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Visual Art in Latvia

By Anita Kaze. 05.11.2008

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Modernism and Neorealism

The richness of Latvian art is a great source of inspiration and an interesting way to learn about local history. Here’s the second of our two part series, to give you a little background information before your visit to the local galleries, buildings and art installations.

ART IN THE 1920s-1940s (Modernism and Neorealism)

This was a complicated time as Latvia was recovering from the First World War. Many young artists fought in the 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. Emerging from the war, an independent and free Latvian nation was proclaimed on November 18, 1918.

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 Kārlis Ulmanis' 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.

Painting - The first modernist was Jāzeps Grosvalds. His works are characteristically monumental, using stylization, stable composition and a repetitive rhythm. Artists gradually gave up reflecting reality and copying nature, and generalization became popular, as did the simplification and synthesis of forms. The war and refugees became nationally significant themes in the visual arts.

The “Riga Art Group” (Romāns Suta, Konrāds Ubāns, Valdemārs Tone, etc.) became a strong influence on the art world between the wars. Members were carried away with cubism in the early 1920s, inspired by the clear and decorative geometry of forms. Images reflected an urban environment and lifestyle. Oto Skulme exhibited the first Cubist composition in Riga (“Kompozīcija” (Composition), 1920).

Around 1925, Neorealism arrived. These artists saw the pictorial aspect as primary, turning to tonal painting. Richly textured surfaces looked scarified, which created a dynamic feel. Traditional Realism also developed, encouraged by official policy. 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 European influences. The founder of the dievturi movement (based in Latvian mythology), Ernests Brastiņš, painted symbolic works in a primitive style.

Poster art developed, which was a good aid in political campaigns. The most notable representative of Art Deco graphic art was Sigismunds Vidbergs. His works typically have filigree line work, a balance of black and white fields, and an outer decorativeness. Suta also developed his own graphic style, along with Kārlis Padegs, who often utilized the grotesque.

Sculpture - In the 1920s, Latvian sculptors became carried away with modernism. In the 1930s they returned to the depiction of a more concrete reality. Latvian independence encouraged the development of monumental sculpting. The Brothers’ Cemetery (Brāļu kapi) was built in Riga. A whole series of monumental works were created alongside these memorial sculptural ensembles, which expressed the idea of nationhood and freedom. Sculptor Kārlis Zemdega created significant monuments such as the tombstone for poet Rainis (1935), which provides an artist’s interpretation of creative activity and an aspiration for freedom. Teodors Zaļkalns also worked in sculpture that expresses a quiet intimacy, hope and peace.


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