Books on Latvian art become more available

Although they aren’t in abundance, more resources are becoming available, in Latvian and English, in Latvia and abroad, that can provide one with a substantial overview of Latvian art. Most are recent publications, having appeared only in the last 15 years or so. In Latvia the three main institutions responsible with providing the public with these publications are the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art and the Latvian Artist’s Union. Most of these are exhibition catalogues, or catalogue raisonnés published in conjunction with an artist’s solo exhibition, but nevertheless they fill a negligible gap in the literature of European art.

The following is a summary of the most useful survey and reference books recently published on Latvian art.

One of the main sources for information on Latvian art in English in the United States is Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum, which houses the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art—the largest collection of its kind in the world. The collection contains a large number of works by not only Latvian artists but also artists from the other Baltic countries, Estonia and Lithuania. In 2001-2002 the museum mounted the first comprehensive survey of Cold War period art from the Baltics. Entitled “The Baltics: Nonconformist and Modern Art During the Soviet Era,” the exhibition was accompanied by the publication of one of the first English-language surveys of Baltic art, Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression Under the Soviets, 1945-1991. The book contains three chapters devoted to Latvian art written by Mark Allen Svede. The Zimmerli Art Museum also published a survey book of its collection, entitled From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, which also contains one chapter on Latvian art by Svede. Both of the books are an excellent source of information, in addition to being a resource for color reproductions of work by 20th century Latvian painters and sculptors.

As of yet there is no coffee-table history of Latvian art that will provide the reader with a thorough overview of the art and artists of the country. Perhaps the closest one can find are the chapters on Latvia in Art of the Baltics. Steven Mansbach’s Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890-1939 includes an informative chapter on Latvian and Estonian art. This is a concise introduction to the beginnings of the phenomenon of a Latvian national art, which only came about at the end of the 19th century.

In 2002 the Artists Union of Latvia published a catalogue on its collection. Entitled Paintings: Witnesses of an Age—The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the book is divided into three sections, which correspond with the aforementioned decades, and each essay is printed in both Latvian and English. The book is not only a resource for its overview of Latvian post-World War II art, but also as a source for color reproductions of previously unpublished art works.  There are also a number of nostalgic spreads and collages of photographs of the artists from these years, which one would otherwise not have the opportunity to see. 

Several valuable titles are available only in Latvian.

Another important book for understanding the history of Latvian art is Daba. Vide. Cilvēks. (Nature. Environment. Man.), which was published by the Artists Union of Latvia in 2004 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name commemorating the 20th anniversary since the original exhibition held in St. Peter’s Church in 1984. The catalogue itself is a work of art, and was nominated for best book design in 2004. The essays in the book are written by leading art historians and art critics in Latvia and are crucial for understanding the exhibition, which was a turning point in the history of Latvian art.

For those seeking a handy reference book, there is an encyclopedia of Latvian art in four volumes, the fourth of which has yet to be published. Entitled Māksla un arhitektura biografijas (Art and Architecture Biographies), the first two volumes (A-Kal and Kal-Rum) were published by Latvijas karte in 1995 and 1996, respectively, and the third volume, R-V was published in 2000 by A/S Preses Nams. While the third volume is readily available in bookstores, the first two are difficult to find. The volumes contain short biographic entries on Latvia’s artists and architects, with some photographs of them and their work.

A one-volume reference is Latvijas Mākslas vēsture (Latvia’s Art History), also published by A/S Preses Nams.

Latvijas Kultūras vēsture (Latvia’s Cultural History) (Zvaigzne ABC, 2003) is a general reference book on the culture of Latvia from ancient Latvia (9000 B.C.) to the present. It contains entries not only on art and architecture, but also music, philosophy, theater, film and the press.

The Neputns publishing house has produced a series of books that contain essays on art and architecture by specialists in their field. The series is titled Materials for Latvian Art History and the essays contained in it are actually collections of published conference papers from the “Readings in Memory of Boriss Vipers” art conferences. Each anthology is organized around a theme, such as Latvijas māksla starptautisko sakaru kontekstā (Latvian Art in the Context of International Contacts, published in 2000), Latvijas mākslas un mākslas vēstures likteņgaitas (The Destiny of Latvian Art and Art History, published by Neputns in 2001), Latvijas māksla tuvplānos (Latvian Art Close Up, published in 2003), and Arhitektūra un māksla Rīgā: Idejas un objekti (Architecture and Art in Riga: Ideas and Objects, published in 2004). The books in this series are all in Latvian, with short summaries of each essay in English.

Another source for information on contemporary Latvian art are exhibition catalogues and the catalogue raisonné, which is a comprehensive overview of an artist’s life and work.  These publications not only immortalize the exhibitions that have taken place over the past 15 years, but also fill a still negligible gap in the scholarship on the artists. Recently, in conjunction with their one-man exhibitions at the Latvian National Museum of Art, hardcover catalogue raisonnés have been published on Boriss Bērziņš (Neputns, 2003), Maija Tabaka (Rīgas galerija, 2004) and Bruno Vasiļevskis (Neputns, 2005), as well as one commemorating the Skulmes (Neptuns, 2000), a family of artists whose contribution to Latvian art history is vast and spans the entire 20th century. Two survey exhibitions of Latvian art have also been immortalized in print. Both of the catalogues are readily available: Latvijas māksla. 20. gadsimts, (Art of Latvia: The 20th Century, published by Neptuns in 2002), and Latvijas glezniecība. Kronētā ikona. 100 (published by SIA Nacionālais apgāds in 2005). The former is in Latvian with summaries in English, and the latter was published in Latvian, but a second version of the book in English, Painting of Latvia: The Crowned Icon. 100, is also available.

In 2005 the Latvian National Art Museum celebrated its 100th anniversary. In addition to the conferences and exhibitions that took place in Rīga in conjunction with the jubilee, the museum also published a thick, glossy catalogue. Entitled simply Valsts Mākslas muzejs (The State Art Museum, published by Jumava in 2005), it contains essays in Latvian and English about the history of the museum and the progression of Latvian art since the museum’s opening. At LVL 30 LVL (approximately USD 50), the book is somewhat pricey, but considering the 312 full-page color prints of art works from the museum’s vast collection, the cost is understandable.

The history of Latvian art is still being written, but more high quality publications have been put on the market during the last 15 years than ever before. While many of the books are only available in Rīga bookstores, it is possible more of the publications will become available for purchase online.

Art books

A catalog of the work of Maija Tabaka (left), the book Latvijas Mākslas un mākslas vēstures likteņgaitas (center) and a history of Latvian art in the 20th century are among recent publications.

Art history develops as a genre in Latvia

Rīga offers its visitors no shortage of art galleries and museums, but most of them are filled with masterpieces from another century—impressionistic snow-covered landscapes or images of happy farmers working the land. While there are indeed a number of interesting galleries showing the work of contemporary artists, the most exciting developments in the visual arts are in the realm of art history, where for the first time a discourse about Latvian art is being created.

During the Soviet period, the tedious and stagnant style of Socialist Realism remained the only one tolerated by the government on an official level. By working unofficially, however, artists were able to progress in a manner similar to their Western colleagues, experimenting with such “subversive” genres as conceptual, installation and performance art.

But art history did not evolve as a discipline, because Socialist Realist art was supposed to present a lucid and unequivocal message, which precluded any form of criticism. Unofficial art was not to be commented on at all. Consequently, after 1991 the Latvian National Museum of Art (Latvijas Nacionālais mākslas muzejs), along with the newly founded Soros Center for Contemporary Art (since 2000 the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, or Latvijas Laikmetīgās mākslas centrs) began the immense task of documenting and creating a history of Latvian art where one never had existed. One way of doing this has been through the organization of exhibitions.

This past spring, the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art curated “Robežpārkāpēji” (Trespassers), a retrospective of the art of the 1980s. This was the first comprehensive look at the decade that could be described as the coming of age of Latvian artists. In the West, artists had been experimenting with performance art and installation since the 1950s, and with video art since the 1960s. It wasn’t until the ‘70s and ‘80s that artists in Latvia were able to try out these art forms for themselves—not only because of government restrictions over art production, but also because of the lack of materials, as well as lack of contact with the West. By the 1980s, with the social changes that resulted from perestroika and glasnost, artists felt more free to experiment, with less risk of consequences for doing so.

In conjunction with its 100th anniversary in 2005, the Latvian National Museum of Art put together an exhibition of art from the second half of the 20th century (“Latvijas Māksla 20. gadsimta otrajā pusē”), on view at the Arsenāls Exhibition Hall until June 2006. This is the very first assessment of the art that developed in Latvia from after the Second World War until the present day, showcasing works of Socialist Realism side by side with avant garde experiments. Exhibitions such as these are crucial, because there are no textbooks on Latvian art history, no resources that tell us who influenced whom, and how this or that style developed. The history of Latvian art is still very much an oral tradition, and the exhibition is currently the only site where visitors can bear witness to a history that runs the risk of soon being forgotten, unless it is recorded for posterity.

When that exhibit closes next summer, Rīga will once again be without a permanent display of contemporary art. There are plans to build a contemporary art museum but, like many projects in the works in Latvia, it is dependent on the availability and readiness of funds.

As a result, alternative spaces—including virtual exhibitions—are being created where those interested may view works and read about the artists, art movements and significant events in the history of Latvian art.

CAMP (Contemporary Art Museum Project) is an online art database being developed by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. The project’s Web site is in Latvian and English, and contains a catalogue of contemporary Latvian artists and art works, as well as useful bibliographies of art publications since the 1980s. A section entitled “Games” is intended as an educational tool to help children understand and interpret works by contemporary Latvian artists, but it can also be entertaining for adults. The site’s creators also aim to provide a forum for discussion about the conception of a contemporary art museum in Latvia. It is an excellent resource both for art historians and those with a general interest in what has been happening in Latvia art during the last 25 years.

The Latvian Artists’ Union Museum (Latvijas Mākslinieku savienības muzejs) maintains a collection of more than 15,000 works, but the museum’s approximately 60 square meters of exhibition space is not sufficient to display even a fraction of that. The curators have managed to circumvent these limitations by putting together an online exhibition entitled “Art. Myth and Document. 1940-1941. 1944-1991.” The virtual exhibition seeks to document Latvian art from the Soviet period by focusing on three aspects: the continuation of Latvian traditions in art that developed during the period of the First Republic, innovations in Latvian art during the second half of the 20th century, and commissions from the regime that aimed to keep art in line with party ideology. Unlike CAMP, this site is literally an online museum, and the focus is more on presenting works of art in an exhibition format than creating a research tool.

There are also places in Rīga where one can view contemporary art in real time and space. While most of the galleries are commercial, offering very traditional canvases for purchase, there are a select few that feature contemporary artists and promote experimental work that is happening in Latvia today.

NOASS is not only a gallery located on a narrow strip of land across from the Radisson SAS hotel in Rīga (the physical address is AB dambis), but also a culture and arts project that aims to promote contemporary art, experimentation, and the use of new technologies in art works. NOASS supports a variety of projects taking place in Latvia, and the gallery hosts not only exhibitions, but also performances and film festivals.

Galerija Māksla XO, located in a great cellar space in Konventa sēta (Skārņu iela 8), Rīgas Galerija (Aspazijas bulvāris 20), and Galerija Bastejs (Basteja bulvāris 12) often feature exhibits by leading contemporary Latvian artists as well as up-and-coming ones.

Finally, one can also see a variety of interesting shows by local as well as international artists at the Artists’ Union of Latvia Art Gallery (11. Novembra krastmala 35). After visiting the gallery on the first floor, one can head up to the third floor to view the works on view at the aforementioned Artists Union of Latvia Art Museum.

If you don’t have the opportunity to come to Rīga and visit the galleries yourself, online resources provide a convenient alternative. Hopefully, as those continue to develop, publishing will also increase and Rīga will soon see the opening of a contemporary art museum to complement the virtual experience of the visual arts. Until then, the advantage is to the armchair traveler sitting at home in front of their computer.

Latvijas Nacionālais mākslas muzejs

The Latvian National Museum of Art in Rīga marked its 100th anniversary in 2005. (Photo by Amy Bryzgel)

Arsenāls Exhibition Hall

The Arsenāls Exhibition Hall, situated in an old customs warehouse at Torņa iela 1 in Rīga, is used by the Latvian National Museum of Art for some exhibitions. (Photo by Amy Bryzgel)