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Two Artists Who Broke All the Rules: Liga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis

By Editor. 07.12.2009

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Liga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis remain two of Latvia’s most important and influential contemporary artists.

Both were an integral part of the development of nonconformist art in the 1970s and 80s, and continue to have active careers as artists to this day. Their later work may be regarded as more traditional, they will always be remembered for their early work, which dared to break all the rules.

They are often discussed together because at the beginning of their careers, they were married, though they have since divorced. Polis and Purmale both graduated from the monumental painting division of the Latvian Academy of Art when they were still married, in 1975. They made their artistic debut, however, the year before, with a self-organized student exhibition at the Riga Poligrapher’s Club. The exhibit was remarkable because it occurred without the authorization of any official cultural or academic authorities. During the Soviet period, all art exhibitions had to be approved first by the Artist’s Union, which ensured that all of the work on view complied with the guidelines of Socialist Realism.

During the 1970s, when the Soviet government was still in power, the only style officially permitted in art was Socialist Realism. All works of art had to exhibit support of the party and ideological content, clearly expressed and accessible to the public. While art in the West progressed along a path from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s to Pop Art and Performance in the 60s, and Photorealism and Conceptual art in the 70s, art in the former Soviet countries was in theory meant to remain static, in the style of Socialist Realism. The rules governing art production that were supposed to be equally enforced throughout the Soviet Union were not as strictly applied, however, in all of the Republics. This was dependent on a variety of factors, such as the local communist government as well as the authorities of the local artist’s union. 

In Latvia, the situation was relatively liberal. Although artists didn’t have complete free-reign to experiment as they would have liked, more innovation and lapses from the party line were tolerated than in other places with stricter regimes. Also by the 1970s artists had begun to hear about artistic developments in the West, and began to incorporate variations on Western styles into their own work.

Purmale and Polis stumbled across the idea of Photorealism when they were in art school. Other artists in Latvia at that time had also experimented with super- and hyper-realistic styles, such as Bruno Vasiļevskis. But it wasn’t until these two painters began to take it on that it became true Photorealism, with the viewer struggling to distinguish original and copy, photograph from painting. The often-told story is that Polis had painted a dog from a photograph, a painting that he was quite fond of. When someone offered to by it from him, he hesitated. The man asked him what the problem was – after all, all he had to do was to repaint his own picture. Polis went home and started to copy it, and so it began – the idea of copying, and painting from photographs.

Purmale also experimented with her own brand of photorealism – paintings that looked like photographic negatives. She did this by using slides projected onto the canvas, and tracing the images. When she presented her work to the Artist’s Union, in 1978, it was met with strong reaction. Her reputation as a “photorealist” had preceded her, and the leadership made it clear that she wouldn’t be allowed into the Union with her “photographs.” But Purmale refused to give in, stating that she didn’t need a photograph to help her paint, that it was just one method that she had happened to settle upon at that time. Eventually, she was accepted into the Union.

Throughout her career, Purmale has continued to try out different types of realisms in her paintings. While earlier in her career she focused on images of the Latvian landscape, more recently she has turned to city-scapes. Some Latvians, remembering her earlier work, feel that she is the true painter of the Latvian spirit, showing the fog settling in over a country meadow, a sunrise or sunset over the horizon, fir trees in winter, or even a close-up shot of a bunch of red berries. In her more recent paintings, her expressive use of light and color in urban scenes captures the vibrancy and movement of modern life in every brushstroke.

Polis, on the other hand, took a more unusual route, experimenting with performance and actions, while at the same time continuing to paint. His paintings remain in stark contrast to his performance art; the former are executed with the precision of a great master, while the latter reflect the eccentricity and experiment of a contemporary avant-garde artist.

On a summer’s day in 1987 Polis shocked the everyday Rigans who were out for a walk in the city center. He, too, was out for a walk, but dressed in a bronze suit, with his hands and face painted bronze. The performance could be seen as a reference to the stark contrast between truth and appearances during the Soviet times, as well as to the many bronze statues that dotted cities and towns across the Soviet Union at that time. The Bronze Man performance repeated several times until 1991, when all of the real bronze statues in the city were finally torn down.

In 1995 Polis brought art into life once again when he moved the entire contents of his studio in Agenskalns (in Pardaugava) to the Riga Gallery for his one-man show: The Miervaldis Polis Memorial Room. The exhibition lasted several weeks and, in addition to the artist’s possessions and art work being on exhibit there, for several hours every afternoon, the artist was, as well! Speaking of the motivation behind the exhibition, Polis has stated that “if my work is considered significant, then the atmosphere and the things that helped me create it are also significant. The exhibition attracted large crowds, who came to see how one of their favorite artists worked and lived.

While Purmale continues to paint and show her work – she often has shows at the Riga Gallery – Polis has ‘retired’ from public life, so to speak. He paints work only on commission. His work is so revered by the Latvian people that he has been asked to paint the official portrait of both the former President of Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis as well as that of the incumbent, Vaira Vike-Freiberga. While the portrait of Ulmanis is currently on display in the Coat of Arms room of the Riga Castle, Freiberga’s portrait will be unveiled only after the end of her term as president. Although the current work of Purmale and Polis work may be regarded as more traditional, they remain two artists who, in the early days of nonconformist art, dared enough to break all the rules.

Examples of both Polis’ and Purmale’s work can be found in the collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art (K. Valdemara 10a) as well as the Museum of the Artist’s Union of Latvia (11. Krastmala 35). One can also view and purchase work by Purmale in the Riga Gallery (Aspazijas 20). Images of Purmale’s work courtesy of Riga Gallery; images of Polis’ work courtesy of the Latvian Center of Contemporary Art.

 




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