Out from Behind the Fireplace. The Progress of Latvian National Emancipation in Art Life during the First WorldWar (Summary)

Kristiāna Ābele (PDF)

An exhibition of Latvian art opened in Petrograd in 1915. In 1916, a similar exhibition was held in Moscow. It was intended to promote the establishment of Latvians as an independent nation. Latvian art enjoyed its international benefits in the ‘theatre of war’ to win acclaim for Latvian political and cultural goals. For the first time, the new notion of ‘Latvian art’ resounded widely in the periodical press of the two imperial metropolises and even beyond when Pavel Ettinger reviewed the exhibition in Moscow in The Studio  magazine in England. Ettinger argued that the ‘dominant German classes of the Baltic provinces’ had historically suppressed ‘the Letts’ and found that ‘naturally enough this newly developed art […] has been unable to escape the influence of German art,’ showing itself ‘even in the work of artists who have studied at the Petrograd Academy’.

These Latvian débuts made outside the Baltic are closely associated with the activities of the Latvian Society for the Promotion of Art. Founded in 1911 in Riga, it reached the peak of its success in the short period from the outbreak of the First World War to 1915, when mass evacuations emptied Riga. By the end of 1914, the society had assembled numerous works of art for its planned Museum of Latvian Art. The art collection was moved to Petrograd in 1915, and numerous works were displayed in the exhibitions mentioned above. The collection returned to Latvia only in 1923, when it emerged as a new state on the European map. The works of some Latvian artists were ‘mobilised’ to fight for two radically different and competing projects in the geopolitical future of Latvia. Their works were exhibited in the Russian exhibitions mentioned above, the Kurland-Ausstellung (1917) and the Livland-Estland-Ausstellung (1918). These exhibitions were held in Germany to promote the monarchist, pro-German idea of the United Baltic Duchy (das Vereinigte Baltische Herzogtum).

Keywords: exhibitions, art and politics, Russia, Germany, periodicals