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Visual Art in Latvia

By Anita Kaze. 05.11.2008

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ART IN THE 1940s-80s

After the Soviet occupation of 1940, Latvia was incorporated into the USSR. Mass repressions began, where artists also suffered as a result. Part of the population was deported to Siberia; artists fled to the West and those who remained in Latvia, fearful for their lives, did not freely show their works.

The development of culture in Latvia was very isolated from the European context. Ideological censorship was particularly active during Stalin's the time. 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. The USSR Academy of Art formulated a theory of socialist realism - an outline of standards with a hierarchy of themes and genres including revolutionary history, the rise of socialism, 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 enabled artists to sign pan-union contracts, receive commissions and exhibit throughout the Soviet Union. Some changed their style according to official requirements, but in secret often continued to create works that could not be widely exhibited.

Painting - In the 1950s a new generation entered, which had been educated post-war (Indulis Zariņš, Edgars Iltners, Boriss Bērziņš, Rita Valnere, Džemma Skulme, Ojārs Ābols and Biruta Baumane). They began the ‘Harsh Style’ (Edgars Iltners “Zemes saimnieki” (Masters of the Land), 1960) that 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. Artists began to become interested in abstractionism, to experiment with color and texture, but preserved the depiction of reality (Rūdolfs Pinnis and Jānis Pauļuks). 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 of an artist’s work became important. Ojārs Ābols became an influential modern art theorist. In his own works, he began to synthesize 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 late 1960s and early 1970s, a photographic, dispassionate view of the world appeared in Latvian painting (Imants Lancmanis, Bruno Vasiļevskis, Līga Purmale, and Miervaldis Polis). In this way, an anonymous documentary style was achieved (Miervaldis Polis “Pirksti” (Fingers), 1974).

The relaxation of the totalitarian regime in the 1980s caused significant changes in thinking. The exchange of information with art centers in Western Europe 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 organized.

A new, active generation of artists began work in the early 1980s, which accented the theme of a person’s loneliness in a destroyed, chaotic world. In 1984 saw an exhibition of their works in St Peter’s Church “Daba. Vide. Cilvēks” (Nature. Environment. Man.) (Ieva Iltnere, Sandra Krastiņa, Aija Zariņa, Jānis Mitrēvics, Edgars Vērpe and Ojārs Pētersons). The exhibition became a turning point for the development of Latvian art. It 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 characteristic of new avant-garde art is the rejection of style as an individually specific gesture or signature. Installations 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 commercial commodity.

Sculpture - This also displayed the same trends. 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.

Monuments gained a particular significance in the post-war period: they were erected in honor of the 1905 Revolution, Second World War heroes, the Riflemen, etc. A Lenin monument was erected in almost every town.

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. 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.

Graphic Art - During the Soviet era, this became a powerful ideological weapon. Irrespective of strict state control, a number of artists preserved a high artistic level. Aleksandrs Junkers and Pēteris Upītis depicted landscapes. In the 1960s, series of works dedicated to one theme became popular. Graphic artists turned themselves to traditional spiritual heritage (Gunārs Krollis, Arturs Apinis, Jāzeps Pīgoznis). At this time watercolor painting became popular. Kārlis Sūniņš created landscapes and still life, in a romantic mood. Kurts Fridrihsons accented his philosophical contemplation of the world.

In the 1970s decorativism entered graphic design, and the reflection of individuality and personal experiences. Colorful graphic art became popular. (Inārs Helmūts, Lolita Zikmane, etc).

Poster art flourished in the 1970s. Artists turned to producing socio-political posters. The signature style of each author was strongly developed in this field (Laimonis Šēnbergs, Ilmārs Blumbergs and Juris Dimiters).

In the 1980s, graphic designers commented on negative aspects of society more openly: authoritarianism, the degradation of society (Juris Putrāms, Kristaps Ģelzis and others).




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