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An overview of Latvian art during the first five years of the Purvītis Award 0

Ieva Kulakova

When the Latvian press announced that the Latvian National Museum of Art and Alfor, Ltd. had signed a protocol of intent to establish the Purvītis Award for visual arts[1] in January of 2008, there was still no sign that the country was heading towards a major economic crisis. Eight months later, the crisis struck like a bolt out of the blue. In September of 2008, the Latvian Cabinet decided in an extraordinary session to freeze the salaries of government employees and decrease government spending by 10%, due to the expected decrease in the country’s Gross Domestic Product.[2] The following period was a difficult time for the entire Latvian population and particularly for those in the arts sector. Artists were forced to channel their inherent creativity into finding economic survival strategies.

From this point on, the creative industries were seen as a “flagship” of Latvian culture, even though the local understanding of them was unclear. As a result, culture began to be considered from the standpoint of investments and profits, likening it to manufacturing or a part of the service sector. New economic survival strategies for culture also became the focus of artistic processes themselves. Two examples will demonstrate different ways of reacting to the changes that Latvia was facing. In 2009, the annual contemporary art exhibitions organized by the Latvian Contemporary Art Centre were superseded by the Survival Kit contemporary art festival, in an effort to present a direct analysis of survival strategies in the context of art. This festival is one of the rare crisis-related events in Latvian contemporary art that, like the Purvītis Award, will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary.

Since the beginning of the economic crisis, creativity has been celebrated in various ways and Albert Enstein’s praise of crisis has been suggestively quoted: “Let’s not pretend that things will change if we keep doing the same things. A crisis can be a real blessing to any person, to any nation, for all crises bring progress. Creativity is born from anguish, just like the day is born from the dark night. It’s in crisis that inventiveness is born, that discoveries and big strategies are made. He who overcomes crisis overcomes himself, without getting overcome. He who blames his failure on a crisis neglects his own talent and is more interested in problems than in solutions. Incompetence is the true crisis. The greatest inconvenience of people and nations is the laziness with which they attempt to find the solutions to their problems. There’s no challenge without a crisis. Without challenges, life becomes a routine, a slow agony. There’s no merit without crises. It’s in crises where we can show the very best in us. Without a crisis, any wind becomes a tender touch. To speak about a crisis is to promote it. Not to speak about it is to exalt conformism. Let us work hard instead. Let us stop, once and for all, the menacing crisis that represents the tragedy of not being willing to overcome it.”[3]

Each artist in Lavia was left to solve his* own problems, each was responsible for his own survival. It is precisely in such an environment that the Totaldobže art centre, initiated and created by artists themselves, began to operate on the former premises of VEF (the State Electrotechnical Factory). The centre was not founded as an institution. The interdisciplinary nature of its events and the fact that it operates outside of the usual models of cultural financing can be associated with a search for new forms of cultural cooperation.

The traditional independent cultural institutions in Latvia undeniably suffered. Looking back on the changes in visual art, it is clear that the most serious loss was in the number of cultural periodicals.[4] The budget of the State Cultural Capital Foundation, which supports independent initiatives, shrank to one third of its original amount and is only planned to grow to 50% of its original amount by 2013.[5] Culture in Latvia is only beginning to recover from the economic shock that it experienced. However, if one looks at the first five years of the Purvītis Award, little evidence of difficulties can be found. It seems that the Purvītis Award is one of the success stories of the economic crisis. Other success stories are the Cēsis Art Festival, which began in the comparatively “rich” year of 2007; the Riga Art Space, an independent institution that also opened its doors to the public before the onset of the crisis in early 2008; and the kim? contemporary art centre, a pilot project of the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art supported by the Ministry of Culture. It opened in 2009. 

With lesser or greater transformations, all of these institutions have successfully weathered the crisis without really making an issue of it in their operations, but rather by consciously ignoring it. Even the Latvian National Museum of Art did not alarm its visitors, but instead educated and entertained them by organizing exhibitions about the use of colour and about thematic motifs in Latvian art, and by offering an overview of the work of many Latvian artists. Such a detachment from socio-political realities is characteristic not only of official Latvian art institutions, but of Latvian contemporary art in general. It remains in a distinctly isolated territory, but one that is not by any means marginal. Latvian artists wish to feel comfortable and secure; they wish to be recognized and loved instead of misunderstood and ostracized.

But first, some comments before continuing with an overview of Latvian contemporary art in the past five to six years. The first comment concerns the Purvītis Award, the second concerns the essence of art awards in general, and the third is about the specific character of contemporary art in Latvia.

The Purvītis Award was established in order to gather information about events in the Latvian art world and to evaluate the most outstanding artistic achievements. The award is named after the Latvian painter Vilhelms Purvītis (1872-1945), who was not only an outstanding artist, but also a director of the Riga Art Museum, as well as the founder and first rector of the Art Academy of Latvia. Purvītis actively supported young artists, even though their methods and ideas sometimes differed from his own. The statutes of the award state that “the Purvītis Award is awarded once every two years to one artist or group of artists who represent Latvian art with outstanding work that is deeply associated with the events of its time and that acts as a link between contemporary life, spiritual ideals and absolute values.”

Every two years, a new group of experts is convened to follow the achievements of Latvian artists for the Purvītis Award. Every three months, the experts name the best artists whom they have noticed during that period, and at the end of the two years they choose eight artists from the pool of recognized artists for a final exhibition. The art works of these final eight nominees are evaluated by an international jury, which then names the winner of the award. The winner receives 20,000 LVL (approximately 28,500 EUR) in prize money. The Purvītis Award is the largest visual arts award in Latvia.

However, even though the Purvītis Award is meant to be one of the most democratic and popularly representative awards in Latvian contemporary art, several facts associated with the nature of arts awards in general should compel us to consider its results with a cool head. Most obviously, as a rule, all awards lag behind the newest processes in culture; chance plays a large role in the selection of winners; any decision by a larger group of people naturally involves the arithmetic mean value (as a result, the winners of many awards worldwide are actually epigones); and finally, the most significant aspect of awards is emotional (like a piece of candy given to a child, or flowers to a woman). The deeper value of the Purvītis Award lies in the professional evaluation of events in the art world and in determining the most successful of these. This has now been done in Latvia for five years. Thus, a lasting archive of exhibitions and a database of artists have been created. 

This anthology features 89 contemporary Latvian artists, whose works have been analyzed by the Purvītis Award panel of experts. Some of the artists have received the required expert recommendations six or more times. Yet this long and diverse list of artists might seem confusing, as there seems to be no clear consensus regarding the preferred forms artistic expression based on the personal tastes of the panel members. In fact, the extremes represented by the selected artists reflect the openness of the experts in selecting the nominees for the award. Here we have the internationally successful painter Jānis Avotiņš, who in recent years has only exhibited his art works abroad. We have Raimonds Līcītis, who lives in a forest near the Lithuanian border and whose most recent works could be seen in Riga for only a few hours as a part of a trial creative laboratory, in preparation for a larger exhibition of contemporary art planned in the Latvian capital in 2014.[6] The experts have thus confirmed their interest in so-called heterotopes – artists who are not always at the centre of attention.[7]

However, a closer look reveals that a certain segment of art is nevertheless not as welcome or as seriously considered for the Purvītis Award, namely, socially active art performances and art works that document reality. One example of such art is the placement of a partially submerged model of the Freedom Monument in the middle of the Daugava River in 2011, as well as the work Purvītis griežas kapā [Purvītis is turning in his grave] that appeared at the opening of the Purvītis Award nominations exhibition and announcement of the winner in 2011. The unassuming author of both of these events was Kristiāns Brekte. Brekte is among the artists considered by the Purvītis Award panel of experts, but only for the paintings and objects he has displayed at exhibitions in galleries – that is, for works that appeal to the art market.

Of the works mentioned above, the submerging of the monument in the river was undeniably the most noticed of Brekte’s informal art actions. He fixed a two-metre model of the Freedom Monument onto a wooden pallet and anchored it down into the Daugava River in central Riga, deep enough for water to splash into the mouth of the beloved female figure atop the monument. This action served as a metaphor for the feelings of a population that is overcoming an economic and political crisis. It was an unsanctioned and non-commissioned work of art that brought a smile to the lips of many Riga residents. 

Such works of art, which can be perceived as “artistic gestures” or even as “news reports”[8], have been shown fairly rarely in Latvia during the 21st century. Instead, Latvian art is convincingly dominated by Formalism[9] and Neo-conceptualism – movements in which art is characterized by specific aesthetic qualities, being executed with a certain sense of skill, decoration and completeness. These movements do not criticize or call to protest, but reflect other artistic interests such as immersion, reflection, contemplation and a study of the artwork’s materiality, for example. As a result, events in Latvian art are often seen from the context of entertainment. If a work of art does happen to contain an element of criticism, then it is delivered through a distant likeness in the form of a symbol or metaphor. Why is this so? 

The first explanation refers to the character of Latvians, which has historically developed in association with euphemisms and the use of likenesses and similarities. This was already noted in the 18th century by Baltic German writer and activist Garlībs Merķelis (Garlieb Merkel).[10] Merķelis wrote that Latvians are clever and witty, accustomed to reading between the lines (“speaking through flowers”); they express themselves by citing Bible verses, as well as by singing traditional mocking and teasing verses.[11]

However, an explanation for the different forms of local expression in contemporary Latvian art can also be found in the heritage of Latvian non-conformist art from the Soviet period. This heritage is based on Latvia’s recent socioeconomic history. Although they were living in occupied territories, the populations of the Baltic republics grudgingly accepted their state of affairs, in part due to the fact that their average monthly incomes were higher than those in the rest of the Soviet Union. (For example, the average monthly income for the Soviet Union as a whole in 1961, which is considered a time of prosperity in that country, was 547 rubles per person. The average per capita monthly income in the Latvian SSR was 717 rubles, while in the Estonian SSR it was 720 rubles. In comparison, the average per capita monthly income in the Russian SSR was 598 rubles and in the Ukrainian SSR it was 559 rubles.[12]

This relative prosperity, in combination with Latvians’ historically reserved national character, suppressed a spirit of protest and promoted a passive acceptance of the situation in Soviet Latvian art. This is why in Latvia, artistic expression emerged in a strangely transformed manner. Latvia enjoyed a relatively large level of freedom, to the extent that people in other Soviet republics referred to it as being located “abroad”. Artists often found legal ways, within the official system, of integrating forbidden ideas into their art, while things that could not be integrated were cast aside. On the whole, this limited form of dissidence raised the status of Baltic artists throughout the Soviet Union, while simultaneously pointing to their reluctance to become involved in the open expression of dissenting views. Therefore, influences from the outside art world reached Latvia mainly as external manifestations of current art styles and movements. They organically resounded in the work of only a few artists, such as the recently discovered Visvaldis Ziediņš (1942-2007), an artist from Liepāja whose work can be viewed as a laboratory for all of the artistic movements of the second half of the 20th century.

Yet it is precisely the high status of official art in Soviet Latvia and the limited spirit of non-conformism[13] that it embodied which ensured its place in the collective memory of the people. The use of Aesop’s language, which was characteristic of Soviet Latvian art, addressed the people in a direct, emotional way and prevented them from forgetting about their lost freedom. Art was an independent language in which people could communicate without speaking. It was also a precursor to the situation in the later 1980s and early 1990s, when artists became more popular than politicians. 

However, the heightened importance and topicality of art was quickly lost after Latvia regained its independence in 1991. This loss was due to the socio-political confusion and ethical crisis experienced by an invigorated population of former Soviet citizens, who were eager to push themselves up the mountain of economic success. Artists felt compelled to isolate themselves from the confusing tumult that surrounded them and to concentrate on internal issues of art. By and large, they are still concentrating on and developing these issues today, each in their own manner, in each of the aforementioned movements of art: art as a news report, Formalism, and Neo-conceptualism.

Even though Formalism and the concept of art as a physical object currently dominate in terms of quantity, Neo-conceptualism is definitely on top in the emotional sense. [14] Strategy and the creation of situations and meeting places that test the level of viewers’ feelings are at the centre of Neo-conceptual art (Armands Zelčs, Ģirts Korps, Miks Mitrēvics, Mārtiņš Ratniks). The work of art is usually interpreted in and of itself as the situation offered to the audience. Furthermore, in contrast to the gentle contextuality of the Formalists, Neo-conceptual artists greet their audiences with a chilling coolness based on highlighted neutrality, and on a circulating myth that art can only be understood by a chosen few. Of course, this leads to a very cool relationship with the audience. In comparison, the Formalists’ relationship with their audiences can be described as polite, and artists involved in art as a news report view themselves as one with their audiences. 

This is no surprise, because art as a news report is the only current artistic movement that resonates with a specific time and place. In a wider context, this movement includes not only the work of Kristiāns Brekte, Ivars Grāvlejs, Aigars Bikše, the Anna Varna group, Arnis Balčus, Ernests Kļaviņš, Juris Utāns and Maija Kurševa, but also Purvītis Award finalists Ivars Drulle, Andris Eglītis and Inta Ruka. In other words, these are artists whose work is dominated by a subjectively contemplative relationship towards time and that is characterized by processuality. This is the case regardless of the formal completeness of the artists’ works and the concept of art as a physical object; even regardless of a certain neutrality in relation to the portrayed subjects, as in Eglītis’ paintings. 

However, even Eglītis is a direct participant in the subjects of his own paintings, because he mostly paints from nature, whether en plein air or with models, and often chooses to paint in the alla prima style. This direct contact with his subjects is an essential prerequisite for the creation of his work; it forms the foundation of what he calls his ability to create “moments of revelation in the details of daily life”. This movement in art does not prevent artists from experimenting with materials and means of formal expression, although this does not become an end in itself. 

The content of this group’s artwork varies greatly: from the reconstruction of stereotypical characters (Balčus), the portrayal of absurd everyday situations (Drulle), the shaking up of the socio-political space and official activism (Bikše and Anna Varna) to the unsanctioned activism mentioned above (Brekte). On the one hand, the more radical artists working with art as a news report continue the role of “transgressors”[15], which was common among Latvian artists of the 1980s. It was characterized by intervention, conflicts and the public situation as the creator of new meaning. On the other hand, the former “transgressors” are themselves now mostly among the ranks of the Formalists.

The Formalists in Latvia, in turn, are supported by museums, exhibition halls and galleries because they form the foundation of the institutional art world. Even though the motifs in their art may be national, their themes tend to the absolute, just as the Neo-conceptualists tend towards the global. The Formalists uphold the official view of an uninterrupted and unified development and inheritance of art. Many of those nominated for the Purvītis Award are among the Formalists, including Imants Lancmanis, Gļebs Panteļejevs, Harijs Brants, Ieva Iltnere, Helēna Heinrihsone and Andrejs Grants, all of whom are loved by specialists in the field and audiences alike.

One of the most convincing examples of inheritance in the Formalist tradition is the work of Gļebs Panteļejevs, who is continuing along the traditions of the Latvian school of sculpture. This school is characterized by a tendency towards compact expression and laconic form. His work is perfect in its plasticity. It is diverse and not constrained stylistically, varying from Minimalism to Photorealism. It is respected both for its physical form and its intellectual message. 

A fuller analysis of current artistic movements reveals the openness of the two most popular ones (Formalism and Neo-conceptualism) as well as the battle between them and their attempts to imitate each other’s expressions or formulas. Here we see the “workshop of conceptual painting” (Ivars Heinrihsons), “conceptual romanticism” (Imants Lancmanis), and “contemporary traditionalism” (Ģirts Muižnieks), or the opposite: painting through formulas and sounds (Voldemārs Johnasons) and the sculpture of thought (Armands Zelčs).

The Purvītis Award selection process has become a serious form of quality control, meaning that only mature artists with stable styles and clearly defined creative programmes are considered by the panel of experts. Thus, the ages of the artists included in this anthology range from the internationally recognized set designer Reinis Suhanovs (1985) to Džemma Skulme (1925), a legend in Latvian art.

Enduring values of Latvian art can be found in the ethical practices of these artists and in their distinctly aesthetic and masterfully crafted work. Each artist has his own personal relationship with time and with previous works, as well as with opinions regarding the current situation of art. Each artist works in and develops his own creative assignments within the artistic movements mentioned in this overview.

In conclusion, a note regarding the use of this book. This anthology of Latvian art includes an alphabetical listing of the artists who have gone through one or more of the three following steps: being recommended for consideration, considered and then nominated for the Purvītis Award. If an artist received a written recommendation from an expert to be considered for the Purvītis Award but was not considered, then the last paragraph of his description does not include information about a specific work of art or exhibition considered for the award. If the artist received a written recommendation, was later considered and then nominated for the Purvītis Award, then his description includes information about a specific work of art or exhibition for which he has been considered and/or nominated for the award.

[1] “The Purvītis Award in visual art will be awarded every two years”, Diena [Day], No. 8, Jan. 10, 2008, p. 20.

[3] “Nanotechnology: balancing the promises”,, 2009, p. 51.

[4] The Māksla Plus [Art Plus] magazine (published since 1997) and the weekly newspaper Kultūras Forums [Culture Forum, published since 2002] were among the publications that ceased to exist in 2011.                        

[6] Līcītis’ art works were exhibited at the Totaldobže art centre in Riga in 2012 during a creative workshop organized in preparation for the international art exhibition Horizontu meklējot [Searching for the horizon].              

[7] Heterotopes are people who choose to live and work in different places. Heterotope (Greek heteros ‘different, other’ + topos ‘place’) = a different place. The French philosopher Michel Foucault used the term ‘heterotopes’ in his 1967 lecture “About different places”.         

[8] The term “art as a news report” is from an article by Russian art historian Andrei Yerofeyev at Accessed Dec. 1, 2012.     

[9] The terms used in this article to describe styles of art are approximate and relative. For example, the term “Formalism” does not mean “empty form lacking content”, but is rather used to describe works of art whose structure contains a very high proportion of materialized, perfectly developed forms. This, however, does not mean that the artwork classified as “formal” may not contain coded messages or may not have highly mimetic portrayals.   

[10] Garlībs Merķelis (Garlieb Merkel, 1769-1850) was a Baltic German thinker, writer and publicist during the Age of Enlightenment. His works influenced Latvian culture and strove to improve the legal situation of Latvian serfs.

[11] Garlībs Merķelis. Latvieši, sevišķi Vidzemē, filozofiskā gadsimteņa beigās [Latvians, especially in Vidzeme, at the close of the philosophical century], originally published in 1796. Foreword and comments by Gvido Straube. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC, 1999, pp. 41, 45.

[13] Semi-nonconformism is a term coined by Lithuanian art historian Alfonsas Andriuškevičius in 1992, in his writings about Lithuanian art during the Soviet period. The term is used to describe the state between two models of behaviour, namely, conformism and resistance.

[14] Neo-conceptual art is supported by the kim? contemporary art centre in Riga. Since its inception, kim? has performed “the special national administrative task of ensuring the accessibility of contemporary art”.

[15] The term “transgressor” is used to describe the 1980s generation of artists who were active during the period between the decline of the Soviet Union (1985-1991) and the first few years of Latvian independence (1991-1995). This was a period marked by hope, uncertainty and chaos. The artists active during this period broadened the formal language of Latvian art. This included the introduction of installations and performance art. They also accomplished Latvia’s physical “entrance into Europe”, putting Latvia back onto the art map of Europe.