Patriotic Rhetoric and the Grim Realities of the First World War in Latvian Art: The Case of Jāzeps Grosvalds (summary)

Eduards Kļaviņš (PDF)

During and after the war, Latvian artists depicted the destruction of World War I and military operations. The best achievement was undoubtedly the Riflemen series by Jāzeps Grosvalds (1891–1920) between 1915 and 1917. In the 1930s, Grosvalds was glorified as an ‘initiator of the national epic’, and his Riflemen series was even considered a depiction of the struggle for political independence. Skaidrīte Cielava partly ‘rehabilitated’ the Grosvalds paintings in the art history of the late Soviet period. The creation by Grosvalds reveals the everyday realities of this new technological war. Grosvalds served as an officer on the front line in Riga in 1916. He made sketches and completed works in watercolour and gouache on the spot. Grosvalds rejected the traditional style of Russian war painters, depicting scenes of politically important battles or dynamic clashes between enemies painted in the academic manner of the 19th century. He was attracted to characteristic expressive motifs and their combinations. In this respect, his laconic style was functional. His concept of ‘synthesis’ was cherished during his studies in Paris. Grosvalds indicated only the properties of reality that seemed important to him. He used strong lines, reduced colour patches, simplified chiaroscuro and a unified compositional rhythm. The uniqueness of his images is highlighted by comparison with close examples of Western European art: the interpretation of the theme of war in the works of the Parisian modernists, the dramatised war scenes of the German expressionists, or the surrealistically horrifying warscapes of the English painter Paul Nash. The tragic aspect of the First World War remained an essential part of the iconography of the war in the work of some of Grosvalds followers.

Keywords: artists, war landscape, patriotism, riflemen, expressive motifs