are dominated by themes of loneliness and suffering, which were influenced by his experiences in the Year of Horror during the Soviet occupation, and the experiences working in coalmines in England. Vija Celmiņa’s works contain realistic forms, but express a far from traditional worldview. The artist is interested in motifs of the universe, desert sand and ocean waves. Celimiņa’s works mainly in graphite pencil, and her works are almost photo realistic. The prestigious MacArthur Foundation (USA) has made Celmiņa a MacArthur Fellow for her distinctive worldview.
Sculpture in exile saw the preservation of Latvian tradition in tandem with filling the requirements of contemporary art as its most important role. The artists of the older generation continue traditions of the 1930s. Miķelis Geistauts, Hugo Mercs and others worked in this way.
Beginning with 1950 Latvian sculptors turned to abstract sculpting, utilising materials uncharacteristic of Latvian art - steel, glass, wires etc (Leo Briedītis-Janis (Sweden), Minjona Kļaviņa (USA)).
Art During the Renewed Republic of Latvia (1990-2006)
On 4 May 1990 the Declaration of Independence was passed. Latvia once again became a free country. Many opportunities for the development of art appeared alongside independence, although the situation in the field of culture was very complicated. On one hand, it gave the opportunity to participate successfully in the context of the development of European art; on the other hand, it raised concerns about how to preserve national identity. Trends of New avant-garde appeared in art, but alongside these, classic art forms were also maintained. During this time, the number of exhibitions of various art projects increased.
Ideological pressure disappeared after the regaining of independence in the 1990s, but state support for artists was also discontinued. The Ministry of Culture inconsistently continued to support individual activities, particularly those of the Latvian Artists’ Union. New avant-garde art was supported by the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts, founded in 1993, and since 2000 also by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. The annual exhibitions organised by the Centre have become a significant indicator of new directions in art. Art galleries also play an important role in the development of art. Although there are 63 art salons and galleries registered in Rīga, only 19 currently undertake the actual role of a gallery. Artists themselves need to find their own opportunities to display their work and participate in projects.
An important event in 1990 was the exhibition “Maigās svārstības” (Gentle Fluctuations) by a group of artists (Ieva Iltnere, Jānis Mitrēvics, Sandra Krastiņa, Edgars Vērpe, Ģirts Muižnieks and others) at the “Latvija” exhibition hall. In this exhibition, influenced by the trend of Fluxus popular in Western Europe in the 1970s, paintings were created in front of the exhibition visitors. In the 1990s, in adjunct to traditional art forms, non-traditional art forms began to develop actively, as did new media, and public and virtual space. The role of exhibiton curators became more important in the art world.
An important turning point that should be noted is “Kvalitāte 92” (Quality 92), the exhibition created by Helēna Demakova in 1992, and the first of a series of annual exhibitions, “Zoom faktors” (Zoom factor) in 1994, curated by Juris Boiko, which played with changes in the depth of perception. The second annual exhibition, “Valsts” (Nation), in 1994 was centred on the examination of relations between the state powers which organise art and society (curated by Ivars Runkovskis). In addition to traditional museums, venues for the exhibition included a number of galleries and memorial museums. The third annual exhibition, “Piemineklis” (Monument), was held in the Rīgan cityscape in 1995, curated by Helēna Demakova. This time installations and objects were placed in locations where monuments used to stand, or were planned for erection. Artists from abroad also participated in this exhibition, and the works were evaluated by an international jury. “Geo-Geo”, the fourth annual exhibition at Pedvāle Open-Air Art Museum in 1996, curated by Jānis Borgs, introduced Land Art, still a fairly unpopular style of art in Latvia. Art objects and installations set in a natural environment were supplemented with paintings and graphic art, as well as performances. The fifth exhibition, “Opera”, curated by Solvita Krese in 1997, was held at the Daile theatre. In the sixth exhibition, “Ventspils. Tranzīts. Termināls” (Ventspils. Transit. Terminal), from 1998-99, curated by Kristaps Ģelzis, artists interpreted the image of Ventspils as the new Kuwait.
The international contemporary art exhibition “Mūsdienu utopija” (Contemporary Utopia) (2001, curated by Berliner Vagner) was the most ambitious project of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, in which a wide programme of lectures and performances was included as well as art works by Latvian and foreign artists.
Many artists who mainly work in traditional styles (Barbara Gaile, Aija Zariņa, Māris Subačs) have also over painted, drawn and written on real space, reaching beyond the restrictive boundaries of two-dimensional paper or canvas; have created installations and even designed large-scale Land Art projects, for example, “Dievmātes galva” (Madonna’s head) (1996) by Aija Zariņa.
In the early 1990s, a number of artists created installations of monumental proportions. Aircraft and the use of their parts became a part of Oļegs Tilbergs’ creative signature. Aeroplanes symbolise the danger of a technocratic society. Ojārs Pētersons is known for his ironic use of the colour orange on various objects, installations and video projects, for example, the upside-down “Lielā oranžā triumfa arka” (Big Orange Arch of Triumph) in the Rundāle Palace courtyard.
Andris Breže gained popularity with his robust large format screen prints and performances, and by using various natural materials in his installations. His activities relate to works that represent the Arte Povera and Fluxus movements.
A typical theme in the range of themes of the most contemporary art is related to spatial conception and a study of orientation, with austere forms of expression. Anita Zabiļevska’s installations and multimedia projects explore the interaction between the two-dimenstionality of fabric versus moving video images. The combination of traditions of pop art with conceptual art appears in the work of new artists. The juxtaposition of ready-made objects and text in the installations by Gints Gabrāns problematizes intellectual abuse.
During this time new, conceptual multimedia artists debuted such as Ēriks Božis, Miķelis Fišers, Anita Zabiļevska, Monika Pormale and others.
A complete mixing of styles can be observed in painting - from works executed with techniques of abstraction to photorealistic works. The uninhibited freedom of the artistic form often intensifies the meaningless content. The conditions of the art market simultaneously encourage the commercialisation of painting and its reproducability.
The trends from 20th century Europe and America can be seen most prominently illustrated in the works of artists who debuted in the 1990s (Ritums Ivanovs, Ilona Brūvere, Barbara Gaile, Andrejs Ameļkovičs). The transformation of a signature style according to new trends can also be seen in the works of the previous generation of artists. The development of new art is being encouraged by the director of “Rīgas Galerija” Inese Riņķe, who in 1988 organised an exhibition “Rīga - Latvia’s avant-garde” in Berlin, and regularly participates in the non-commercial division of the “Art Moscow” art fair.
The most contemporary trends in sculpture are reflected in works by Kristaps Gulbis, Aigars Bikše and Igors Dobičins.
Feminist activities can be seen in the projects organised by the “Latvian National Women’s League Project”, established in 1997 (idea author: Inga Šteimane; members Ingrīda Zābere, Ilze Breidaka, Kristīne Keire, Izolda Cēsniece, Silja Pogule). The artists accent women’s view of men, using staged photographs.
In turn, Agnese Bule’s ironic multimedia project “Latviešu sapnis” (Latvian Dream) (1999), which uses video animations, graphics and audio to interpret some of the popular assumptions of Latvian identity, can be included in the range of research related to the study of ethnic identity.
In the late 1990s new media art was actively encouraged in Latvia by E-lab, an organisation directed by Rasa and Raitis Šmits, which in 2000 became the RIXC new media centre. The work of curators Ieva Auziņa and Māra Traumane also furthered this development.
Significant multimedia projects were created by the art bureau “Open”, organising events in which many generations of artists took part (Open, 1995; Biosports, 1996;Aktuelle Tanzen, 1997). The Open slideshow project took place on the LNT television channel, where the works of Miķelis Fišers, Monika Pormale, F5 and others were shown amongst commercial advertisements. The project “T-shroom” (2000) together with the group “Primitive” was a comment on the new cultural trends of globalisation and consumer culture, which at that time also became topical in Latvia. “Primitive” included Kaspars Vanags as a member, who was also involved in Open.
The role of the art curator has become more important in the 21st century.
The new generation of self-taught artists and graduates from the Latvian Academy of Art has already begun active participation in the exhibitions that have been held in the last few years.
It is important to mention that typical of the time lag with which most processes occurring in world art reach Latvia, painting is also regaining its importance in Latvia. Amongst the new artists it is important to emphasise Jānis Avotiņš, Andris Vītoliņš, Kaspars Brambergs and others.
Ingūna and Holers Elers, Zane Bērziņa and others are actively working in the field of design and installation.
In the late 1990s Latvia began to again participate in internationally significant art events - the Venice Biennale and San Paolo Biennale. Participation in the Biennales is supported by the work of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. The Centre continues to encourage the new avant-garde and exhibition of the new generation of artists with annual regularity.
One of the most important projects occurred in November 2005 during the Latvian festival “Etonnante Lettonie” (“Surprising Latvia”) in Paris, Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Lyon in France. The central axis to the event was nine “Speaking Stones” which came to life with projected faces. The main aim of the event was to create an impression of Latvia as a contemporary country as well as to encourage the recognition of the Latvian image in France (the concept and artistic execution of the “Speaking Stones” was by Ēriks Stendzenieks).
In the last three years, the Latvian Artists’ Union Gallery began active work, thanks to the curator Inese Baranovska, although the existence of the gallery is currently threatened.
Non-commercial art processes, particularly the development of video art have been supported by the floating gallery “Noass”. “Noass” is a gallery-boat, where representatives from various art fields collaborate: artists, poets and photographers. Events of importance to the art world are also held at Pedvāle Open-air Arts Museum, directed by sculptor Ojārs Feldbergs. The Museum’s permanent collection holds over 150 works, which have been created as a result of international symposiums, plein airsand workshops.
The most topical question in the life of Latvian art is about the building of a Contemporary Art Museum. It is planned to build the Museum in the territory of the Rīga port and that there will be spaces for exhibitions, conference rooms and film theatres, an information centre, library, teaching art and project workshops.
In Liepāja non-traditional and interdisciplinary art projects are initiated and supported by the non-commercial arts centre “K@2 Culture and Information Centre” in the former military port. The centre is directed by Carl Biorsmark and Kristīne Briede, and offers an interesting alternative to the art life of Rīga.
Significant art shows have been organised by curator and art historian Ieva Kalniņa, who attempts also to include works by the newest artists. A positive collaborative project between Kalniņa and the Rīga Council is the “Rīga City Exhibition Hall” initiative, its first international project was “Neatliekamā biennāle. Rīgas pietura” (The Urgent Biennale. Rīga Station).
© Text: Zane Lamstera, The Latvian Academy of Culture, 2006
In the Spīķeri Quarter, Nineteenth-Century Red Bricks Provide a Backdrop For Local Arts and Culture
The renovation of former industrial districts and their transformation into urban centres for the arts and culture has become a major trend in cities all over the globe. In the Prenzlauerberg section of east Berlin, the nineteenth-century Schultheiss Brewery has been reborn as the KulturBrauerai, or Culture Brewery, and now hosts a variety of offices, stores, restaurants, and clubs. The Meatpacking District of New York, an historic area of slaughterhouses and packing plants, was saved from urban blight to become one of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighbourhoods; it is now home to numerous fine restaurants, hip nightclubs, stylish boutiques, and luxury hotels. And closer to home, the Rotermann Quarter in Tallinn, a nineteenth-century complex of factories, mills, workshops, and markets, has been given a second life as a modern district that includes a multiplex, a museum, a department store, and several commercial and residential buildings.
Over the past couple of years, Rīga has jumped on the industrial-renovation bandwagon too, and has begun to revitalize its red-brick buildings called spīķeri (pronounced “spee-kyeri”), a term derived from the German word for storehouse, Speicher. Located near the Central Market, on the banks of the Daugava River, the Spīķeri Quarter consists of a dozen two- and three-storey brick buildings that served as warehouses during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, first for the port, then the railroad, and finally the nearby market. To date, five of the old warehouses have been fully renovated, and are now home to some of the hottest cultural venues in town, including the innovative Doll Art Museum, a bar and performance space at Dirty Deal Cafe, a gallery for the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum, and a marvellously acoustic concert hall for the chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga.
An Eclectic History
The warehouses were originally constructed between 1864 and 1886, when they numbered more than fifty; the thirteen surviving structures were all erected between 1879 and 1882. Though the buildings seem nearly identical, they were actually constructed by a team of architects that included the leading figures in local architecture, such as Karl Johann Felsko, Robert August Pflug, and Reinhold Schmaeling, who later became the Rīga City Architect. In a 2005 study of the quarter, architecture scholar Jānis Krastiņš writes, “Special regulations prescribed that all the buildings must have mutually corresponding facades, modelled in a similar manner and congruous with one another. The buildings were created in the so-called brick style - one of the formal trends in nineteenth-century Eclecticism, which was particularly widespread in the architecture of factories, warehouses, and other industrial-type structures.” Over time, the red-brick buildings were used to store a variety of goods, including grain, agricultural equipment, electric motors, eggs, and plywood; other buildings were employed as sales points for items like hay, oats, linseeds, and carpentry tools. Later, during the Soviet period, the area fell into disrepair, and became a blight on Rīga’s urban landscape.
A Home For Culture and Creativity
The rebirth of the Spīķeri Quarter began in 2005 and was led by Jānis and Uldis Dinne, who co-own ten of the thirteen remaining warehouses; the other three structures, as well as the spaces between the buildings and along the Daugava waterfront, are administered by the City of Rīga. “We wanted to preserve the old infrastructure as the absolute dominant element, though we of course made purely functional renovations to expand the public spaces, like installing larger windows and doors,” said Uldis Dinne at his offices on the top floor of a renovated warehouse facing Maskavas iela.
In order to complete the renovation project, the Dinnes have received funding from a European Union fund for renewing dilapidated territories. These resources will be directed toward revitalizing the waterfront, where they plan to install boat docks, construct a sunbathing beach, and build a bike path and walkway from the Old City to the Spīķeri pier. The project is therefore a collaborative effort between various entities: the family of owners, the local tenants, the City of Rīga, and the European Union, making it the quintessential international public-private partnership. If all goes according to plan, work will be completed on the quarter by December 31, 2010.
The Dinnes originally conceived of the Spīķeri Quarter as a centre for the arts and culture - a vision they have successfully implemented and certainly plan to continue. “Our goal is to provide a headquarters for culture and creative industries,” says Uldis. “This quarter is very close to the centre, but the surrounding area hasn’t been gentrified. And so culture and creativity don’t clash with the surrounding environment. They don’t feel threatened or out of place here.” The creative establishments in the neighbourhood have even united to form a tenants organization, the Rīga Spīķeri Society, where they collaborate on the marketing and promotion of various events.
The inaugural event for the Spīķeri Quarter was a documentary film festival in the summer of 2007, during which films were projected both in and outside the buildings, local bands played between screenings, and DJs and VJs performed in the tunnel to the riverfront. The festival was attended by thousands of young residents of the city, who got a chance to see the quarter for the first time. Since then, a wide range of film screenings, lectures, workshops, seminars, exhibits, concerts, theatre performances, and, of course, parties have taken place against the backdrop of red brick. “There are lots of opportunities for self-expression here,” says Jānis Dinne. “You can organize all sorts of events from morning till night, and play music at any volume. It’s a totally free atmosphere.”
The Rebirth Continues
Among the upcoming additions to the quarter are an authentic Georgian restaurant, which will open this month, and a space for the Latvian Radio Choir, in the new concert hall. Future projects currently under development include the Latvia-France Gastronomy School, a collaborative effort between local superstar chef Mārtiņš Rītiņš and his colleagues from France, and a bar devoted exclusively to Latvian beers. One of the most biggest projects is for an open square in the middle of the quarter, on the current site of the Night Market. Jānis Dinne explains: “It will be a multifunctional space where we hope to host seasonal markets and fairs, as well as fairs, performances, and events organized by different national groups, like the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Russians. It will also provide a space for art installations. The square is the central element in the quarter, because it unites all the events here.”
In February, check out a photography exhibit by Latvian artist Kaspars Podnieks, or a video installation by the British digital animation project Semiconductor, in the galleries of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum Pilot Project “Kim?” (which stands for “Kas ir maksla,” or “What is art?”), at Maskavas iela 12/1; across the pedestrian street, peruse the eclectic collection of dolls in the Doll Art Museum. At the Dirty Deal Cafe, next door, look out for several new theatre productions in the second-floor performance space, or stop by on weekend evenings to see shows by local bands or sets by popular DJs in the downstairs bar. And if the short walk along the riverfront from the Old City has given you an appetite, try a venison burger or some wild boar ham at the upscale delicatessen Desa & Co., Maskavas 4, which sells game and other fine meats. (The owner, a renowned collector of Latvian art, is also the proprietor of an enormous farm near Koknese, where he raises herds of stag, elk, fallow deer, bison, mouflon, and boar.) The elegant brasserie-cum-bookshop Meta-Kafe, at Maskavas 12/1, which has been reviewed in previous issues of Baltic Outlook, has also become a local favourite, and offers a menu of slow-food-style dishes made with fresh local ingredients - the perfect dinner prior to a performance by Sinfonietta Rīga at the Spīķeri Concert Hall, at Maskavas 4/1.
The best reason to check out the Spīķeri Quarter is because the area is still in the process of becoming. Though the warehouses were erected almost 140 years ago, they continue to assume unprecedented functions and to provide a milieu for new types of activities. Taking a walk amongst the buildings, you can literally see this process of change taking shape before your eyes: workers paint interiors, install doors and windows, and fence off construction areas, while other warehouses remain overgrown with weeds, waiting their turn to be revitalized and provide a home for culture and the creative industries. Because, to borrow the oft-quoted adage about Rīga, the Spīķeri Quarter isn’t ready yet. And that’s the key to its charm.
© Text : Rihards Kalniņš / Baltic Outlook
Escape From the Desert of the Real: Animacijas Brigade Plays in the Forest of Invention
Hidden in a room on the leafy fringe of the Šmerlis Forest, several kilometers from the center of Rīga, a group of adults spends their days playing with dolls. They not only play with them - lifting the dolls’ feet to make them walk, turning their heads to make them nod, bending their arms to make them wave - but they also build the dolls themselves, by hand, in an adjoining workshop, along with homes for the dolls to live in and elaborate landscapes for them to walk through. Welcome to the Animācijas Brigāde (Animation Brigade) film studio, which has been making award-winning puppet-animation films, using the stop-motion technique, for more than forty years. The works produced during these many years of handcrafting puppets, constructing miniature sets, and filming elaborately detailed stories, one frame at a time, have traveled far beyond the forest that the studio calls home. Animācijas Brigāde’s latest film, The New Species, written, directed, and shot by Ēvalds Lācis, was recently screened at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, as part of the Generation Kplus children’s short film competition, and will continue its tour of festivals this month at the Brussels Short Film Festival and next month at the Hamburg International Short Film Festival.
The history of stop-motion puppet animation in Latvia may be traced back to 1966, when the legendary director Arnolds Burovs established the puppet-animation department of the formerly state-run Rīga Film Studio. Following the regaining of Latvian independence, various divisions of the colossal Soviet-era studio broke off and transformed into private entities. The puppet-animation division became Animācijas Brigāde, which is still located in its old quarters, in the Šmerlis Forest, in what is now an office complex filled with various movie-related companies.
In the early 1990s, the newly privatized Animācijas Brigāde film studio, now free from the mandatory state regulation of their output, created the Avārijas Brigāde (known in English as “The Rescue Team”) series of short puppet-animation films, certainly its most popular collection of short films to date. The series stars a trio of ham-handed, blue-coverall-clad masters of slapstick humor, who tool around town packed inside their yellow subcompact car. In each episode, the well-meaning but often less than adept rescue team is summoned from its headquarters to rescue folks in distress, and inevitably, though always fortuitously, ends up saving the day. The fast-paced action and clever physical comedy was starkly different from the slow, refined, and elegant films made by the Burovs-era studio. But the new series, which paired director Jānis Cimermanis and producer, scriptwriter, and art director Māris Putniņš, was a hit, and the rescue team’s bungling adventures have been screened for children and adults in theaters throughout Europe. The episodes have since been compiled in a number of DVDs, which are available in bookshops, video stores, and music stores in Rīga. The characters from Avārijas Brigāde, Bembelāts, Sīlinks, and Poteriks - who speak in an invented language of peeps, chirps, grunts, and grumbles - have also been featured in a number of TV commercials, produced by the film studio, for the Latvian Railway. (The trio has also made a recent appearance on YouTube, thanks to a few generous - at least for us - uploaders of the studio’s DVDs.)
All of the films created by the studio have used puppets and sets made entirely by hand, by a team of six in-house artists and designers. One artist builds each puppet’s wire skeleton; another constructs its head, out of foam plastic, and glues on the puppet’s hair; a third sews the clothing and forms the body, out of sponge; and a fourth artist paints the completed puppets with a set of miniature brushes. Two more artists assist in building the props and sets. During this intricate procedure, the puppets pass through many different sets of hands, each of which contributes its part to the process of creation, leaving its own singular impression and bringing the puppets to life. “Each of the puppets has a soul; they’re our children,” says Dace Rožlapa, who has worked at the studio for twenty years, as a painter and set decorator. “But at the same time, we’re all a little crazy - what kind of adults play with dolls?” This meticulous handicraft, like the traditions and techniques of puppet animation itself, can only be learned by working at the studio, and is passed down from generation to generation, from hand to hand. “This human touch is what makes puppet animation special,” Rožlapa continues. “It makes things more soulful, more genuine.”
After they are assembled, the puppets and decorations are set up on a large table in the adjoining studio space, where the scenes are photographed, frame-by-frame, with a digital camera or a specialized 35-milimeter stop-motion film camera. Following each shot, the animator slightly readjusts the puppets’ limbs or the surrounding props, to give the illusion of movement. If a scene calls for camera movement, the cinematographer must switch the position of the camera, also in very tiny increments, before each exposure. (If the director wants a camera movement - a pan, tilt, or zoom, for example - to last for three seconds of the completed film, then the camera must get from point A to point B in seventy-two shots, calculating at the standard frame rate of twenty-four frames per second.) Using this painstakingly slow technique, only about 240 exposures may be shot per day - a total of about ten to twelve seconds of film for each work session. “Someone with an impetuous nature could never work here, because manipulating puppets is complex, refined work,” Rozlapa says.
But for Ēvalds Lācis - who has worked as a cinematographer at the studio since 1996, and who, along with Māris Brinkmanis and Dace Riduze, belongs to the younger generation of directors and animators at Animācijas Brigāde - this atmosphere and pace is just perfect. “I’m very suited to this type of work. I wouldn’t want to be someone who runs around with a camera, trying to catch the moment when, say, a minister kisses his mistress. Work here is very calm, very unhurried.”
The New Species, Lācis’s directorial debut, is about an elderly, bulbous-nosed entomologist who is terrorized by a gang of insects he finds in his garden, and which he hopes to add to his collection of specimens. These bugs not only expand the entomologist’s collection but also enrich Animācijas Brigāde’s own pantheon of insect characters: critters had starring roles in the short films Ant Lion and Firefly, both directed by Dace Riduze. (The latter film premiered at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival, and went on to screen at fifty-two film festivals, all over the world.)
The combination of human and non-human puppets in Lācis’s ten-minute film presented a slight challenge concerning the matter of scale. The insects had to appear many times smaller than the human entomologist; at the same time, each puppet had to be large enough to be filmed on its own. To solve this dilemma, the studio’s puppet makers constructed different scale models of each puppet - including tiny, four-centimeter-high insects, for use when the bugs were filmed together with their captor, and enormous models of the entomologist’s fingers, when the scientist’s hands had to appear in a frame along with the full-sized bugs.
But why go through all this painstaking trouble to make animated films, when modern computer-animation technology is available for producing animation quickly and economically, using nothing more than a few high-powered computers and skilled animators? “We’ve created a wonderful tradition,” says Lācis. “They’ve been making films this way here since 1966, when Arnolds Burovs founded his studio. It’s a tradition, and it would be a shame to let it pass by. Puppet animation is a strange technique, but by using it, by taking advantage of this tradition, we can compete with other film studios. Besides, they don’t teach puppet animation anywhere. The only way you can learn is by coming to the studio and working here for a while.”
3D computer animation - which has recently produced such award-winning films as Ratatouille and the Toy Story series, by Pixar Animation Studios; the Shrek series, by DreamWorks Animation; and the Ice Age series, by Blue Sky Studios - may offer greater productivity with smaller staffs and lower costs, but there are still certain limitations to the genre, aspects that remain the exclusive domain of puppet animation. “At the moment, they can make 3D animation that looks no different from something actually filmed with a camera; you can make it look precisely like reality,” says Lācis. “But puppet animation will never look like reality; this is precisely where our wealth of possibilities lies. Puppet animation is closer to theater. In theater you can put, for example, three trees on the stage and everyone will understand that it’s a forest. The same holds true for puppet animation. But in 3D animation, you actually have to ‘plant’ that forest. There’s the difference. In 3D, they try to make things look incredibly realistic, which, of course, they achieve. But in puppet animation, everything takes place based on a mutual agreement: we know that this is a puppet, but, at the same time, we agree that it will be, say, a person.”
Paradoxically, 3D animation - which is about as far from reality as you can get, existing nowhere else but in pixels and bits on a hard drive - tries to get as close to reality as it can. But puppet animation, which uses real puppets and real sets manipulated by real human hands, embraces its non-reality and revels in its playfulness, its “puppet reality,” where anything is possible. The possibilities for invention, and the themes that may be explored, are limitless, because we don’t expect the animators to recreate reality, nor do we judge their films according to the “realness” of the image. We willingly enter the alternate dimension of puppet animation and let ourselves be amazed by what we know to be static photographs of puppets being moved, one frame at a time, by human hands.
The studio is currently completing work on its next film, entitled Karu Tuleb (Estonian for “The Bear is Coming!”), which dramatizes the true Baltic story of the bear who suddenly appeared, in the spring of 2006, on the small Estonian island of Ruhnu, seemingly from out of nowhere. After evading his captors for months, the bear vanished just as quickly as he had first materialized. (Many believe he returned to Latvia, from whence he probably came, though how he made the forty-kilometer journey from the Latvian mainland to Ruhnu is anybody’s guess.) The film’s director is Jānis Cimermanis, who recently directed the latest installment of the Avarijas BRīgade series, the nine-minute short film The Hunt, which will screen next month at the Munich Film Festival and at the 48th International Film Festival for Children and Youth, in Zlin, Czech Republic.
Cimermanis is also optimistic about the future of his art form, and doesn’t see the emergence of 3D animation as a threat to the sustainability of puppet animation. “3D animation is created by a machine. It may look more sleek, and have more opportunities available to it - they can make their films out of mere dust -- but it lacks one important thing: human hands. If you look closely at the screen, you can see that the animator did everything out of love. He might not even be aware of it, but as soon as he touches his puppets, he transmits his love to them, and this love stays in them. And the viewer can see it, too. But 3D animation, even when it is done correctly, can be cold as a dog’s snout.” Cimermanis continues: “The secret is this love, and our live, human hands. 3D animation is made by machines. They are strong and powerful machines, and we can’t get by without them anymore either: we need their help in order to broaden the spectrum of exhibition, the spectrum of the game. But they have to be in the background; they shouldn’t replace human beings. As soon as they replace humans, you’ll get a machine, and the result will be cold.”
Animācijas Brigāde continues to provide adults and children alike with a wonderful opportunity to escape from the desert of the real and take refuge in the magical forest of play and imagination.
© Text : Rihards Kalniņš / Baltic Outlook
Video on Wooden Architecture of Riga www.pilsetasarhitekts.riga.lv The film tells about of the wooden houses of cultural heritage value what Riga is famous for in the world.
Video on Riga’s Urban Fabric www.pilsetasarhitekts.riga.lv Riga’s Urban Fabric probes the relationship between built-up land and open space in Riga and explores the overall evolution of the city.
Video on New Architecture of Riga www.pilsetasarhitekts.riga.lv The film documents time and shows development options for a modern city.
JAUNAIS RĪGAS TEĀTRIS (NEW RIGA THEATER) OF ALVIS HERMANIS
MĀRA ĶIMELE and Her Psychoanalytical Theater
© The Latvian Institute
This fact sheet can be freely printed from homepage of the Latvian Institute, distributed and cited, on condition that the Latvian Institute is acknowledged as the source. The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad. It produces publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Latvia.