Painting the real world as it is

  • 2013-01-09
  • By TBT Staff

“It is quite strange to speak of an absolute, universal ideal in art, because there is no such thing. But even if it did exist, an artist should be imperfect, yet truthful – for truth in art is above all else – and of his own time, rather than adjusting himself to the ideals of other times, being false, lying to himself and fooling the naive public by giving them something borrowed and valueless, instead of something valuable.”
Gederts Eliass, 1922

RIGA - The achievements of Gederts Eliass that have hitherto been included in the canon of Latvian painting – select examples of Fauvism, neoclassical bathers and the realist peasant genre – create only a partial impression of his artistic legacy. The artist has made over a thousand oil paintings, nearly all of which are undated and unsigned; moreover, he has shown but a small portion of his work in the exhibitions he participated in during his lifetime.

Eliass has always had the reputation of a solitary, taciturn, yet powerful personality, owing to his participation in the events of the 1905 Revolution. During his emigration years he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels (1908–1913) as a refugee, with a false passport and under a different name. Eliass is one of the rare representatives of early Latvian Modernism who, in the pre-war period, obtained their professional education in Western Europe – Brussels and Paris, instead of Russia. Having mastered academic painting, the artist enthusiastically and purposefully engaged in experiments with various formal findings offered by modern tendencies in the early 20th century; in Moscow, during the war (1916–1917), he was especially inspired by the Fauvist leader Henri Matisse and became the most diligent local follower of the influential French artist.

With his provocatively brilliant, sensual, contrasting and pure Fauvist palette Eliass innovated and rejuvenated Latvian painting in the 1920s. A few years later, in Paris, he declared: “(..) I take reality as I see it before me and just paint it. What ‘ism’ will become of it, I care now less than ever.” Throughout his lifetime he would retain the conviction that it was the process itself that mattered most in painting.

After getting involved in the legendary Riga Artists’ Group, Eliass, together with his fellow artists, first went through a period of modernist experimentation, and in the mid-1920s experienced a return to classical tradition and Realism, as was typical in the interwar period. Having turned into a neorealist, the “ex-modernist” became the most acknowledged master of the local peasant genre in the 1930s; he created an epic of his native Zileni in Platone, depicting the landscape surrounding this prosperous homestead in Zemgale, with its ever-changing seasons and the daily life of peasants, saturating it with temperamental artistic expression and dramatic atmosphere.

As an intellectual, esthete and European traveler, the artist did not exert himself with physical labor; instead he depicted the day-to-day events of the Zileni homestead and made portraits of family members.
Certain periods in the artist’s creative activity are marked by the presence of his beloved women, who have been depicted in a number of compelling and vivid nudes and portraits, notable for their brilliant colors and sculptural plasticity, and celebrating the vitality and beauty of the female body. In his letters to women who have inspired and accompanied him throughout his life, the artist makes unexpected revelations about his secret thoughts and emotions, his existential and artistic views.

The exhibition dedicated to the classic’s 125th anniversary reveals the most significant period of his creative activity (from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1940s), offering a selection of works from the collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art, as well as from private collections and the Gederts Eliass Jelgava History and Art Museum that holds a large part of the painter’s artistic legacy.

The exhibition “Gederts Eliass (1887 – 1975). Paintings” is open till Jan. 27.
For more information please visit