III. Non-Conformism in Latvia: From Art to Activism

Inessa Rinke

Art Collectiing in Latvia

Since the establishment of the Soviet power art collecting and trade was under a strict control in Latvia. Every private collector knew that not just his collection but also his freedom was at serious risk, involving criminal code and actual imprisonment. Private collectors that had stayed in Latvia were aware that avoiding publicity regarding their properties was the best way to protect themselves and their holdings. All-Union Collectors’ Association could grant a certain legal status to a collection, but this involved attracting the KGB informers’ attention. This meant that 90% of deals were private.

State Museum of Art was a privileged collector. Museum experts could select the most valuable artefacts from the single permitted antique shop that was allowed to sell classical Latvian and European art. This monopoly enabled to complement the Museum’s collection at convenient prices.

Artists were allowed to sell their works only through the single Salon owned by the Soviet Art Fund. The style and content of the artworks by the members of Artists’ Union had to comply with the ideals of Socialist Realism. The spirit of Socialist Realism predominated in official exhibitions and museum expositions as well. Modernist art remained hidden in private collections and artists’ studios for fifty years.

Non-conformist art developed rapidly in the Baltic countries and Latvia in particular during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The liberal reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev, known as “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”, encouraged many artists to come out of their studios and voice daring ideas openly. The liberal Artists’ Union in Riga that controlled exhibitions programs was headed by Džemma Skulme, a descendant of the famous artists’ family Skulmes, and her husband Ojārs Ābols; they invited non-conformist artists of several generations to participate in the legendary exhibition “Nature. Environment. Man” held in 1984. It shook the public, the local circles of Communist Party and retrograde artists, provoking the anger of curators from Moscow. The show was closed with a scandal a month before the scheduled time, but the public had already seen and accepted the artists’ works endowed with social criticism. The exhibition in a sense legitimised installations and happenings – socially active artworks that were impossible to show in official exhibitions before.

Bright, independent personalities, such as the artists Ojārs Pētersons, Oļegs Tillbergs, Andris Breže, Juris Putrāms, Kristaps Ģelzis, Leonards Laganovskis, Ivars Poikāns and members of the artists’ group “Gentle Fluctuations”, took part in the exhibitions as well as in the unprecedented activities of the Art Days.

Art Days involved a series of activities, like happenings in pedestrian underpasses, installations in city squares, posters and large size prints (called “supergraphics”) that were opposing the regime’s social and political realities, affirming a different outlook and a different art. Since the mid-1980s Riga’s exhibition life proceeded in two parallel worlds, revealing peculiar symptoms – in central exhibition places there were shows dedicated to regular Party congresses and praising socialist ideology and communism, while in peripheral zones non-conformist artists’ works also appeared. Polygraphics Club and Republican House of Knowledge (Planetarium) were extremely popular exhibition places among intellectuals. The information on the next event opposing the ruling regime spread from mouth to mouth. Non-conformists from Moscow and St. Petersburg, such as Francisco Infante, Timur Novikov and “Africa”, Estonian artists Jüri Arrak, Raul Meel, Tönis Vint and Leonhard Lapin, exhibited there.     

Riga art circles were already familiar with non-conformist activities since the early 1970s – from Andris Grīnbergs’ scandalous happenings to Miervaldis Polis’ and Līga Purmale’s first photo-realist paintings exhibited in their basement studio. Provocative exhibitions of posters, prints and design demonstrated controversial artistic language and ideas, testifying to the socially critical stance of Riga artists.

In Džemma Skulme’s and Ojārs Ābols’ studio there were always Džemma’s mother Marta’s and her father Oto’s constructivist and cubist original works on view along with Western European art magazines, theoretical works and, of course, works by both artists who carried on the avant-garde traditions rooted in the 1920s. The studio of other Riga Artists’ Group members – Romans Suta’s and Aleksandra Beļcova’s place – can also be regarded as an ideological centre at odds with the Communist Party. Their daughter, art historian Tatiana Suta used to inform interested listeners, commenting upon art processes in the independent inter-war Latvia and participation of Latvian artists in Berlin, Paris, Moscow and St. Petersburg avant-garde activities. 

The liberal leaders of the Artists’ Union were radical in their political views, and staffs of the people’s movement named Popular Front were opened in the premises of artists’ and writers’ organisations on the threshold of the 1990s. Many non-conformist artists took an active part in this process and defended the independence of Latvia on the barricades of 1991, participated in meetings, demonstrations of protest and other actions directed against the regime.

The Cold War and political confrontation between the Soviet Union and Western world inspired the creation of many significant artworks behind the Iron Curtain, fostering the Western collectors’ interest in non-conformist art. Many important artworks ended up in famous collections via diplomats’ cases; an example is Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection in the USA later granted to Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick / New Jersey. Baltic artists with 3 200 artworks were widely represented there along with Russian non-conformists. The collection of Peter Ludwig in the Aachen Museum should be regarded as the most important one in Europe; he selected Latvian artists’ works as well. Other important collections, shown in many exhibitions, belong to the Moscow collector Tatiana Kolodzei, American art historian Elena Korneichuk and the extravagant Estonian collector Matti Milius who gathered his collection, making friends with artists and other people with most varied backgrounds.

  In the 1970s and 1980s collecting of posters and prints was popular in Latvia. Graphic arts were less controlled by the state in comparison with painting. A wider field for experiments opened up there. This attracted intellectuals who searched for artworks distinct from the style of Socialist Realism and could afford to buy them because of more democratic prices of posters and prints. There were outstanding masters of poster in Latvia (Juris Dimiters, Laimonis Šenbergs, Ilmārs Blumbergs, etc.) who submitted their works to international competitions without official permissions and often won important awards. Works were obtained directly from the artists’ studios. Intellectuals used to exhibit these works in their apartments. 

IV. The Role of Infrastructure