RIGA - I must confess that the idea of an exhibition exploring the history of the still life in Latvian art didn't exactly excite my curiosity. I am a great lover of still life, in the sense that I can sit at my kitchen table and stare at a cup of coffee and an ashtray for ages, and I'm also quite partial to still life in the artistic sense. But I feared the exhibition would be more a dull, two-dimensional history of Latvian life styles rather than Latvian still lifes.
But, happily, I was very wrong. It's actually by far the most interesting and important exhibition I've seen this year, thanks in no small part to curator Dace Lamberga who lovingly and thoughtfully put the whole show together.
The exhibition is vast in scope. It's basically a Who's Who of Latvian art, which almost alone makes it worth seeing. But it's a lot more than just a role call of the "great" Latvian painters. It's a rare opportunity to explore and appraise 20th century Latvian art through the critically convenient genre of the still life, which has, over the last 300 years, become a sort of time-honored exercise in art anatomy.
The name of the genre was first recorded around 1650 and comes from the Dutch word "stilleven," which means "quiet model." In French it is referred to as "nature morte" (dead nature) and in Latvian as "klusa daba" (quiet nature).
The idea of the exhibition is to show the gradual changes in Latvian art through the 20th century until the present day by focusing on the shifts in form and style that the genre has gradually undergone in a uniquely Latvian context.
The still life appeared relatively late in Latvia, around the time of WWI, according to Lamberga. There are early, isolated examples of the genre by the likes of Janis Rozentals and Rudolfs Perle, but it's not until the so-called Riga Group adopted the genre that it became a fixed feature of Latvian art.
The still lifes of Romans Suta, Oto and Uga Skulme, Janis Liepins and Leo Svemps, who were flagrantly influenced by the Paris School of the time, are fascinating to see.
Rihards Berzins, the then-editor of Illustrated Magazine, complained that the group had "descended into shallowness and the simple copying of works by Parisian artists." He remarked, not unreasonably, that Suta's work was such an imitation of Le Corbussier that "copying can go no further."
In the 1930s the prominent artists of the day, while still visibly influenced by Western European trends, tried to incorporate a new "Latvianicity" into their still lifes, which was very much in keeping with the nationalistic sprit of the times.
Janis Tidemanis, a graduate from the Antwerp Royal Academy, is undoubtedly the most impressive painter of the period, with his wonderfully expressionistic still lifes of flowers frantically formed out of thick, lurid layers of paint.
Unfortunately, the exhibition largely sidesteps the 1940s and 1950s. While the leading Latvian painters of the day continued to use and explore the genre, these two turbulent and traumatic decades are here represented by nothing more than a few pretty paintings of vegetables.
But some of the works from the '60s and '70s are truly impressive. I was really taken with one artist in particular. There are three paintings by Bruno Vasilevskis ranging from 1969 to 1984, although nothing differentiates them stylistically.
One of them shows a U.S.S.R passport laid out on a desk. The composition is tight, minimal, almost abstractly so, yet it's painted in the hyperrealist style. The image beautifully evokes the stagnancy of life in that period through its geometrical arrangement rather than its subject.
I was also glad to see a lot of space given over to Boris Berzins, who is by some way my favorite Latvian painter. His wonderfully unassuming genius is evident in all the works of his on show, from "Slaughtered Pig," to a still life of kitchen utensils. The exhibition is on until the end of November so there's still plenty of time to see it. But see it you should. o
"The Still Life in 20th Century Latvian Art"
1 Torna St., Riga
Oct. 8 - Nov. 28
Tue. - Sun. 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., closed Mondays