Conversations about the "Golden Heritage" of Soviet Latvian art
Līva Raita, Student, Art Academy of Latvia
Book The Self: Personalities on the Road to Contemporary Art Soviet Latvia in the 1960s–1980s by compiler Helēna Demakova (Riga, 2011)
The range of books dedicated to a study of the visual art context of the Soviet Latvian period has been joined by a collection of interviews published by the Latvian Ministry of Culture called ‘The Self. Personalities on the Road to Contemporary Art – Soviet Latvia in the 1960s–1980s’. The aim of this collection, as outlined by its compiler and editor-in-chief Helēna Demakova, was to collate material, “in order to prepare more successfully for historical research in the future” (p. 17), to promote “the writing of modern history – without myths, in a rational way, but at the same time bearing in mind the aura of talent, which creates unbridled excitement and joy in all sensitive friends of the arts” (p. 30), and to reveal “the “golden heritage” of Latvian art”(1), which developed in the Soviet period in parallel to the political system” (p. 13). The book was devised in connection with the developing collection of the future Latvian Contemporary Art museum. As further reasons for the importance of the publication, the compiler mentions the need to fill in the blank areas in Latvia’s art history, as well as to dispel the biased views cultivated in the West about the artistic and cultural environment in the Soviet Union, for example, about the perceived scarceness of “intellectual initiative” (p. 18), or the “Soviet system’s overall dullness” (p. 20), at the same time trying not to breach the very delicate border separating a full-blooded description of art processes from an idealization of the Soviet era (see pages 16–30).

The interviews in the collection centre around the following sixteen artists, who correspond to the criteria proposed by the compiler of the book, that is, “they’ve gained greater influence on official and unofficial processes which have formed contemporary art right up until today, through their respective art direction or profile”, as well as having proven themselves in the art environment in the period from the 1960s to the mid-1980s (p. 16): Jānis Borgs, Ojārs Ābols, Boriss Bērziņš, Auseklis Baušķenieks, Maija Tabaka, Imants Lancmanis, Bruno Vasiļevskis, Miervaldis Polis, Māris Ārgalis, Ilmārs Blumbergs, Andris Grīnbergs, Aija Zariņa, Hārdijs Lediņš, Egons Spuris, An¬drejs Grants and Inta Ruka. The artists mentioned and/or their contemporaries were interviewed by art historians(2) and the interviews have been supplemented by reproductions, in the appendix, of works by the artists mentioned in the book. There are also some black and white illustrations integrated into the text, including some from the developing Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art collection, and photo portraits of the artists.

The questions to which the interviewed artists had to respond were mainly selected with the purpose of revealing their creative work in a broader context. Material prepared by Ieva Astahovska, Stella Pelše and Raimonds Kalējs stands out with its seriousness of approach in the collection of the material and professionalism of research. A special mention must be made of the interviews with photographers, which were prepared by Līga Lindenbauma, Sniedze Sofija Kāle and Alise Tīfentāle. They have supplemented the text with much needed explanations and footnotes, which makes the interview material particularly valuable and useful for further research, as well as for the reader. However the interview which is the most imbued with emotion and arouses empathy is the one with Laima Slava about Boriss Bērziņš, pervaded throughout by the absent and at the same time present vitality of the artist. There are also some unexpected surprises in the book – inappropriate and even unethical divergences, on the part of the interviewers, from the restrained style in line with the aims of collection. Luckily, this wallowing in the “mire” of personal relations and completely subjective interpretations, although present, is not dominant and there are enough other issues that can provide researchers with information of a sufficiently high quality, which would be of use in writing a monograph or for crystallizing out scientific generalities. Hence I assume that for researchers in visual art as well as other areas this collection of interviews, in accordance with the aims of the collection, could serve as a source of research – oral evidence/recollections about life and creative work during Soviet times on the part of artists interviewed or mentioned in the book, and their relationship with the social and political system.

For me as a young researcher of art history the most compelling material is the interviewees’ attempts to define terms that are current and relevant in Latvian art history today, like, for example, the term “non-conformism”. What is meant by this, and how is it understood today, after 20 years of living in independent Latvia, by personalities who lived in the Soviet era?

I must admit that the information expressed in the interviews makes one reflect, for instance, that obviously not enough time has passed since the 1960s–1980s to make objective judgments, and that the human factor is also present, made strikingly apparent in the interview with Egils, the son of photographer Egons Spura, who is still not prepared to reveal the names of the people who “took soundings” [i.e. reported on other members] in the photo clubs (p. 311). The contents of the book, overall, fulfils the extremely vital function of re-interpreting art history, yet does not claim to offer and indeed does not provide any scientific truths. However, it is precisely the learned annotation that is sorely lacking. This is already noticeable in the book’s introductory section: the attached reproductions of original documents and their translations into Latvian included in the book (“thinking of younger people interested and researchers”, that’s including me, too,) are published without comment, nor has the selection of the individual documents been backed up by argument. Although the compiler of the book does argue that the documents “show the political climate against the background of which all of the great artistic personalities mentioned in the collection worked” (p. 33), something that is self-evident to the previous generation may not be at all clear to a generation which has grown up in a Latvia that has regained independence. There is also no key to frequently used abbreviations, neither at the beginning nor the end of the book. The need to read the book from cover to cover could be seen as a weakness because a person’s name or a fact etc. which has been mentioned and explained in one interview appears in the next ones without any comment. In my opinion, it would have been more useful to present short biographies of the persons mentioned in the book, and to introduce directions to references within the collection where clarification could be found.
All praise to the thoroughness of the book’s research editor, Stella Pelše, and the authors of the interviews – the efforts to check the stories of those interviewed, however it is important to note that, taking into account the selective nature of memory, readers themselves must take responsibility for the interpretation of the information gained.(3)

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

1 The book’s compiler and editor-in-chief Helēna Demakova writes that the set of art works described as the “golden heritage” is the achievement of outstanding personalities, encompassing art’s “one branch, which has directly influenced the further development of contemporary art in an internationally convertible sense” (p. 13).
2 Ieva Astahovska, Inese Baranovska, Vita Birzaka, Helēna Demakova, Sniedze Sofija Kāle, Raimonds Kalējs, Anda Kļaviņa, Līga Lindenbauma, Stella Pelše, Alise Tīfentāle, Māra Traumane, Vilnis Vējš.
3 Sandra Krastiņa, for example, states that Aija Zariņa enrolled in the Academy four times (p. 239), whereas Edgars Vērpe says – seven (p. 252).
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