Mark Allen Svede is an American art critic of Latvian descent on his father’s side. His professional work has included the study and collection of Latvian art, with an emphasis on the 1980s and 1990s generation of artists. For about a decade he worked as a consultant to Norton and Nancy Dodge, curating a remarkable collection of non-conformist Soviet art. On May 17th, Mark Svede lectured on the non-conformist paradigm at the Centre of Contemporary Art in Riga, in the context of a conference called Unveiling the Unseen Past. Arterritory.com took this opportunity to meet him and invite him to discuss his interest in Latvian art as well as his critical perception of recent developments in contemporary art as a whole. Mark Svede currently teaches at Ohio State University, in the film studies program of the art history department. “Film interests American students far more than art – I had to adapt,” Mark remarked.
When and how did your interest in Latvian art develop?
It began already in early childhood. There were some landscapes by Latvian artists on the walls of my grandparents’ house. On vacation, visiting them, I would sit and gaze at them. I could sense that they were quite different from what we had on the walls at home – my mother was an American, and my father was of Latvian descent but didn’t really take an interest in his ethnic background at that time. My first clear memories are of this sense that paintings from Latvia had an especial value, since they were hung in a place of honour. And that captivated me even when I was a little boy.
Later, when I was ten years old, a massive wooden crate from Europe appeared in the driveway beside our house. It held a large-scale painting by Vilhelms Purvītis from my Latvian great grandfather’s art collection. Fleeing Riga during the Red Army invasion, my great grandparents had removed it from its frame, rolled it into a carpet and taken it with them. The canvas was slightly damaged as a result. The work arrived in America after restoration in Germany. The breaking open of the crate was an intriguing and exciting – it was indeed a thrill to see the painting with my own eyes for the first time. I grew up in a rather small, middle class house, and so my mother immediately announced that there was no place in our home for such a huge work of art. And so Purvītis’s painting was packed up again and stored in the cellar.