Latvian Artists at the Penza School of Art

  • 2019-08-15
  • TBT Staff

From 20 August to 30 November 2019, the Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum in Riga (Elizabetes iela 57a, Apt. 26) will present the exhibition Latvian Artists at the Penza School of Art.

Entering a story of life and art of Aleksandra Beļcova (Александра Бельцова, 1892–1981), which will be expanded in the voluminous retrospective of artist’s work in the Great Hall of the main building of the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMA) in the autumn of this year, the Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum is changing the permanent display and offering a new exhibition. It will introduce the Penza School of Art, which was essential for many young Latvian artists who went there to learn during the First World War. From 1912 until 1917, Aleksandra Beļcova also studied at the Penza School of Art. There, she met her fateful husband, Romans Suta, as well as other Latvian artists.

Lessons at the Riga City School of Art were interrupted in 1915 by World War I. The principal of the school, Vilhelms Purvītis (1872–1945), found an opportunity for students to continue their studies at art schools in the Russian Empire. Thus, several of them found themselves in Penza, which was 625 kilometres to the South-East from Moscow. Latvians knew that the Penza School of Art was considered to be one of the best schools of art in Russia.

The second reason was that several Latvians had previously studied at the Penza School of Art. Among them were Kārlis Baltgailis (1893–1979, starting his studies in Penza in 1911), his cousin, Jānis Baltgailis, as well as Augusts Dīriķis (1894–1941).

Jēkabs Kazaks (1895–1920) arrived in Penza on 14 August 1915. Romans Suta (1896–1944) soon joined him, and he began to correspond with upper-level students from the Riga City School of Art whom he had met in the spring of 1915. These included Aleksandrs Drēviņš (1889–1938), Kārlis Johansons (1890–1929), Valdemārs Tone (1892–1958), Konrāds Ubāns (1893–1981). Tone arrived first after spending some time in St Petersburg, Ubāns with Johansons arrived in December from Riga. Other artists who moved to Penza were Roberts Sniķeris (1898–1920), Kārlis Siliņš (1895–1955), Roberts Mačernieks (1898–1920), and Augusts Ivans (1895–?). The latter two artists have sunk into obscurity. The young Russian artist Aleksandra Beļcova arrived in Penza from her native Bryansk Oblast. She began her studies in Penza earlier than the other artists, in 1912. The students who had completed high school, Beļcova among them, could only study subjects related to art, while others also took classes related to general subjects. This was true for many Latvian students.

Life in Penza during World War I was difficult. Rooms were cold. Only Suta, who was always full of energy, never companied about that. Food was poor, students had inappropriate clothing to wear when the temperature plummeted to -30 degrees. Still, they were eager to learn, and the commune of local Latvian artists lessened the practical discomfort.

Each spring, the school staged exhibitions of the work of its students. Latvian artists were among those who took part. Their style of painting was different than that of others – this led to a great deal of recognition. An entire wall of the exhibition hall was devoted to their artworks, which seemed to be innovative, modern and courageous.

In the spring of 1916, Konrāds Ubāns, Kārlis Johansons and Valdemārs Tone were drafted into the military. The other artists left Penza in 1917: Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova moved to St Petersburg, from where Romans Suta and Jēkabs Kazaks later travelled to Latvia to volunteer for a riflemen’s brigade.

The difficult lives during the war and life in a commune outside of Latvia provided the artists with a sense of unity. They searched for a new approach to art, and this led to the establishment of a group of Expressionists that later became the Riga Group of Artists. Among those to take part were Romans Suta, Aleksandra Beļcova, Konrāds Ubāns, Valdemārs Tone, and other modernists.

Studies at the Penza School of Art lasted for a relatively short period of time, from 1915 to 1917, with some students leaving the school in 1916, but this aspect of the history of art in Latvia is important, as is information about the school as such. That was the environment in which the generation of Latvian modernists studied and established their careers.

Stories about the Penza School of Art in exhibition are supplemented with quotes from the correspondence of Latvian artists, their memoirs, and a notebook written by Jēkabs Kazaks (1895–1920), Life in Penza. The curators have accessed materials from the Latvian State Archive, artworks from the Latvian National Museum of Art, Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum, the Aleksandrs Čaks Memorial Apartment Museum, Zuzāns Collection, as well as other private collection.

A wide programme of events will be provided during the exhibition, including Talks at the Museum with the co-curator of the project Dr. art. Natalya Yevseyeva, lectures on the theme, guided tours, workshops, and other creative activities.