RIGA - A year of exhibitions celebrating the centennary of the State Art Museum is slowly drawing to a close. "Museum Time," which runs until Nov. 30, is the last of several shows to explore Latvia's largest and most significant art institution. But this time the theme of the exhibit is the museum itself; the extraordinary upheavals and dramas witnessed throughout a lifespan. "Museum Time" is a relatively small-scale exhibit, but it's nonetheless a fascinating trip through the past.
The State Art Museum was founded in 1905 in its current location on K. Valdemars St. It flourished during the 1920s and the 1930s as Latvia slowly but surely amassed an art collection of its own, both classical and modern. The highly respected painter Janis Purvitis was appointed as the museum's director, and his passionate belief in the need for a distinctly Latvian art helped the establishment take great strides forward in its work.
But WWII reduced the museum to yet another ideological pawn, as it passed hands between the Soviets and the Nazis. Purvitis himself was sacked and later reappointed amid all these changes. He also saw a significant number of his paintings destroyed when a bomb destroyed much of the museum.
The exhibition covers this topsy-turvy period in some depth, along with several wonderful photos, showing, for example, a vast queue outside the museum in 1967 to see an exhibition called "Interphoto 66." The show in question was a collection of foreign photo-agency pictures and was the most successful exhibit the museum ever mounted, largely due to the massive appeal that all things foreign held during Soviet times.
There are also some interactive works of art on display by contemporary Latvian artists that work very well in context. Francesca Kirke's "Beauty Clinic," for example, shows a sterile, hospital-like room in which paintings undergo the elaborate process of being restored to health. It asks some provocative questions of us as spectators.
The overwhelming feeling this exhibition inspires is that every country, especially one as small as Latvia, truly needs a national art museum. Art is essential in contributing to a sense of culture, which is a prerequisite for any society that wishes to root itself in a notion of history.
But perhaps the most touching thing on display is a large color portrait of all the museum staff lined up along the main steps. It is really their devotion and passion (it's certainly not the money) that has helped put together this unprecedented history.
Latvian State Art Museum
Until Nov. 30