Gentleman of the underworld

  • 2011-12-15
  • By Antra Feldmane

Sympathy for the down-and-out marked Padegs’ work.

RIGA - The main building of the National Museum of Art is now exhibiting works by Karlis Padegs, probably one of the most provocative and talented artists in Latvia since the 1920s. There have been a hundred years since the birth of expressionist Padegs (1911-1940) and it is strange how time passes by, but somehow we are reminded about mortality through the Latvian artist’s youth and passion. Padegs was only 28-years-old when he died of complications of tuberculosis. Still, he did huge work during his lifetime. Currently those art pieces are collected in the exhibition called “Fragile Provocation” as a dedication to his 100th birthday. After this exhibition is over, the National Museum of Art will be closed for a three-year renovation period and will only be open to visitors in 2014.

There have always been legends and stories around Padegs, most of them were made up by the artist himself. He liked to wear extravagant clothing, to use make-up and be everything but the ordinary guy. Padegs was born on Oct. 8, 1911, in Riga. Janis Kalnacs, best known as a researcher for his biography, thinks that his work and attitude were strongly influenced by his childhood. Those were the years of World War I, when his father died in 1917. Padegs showed original ideas already in his early school years, making drawings for newspapers and also trying some new things in poetry.

A life of art for Padegs started when he was 17-years-old. He joined the Latvian Art Academy and was one of the favorites of professor Vilhems Purvitis. He helped Padegs both morally and, sometimes, financially. Indeed, Padegs was not warmly welcomed by other authorities because of the nature of his work. Laura Brokane, art journalist of newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize, notes in her research that Padegs not only painted, but also made a rich amount of graphics. She also says that Padegs made self-portraits in a grotesque, ironic way, laughing at himself rather than at others. 

It may seem that Padegs was some kind of a lonely but talented drinker. Indeed, he spent most of his time in Riga bars, together with prostitutes and other devastated drinkers. At the same time, he had marvelous taste in his clothing. That was his brand - to be a gentleman, but never join the ‘cream’ of society. On the contrary, he even hated those people and, most likely, showed his sympathy for the poor, handicapped or the ‘underworld.’ At 22 Padegs graduated from the Art Academy and often made rumors about himself, publishing them in many different ways, mostly in the yellow press. He also did lots of artwork for books.

“Despite his talent and performances ‘on the street,’ he was quite lonely,” thinks Kalnacs. He also says that Padegs did not have a rich private life, although he was married once to Elvira Feodorovica. This happened a year before Padegs died. At that time he was already sick with tuberculosis, at a very late stage.
His paradoxical thinking was often joined with romanticism. Also, lots of his work expresses death in all its showings and ‘faces.’ Maybe there was an influence of his own tragic illness. Kalnacs notes that during his last years, Padegs used to walk around and seemed extremely ill. People thought that this was his running performance ‘on the streets,’ but a only few knew that he was actually dying. Padegs received his own physical extinction very calmly. He died in 1940 and, from that time, was never forgotten.

Padegs was very sensitive, and even surrealistic, in his works. The current exhibition is a reminder that his art now is very contemporary and shows those problems and feelings that were on air back then, 100 years ago. One can only imagine how those times surprisingly match, especially when Padegs’ art was kept in a ‘basement’ until the 1980s. Then his works were taken into the daylight and research was done.

In the White Hall of the National Museum of Art there is a selection of Karlis Padegs drawings and paintings from 1928-1940. Those works are from the museum and private collections as well, including works that have not been seen in a long time or not seen at all. The Hege Hall features portraits and works dedicated to Padegs by Latvian artists, including Kurts Fridrihsons, Bruno Strautins, Aivars Vilipsons and others.

Exhibition Karlis Padegs “Fragile provocation.” will be held till Jan. 15, 2012.
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