After a full day of visiting cultural organizations still dealing with the transition from Soviet-style state run organizations [such as the Artists Association] to under-funded non-profit organizations desperately seeking private funding, I visited the opening of the exhibition entitled The French Group - a refreshing example of Latvian art historical reclamation. Each year BA Art History students at the Latvian Academy of Fine Art are required to curate a show in the grandiose exhibition hall at the Academy, most often this results an exhibition of student work - but not this time.
[photo from exhibition]
Latvia's history is that of occupation, since the 1200s - the Germans, Polish, Swedish, Russians. Prior to 1990, Latvia's only time of independence under a freely elected Constitution was between 1920 and 1941. Between 1941 and 1990 Latvia was under the shadow and rule of the USSR and so was its underground art scene. During the majority of time of Soviet rule in Latvia, artists were producing Social Realist paintings. According to Lenin, art should "expose crimes of capitalism and praise socialism...created to inspire readers and viewers to stand up for the revolution." Just as the rest of the eastern bloc, it's obvious the only art history written was that of Social Realism. During survey courses of the 20th century, students learned the name of a group of artists known as the 'French Group,' 6 students at the Latvian Academy of Fine Art in the 1960s who were initially influenced by 20th century French painting; Maija Tabaka, Imants Lancmanis, Bruno Vasilevskis, Ieva Smite, Janis Krievs, and Juris Pudans. "Later, the tendency to rationalise led them to the precise co-ordinates of conceptualism. Their entry into the general Latvian art scene was relatively sudden. The French group’s brightest artists were known for their strict analytical exploration of space, dimension, light and context. On a pictorial plane, the reflected fragment of reality was consciously organised in a way that excluded the element of chance. Here, a closed context, ‘built’ by the artist himself, was explored and its subsequent aesthetic clarity laid claim to a certain objectivity. The mastery of pictorial space was rooted in the artist’s ethical hierarchy. It’s keywords could be ‘nature’, ‘one’s own and other histories’ and ‘the rational view’." [Helena Demakova, Apple Harvest or Art in Latvia 1945 -1995 between personal and ideological time].
[(L-R)Director of Academy, Living members of French Group, student curators - 9 Jan 2007]
The opening of the exhibition was shoulder to shoulder with attendees ranging from former students to the Minister of Culture to internationally renowned thinkers. The painting styles ranged from hyper-realism to works that look like they were made in New York City in the mid-1960s. Though the work itself was engaging, the concept of reclaiming national history through contemporary art is even more inspiring.
One of exhibits sponsors was Studija, a print art publication based in Riga published by Neputns. Neputns has also expressed interest in publishing books attempting to offer alternatives to the narrow art history offered to college and graduate students studying Latvian and Baltic art. The Latvian Contemporary Art Center offers a similar project. "Trespassers" - the avant-garde of the 1980s Latvian art.