The Latvian contemporary art scene is nordic and poetic, often executed in refined techniques, paying a lot of attention to the formal and esthetic aspects of an artwork. Contemporary Latvian artists, as artists elsewhere, are interested in capturing the Zeitgeist and exploring boundaries of the artistic medium – be it painting, sculpture, video, photography or other mediums. What makes the explorations of Latvian artists distinct is the cultural layers that form their background – post-soviet, pro-Western, apolitical or en contraire – very political. Revisiting history and reflecting on the here and now has certainly been one of the themes, ranging from works with almost reportage-like quality1 to ones where you can only indirectly sense it2 if you are skilled in listening to the semitones of meaning. An inner emotional world is the inspiration for others,3 taking shape in painting, sculpture, graphic or other mediums. There are also artists who turn their attention to the artistic medium itself4 or those who experiment on the border between science and art.5
Latvia can also be proud of a rich illustration scene created by Māris Bišofs whose editorial work for The new york Review of Books is well known to American audiences and many talented illustrators of younger generations.6 The only element still lacking in the landscape of Latvian contemporary art is a contemporary art museum, already designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and awaiting its turn to be built.
‘A strong school of painting’ – that can often be heard about the Latvian art scene. Largely due to the rather conservative education system, which is still based on painting ‘from nature’ and developing a wide range of techniques, it is not only painting that is strong, but also Latvian photography, cinema, scenography is often outstanding with its painterly qualities. Internationally the most acclaimed Latvian artist is painter Jānis Avotiņš, who is represented in galleries in London, Hamburg and Munich. His works can also be found in significant collections like Hamburger Bahnhof, White Cube’s Jay Jopling and others. Ēriks Apaļais, another promising painter of Avotiņš’ generation, shares with Avotiņš an interest in memories, but Apaļais is distinguished with his analytical approach – his paintings are often based on written or unwritten philosophical treatises and references. The landscape of Latvian painting would be incomplete without mentioning the emotional and expressive paintings of Daiga Krūze and Inga Meldere, labeled by critics as belonging to the ‘new simplicity’ trend, and acclaimed artist Andris Eglītis known for his continuous experiments with the painting medium.
In Dialogue with the Socio-Political
Although less dominant than in the 1990s, art used as a critical response to the socio-political realities is still an important part of the Latvian contemporary art scene, ranging from artistic political activism to storytelling with less direct or more ambiguous messages. Katrīna Neiburga, one of the most successful contemporary Latvian artists, who mostly works with film and video installations, has been compared to an anthropologist – her interests range from amusing scenes of everyday life (tea-mushroom culture, a taxi-driver’s routine) to nostalgia (history of the Press House) or existential and personal experiences (solitude, security, privacy). A tradition of criticism in art is maintained by the annual contemporary art festival “SURVIVAL KIT” which invites artists to reflect on crisis, to come up with future scenarios, to imagine utopias or inspirations for change.
Inta Ruka, Andrejs Grants
Inta Ruka (1958) is one of the most famous Latvian photographers, known for her black and white portraits of people in their own environment. Her photography has been included in numerous museum collections in Europe and the united States. Andrejs Grants (1955) is another influential photographer, also interested in people of Latvia, but unlike Ruka, Grants works in a reportage style, capturing moments of life in small towns in Latvia, fishermen’s daily routine or the urban landscape. Both Ruka and Grants continue the photographic thinking of Egons Spuris (1931-1990), the most significant Latvian master of photography. Andrejs Grants is also known for being the tutor to the majority of Latvian photographers, filmmakers and even painters. Grant’s School, we call it.
The abbreviation VKN does not stand for a contemporary art museum, or even for an artist group, it stands for the Department of Visual Communication at the Art Academy of Latvia, led by Ojārs Pētersons. Although it is only one of the Academy’s departments among many, in the last decade it has succeeded in creating a distinct style, gathering like-minded artists and yielding an important voice in the Latvian contemporary art scene. It could be labeled as neoconceptualism where concepts and ideas still take precedence over traditional aesthetic concerns, although in VKN’s case artists also aim for perfectionism in form. Miks Mitrēvics, Kristīne Kursiša, Armands Zelčs, Kaspars Podnieks, Krišs Salmanis - to name just a few - are all former students of VKN that have gained local and international acclaim.
“Formalists” and Trespassers
The natural development of Latvian arts initially went hand in hand with other European countries, but was interrupted by demands of socialism to provide a naturalistic representation of reality, to avoid any abstractions and absence of a clear story behind the artwork. Originality was reprehended. nevertheless the strongest personalities – Leo Svemps, Ģederts Eliass, Jāns Pauļuks, Džemma Skulme, Leo Kokle, Boriss Bērziņš, Biruta Baumane, Maija Tabaka and others, succeeded in maneuvering between expectations and their own individual style. They were followed by a generation active in the 1980s later on described by their contemporaries as “trespassers” or the “Latvian avant-garde” - Andris Breže, Sarmīte Māliņa, Sergejs Daidovs, Kristaps Ģelzis, Hārdijs Lediņš, VIlnis Zābers, AIja Zariņa, Oļegs Tillbergs and others. The generation was characterized by intervention, and conflict. “Trespassers” broadened the formal language of Latvian art, introduced the use of installations and performance art. Their period coincided with the final decade of the USSR and the renewal of Latvia’s statehood; their works resonate with the processes of the time.
Vilhelms Purvītis (1872–1945) is widely considered to be one of the most important late 19th and early 20th century artists in Latvia; he is also the founder of numerous Latvian art institutions. His most outstanding contribution was the creation of the image of the national landscape – neo-Romantic, strictly structured, multiform in terms of the color. At the turn of the century Purvītis created his typical landscape: usually he painted birch groves or pine stands, snow drifts and ice floes in early spring, blooming trees in May or the colorful foliages of autumn. His landscapes have been so influential that it wouldn’t be surprising if you find a Latvian looking at the landscape in early spring and saying – “it is pure Purvītis”.