The First World War and its Aftermath in Latvian Writing on Art (Summary)

Stella Pelše (PDF)

Numerous articles on the relationship between art and war appeared in the Latvian press from 1915 to 1920. The painter, stage designer and book illustrator Niklāvs Strunke came closest to Futurism in his ardent manifestos of 1917 and 1918. In those days, one of the leading themes in writing on art was undoubtedly the negative attitude towards Germany and German art and culture, as the Germans were, in modern terms, the ‘bad guys’, whose oppressive behaviour throughout the centuries and was especially evident at the outbreak of the First World War. Some authors tried to maintain a somewhat balanced opinion and called on people not to dismiss the heritage of Wagner, Goethe or Bach. Other writers were much more uncompromising. The sculptor Gustavs Šķilters, one of the most productive writers on art throughout the first half of the 20th century, condemned all the German elements dominant in Riga culture. He described the Germans, who lack taste and a sense of beautiful forms and proportions, colours and harmonies.

After establishing the independent Republic of Latvia in 1918, modernist-oriented artists consolidated around the group of Expressionists under the name of the Riga Artists Group. Wartime experience turned into a catalyst for the development of the modern Latvian nation and art, based on the previous anti-German pathos.

In 1920, a scandal broke out between the traditional realist, academic artists and the young modernists. In order to deride the enthusiasm of young painters for the latest trends, two academics, the figurative painter Jānis Roberts Tillbergs and the graphic artist Rihards Zariņš, arranged a fake exhibition. They presented their concept in a public lecture, arguing for the degradation of modern art. Wartime rhetoric was used to reflect the event in the pres and poet Edvards Virza in his controversial poems, even called academics ‘Bermontians’ of art. In the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, the themes of the First World War and the fights for independence remained important in reflecting on national style and art creation. They become the landmarks of a glorious past, leading to the prosperity of the present under the protection of the national state.

Keywords: futurism, modernism, German art, expressionism, national art