RIGA - An exhibition by the Latvian painter Boriss Berzins is always a cause for excitement. "Backs" (Muguras) is the first exhibition of his work since the wonderful retrospective in 2003 which showcased the enormous artistic legacy that Berzins bequeathed to the Latvian National Museum of Art upon his death in 2002.
"Backs," on display in the museum's Small Exhibition Hall until Sept. 23, is a much smaller and more intimate exhibition but it's nonetheless fascinating. As the name matter-of-factly states, it's basically a collection of the artist's almost obsessive sketching and painting of female backs and bottoms over a period of several decades.
The backs and bottoms in question belong to some impressively rotund and occasionally corpulent women. Using oils, pencil and even ballpoint pens, Berzins traces the women's form over and over until it assumes a delightfully abstract and even erotic quality of its own.
What is so striking about the pictures is their sense of joyful playfulness. They simultaneously explore a distinctly old-fashioned femininity and artistic form. Berzins once said that in drawing these women he was reminded of the beauty of a hilly landscape.
At times his pictures boldly veer into the grotesque, as in one sketch where a woman's head resembles her buttocks. Each image is comprised of countless folds of flesh that spiral into each other in a uniformity of plumpness and sensual curves. But where a painter like Lucien Freud uses the naked body to express disgust and alienation, Berzins depicts these larger-than-life women with humor and affection.
For him, these plump beauties are part of a mythological landscape he created over many years in which form is ultimately everything.
Berzins loved painting everyday scenes of everyday people. But he was such a technically brilliant artist that he could imbue these scenes with an epic quality out of their very parochialism. His beautiful painting of a couple of plump women sitting by a river with the vague outline of a smoking factory in the background is a good example of this. The scene is bathed in subtle hues of gold and yellow. It is reminiscent of countless classic European paintings and yet Berzins firmly and proudly roots it in his time and place.
His celebration of faceless plump women, whether sunbathing, or sitting on a chair or in the sauna, was certainly fetishistic. But this recurring theme could also be seen as his attempt to mythicize and romanticize a certain ideal of Latvian women.
For Berzins, many of whose paintings take place in rural Latvia, these larger-than-life women were pivotal figures in every sense. By exaggerating their formal qualities, he similarly exaggerates their significance. There is an enviable robustness to these women's rotundity. Their fullness of form is depicted as a sensuous fullness of being.
As an exhibition, "Backs" is a timely reminder of a rare genius in Latvian art. Berzins' work makes so much contemporary art seem positively anorexic in comparison, in every sense.
It's a little bit of a shame that "Backs" is so small in scope 's you can easily take it in no time at all. But I was still glad of the chance to see the work of this immensely talented artist. Big is definitely beautiful in his hands.
Museum of Art
K. Valdemara 10a
Until Sept. 23www.vmm.lv