|"The paintings of the elder generation of overseas Latvian artists were amateurish, weak and banal, with a feeble brushstroke of lapsed quality," - such sentiments have been expressed regarding an exhibition of a Latvian artist living in exile, and, judging by the information on Latvian artists abroad that is provided by the mass media, the intonation which is used to present it and the comments it elicits, this statement could be repeated in a more general sense. This is not the only case when overseas Latvian artists have been accused of passivity and creative feebleness, branding them with the seal of hanky-wetting exiles as their only hallmark.
Arturs Langmanis is an artist born in 1921. Although a printmaker, not a painter, he could also fall under the abovementioned description, as the larger part of his life has been spent in exile, where he has devoted his artistic efforts to the local Latvian community of his country of residence. Several solo exhibitions have been put on in Latvia from the early 1990s onwards; these, however, just like all of the articles devoted to this printmaker, have with enviable regularity emphasised the national patriotic nature of his work, keeping it strictly separate from the way he earned his bread - i.e., commercial art in the field of advertising - and omitting to mention the contribution Arturs Langmanis has made to the formation of the American consumer society during his almost thirty years as one of the leading artists and shop interior designers for Frederick's of Hollywood, America's most popular lingerie retailer, for which he even postponed his well-deserved retirement for several years. "At exhibitions your commercial artwork is always displayed somewhere to the side, if at all; are you ashamed of your occupation?" I asked the printmaker, to which he answered, "No, I have always been very open about the way I earn my daily bread. Commercial art takes certain skills - you have to be a good, able draughtsman, you have to have taste and develop your own personal style, and not everyone makes it there, because the competition is fierce. So there's nothing to be ashamed of."
"There's no sense in accumulating possessions, because policies may change, a new power may come and simply take it all away overnight. What counts is what's in your head, because knowledge can never be taken away." Arturs Langmanis came to this realisation during his time at various POW and later also refugee camps. Up until the start of World War II Arturs studied at Jelgava Teachers' Institute, where he learned English and French, which later came in handy at the camps. He worked as an interpreter for various commissions and tutored English for hundreds of people, from teenage boys to ministers of the Latvian government, directors, bankers and their elegant spouses - everyone rushed to learn at least the very basics of a foreign language.
I don't know whether there is much truth to this, but Arturs says he'd been dreaming of going to California since his childhood. The work he did at the camp allowed him to save up a modest yet sufficient sum of money to start out with, and all that was left to do was wait patiently for America to open its borders to refugees - the more impatient people had already rushed off to English coalmines and Canadian fields of wheat. The silver-haired printmaker remembers not wanting to become a miner or a farmhand; however, the guarantors on the US side - the Philadelphia Baptist Congregation - would have set him to work in the corn fields as thanks for their trouble, so immediately after setting foot on American land in 1951 Arturs wrote a very polite letter to the Philadelphian Baptists and set out in the opposite direction, for California, with his last shirt on his back and all his belongings in a single bag.
Prior to his journey to California the Latvian refugee had managed to contact people who'd seen the same fate and were now living there; he arrived in the land of his dreams at summer solstice - on Midsummer's Eve. "What was America like back then? Well, America passed through a lot of things, all kinds of social storms and experiences. Women's liberation movement was starting out, the sexual revolution, female students were organising rallies at the University of California and burning bras. Then came the age of free love, when the fashion was for vans furnished with mattresses instead of marriage. And then came the craziest time of all - the drug wave of San Francisco; even the offspring of affluent families were dying on the streets, the Haight-Ashbury district was infamous for it. I lived through all of this, without getting involved in any of it, though - I was working," says the artist.
Indeed, soon after arriving in America Arturs was already able to rent a separate room and pay for his studies at the College of Arts and Crafts, where he learnt the trade of advertising artist. "Back then advertisements in America were drawn by hand, it is only now that photographs are used everywhere," the artist reveals, adding that a budding advertising artist also had to be able to design shop interiors and know how advertising agencies work - this was also taught at the college. Arturs had found a suitable job - he worked for Eric Johnson advertising company. The silver-haired artist admits that finding work had not been easy at the time, but, he chuckles, the director of the Eric Johnson agency was a Finnish immigrant and, perhaps because of the Finnish-Russian Winter War, was sympathetic to the Latvian refugee's plight and tried to lend the young man a helping hand.
This agency was not a large one, it consisted of a couple of people who worked on commissions ranging from designing and printing restaurant menus to creating what would these days be called the visual identity of the football team of the University of California. Initially Arturs was entrusted with unskilled, technical work and earned the admiration of his colleagues: at the end of a long working day, when all printing drum workers were covered in printer's ink from head to foot, the Latvian boy could simply roll down the sleeves of his white shirt and leave, looking as if he hadn't been working at all. "Latvian training," says the artist with joy in his eyes.
Langmanis had tried his hand at art back when he was a student at Jelgava Teachers' Institute. He had a special affinity for Vidbergs's subject matter and his fine, skilful graphic lines. He remembers having helped almost all of the girls in his university class with one of their study projects - drawing a horse; professor Baltgailis did not comment on this example of mass production, except for a later recommendation to try for the Academy of Art.
Eventually the director of the Eric Johnson agency noticed that Arturs had a nimble hand for drawing and letter compositions, so step by step the young artist was trained up for design work and entrusted with his own projects, until in 1954, at the end of his employment at the agency, he could already look for his next job as a certified and experienced advertising artist. Over the following decade - until he started working for Frederick Mellinger - Arturs worked for various companies and agencies; his salary rose from $50 a week to $50 an hour.
Frederick Mellinger was the creator of the Frederick's of Hollywood trademark and the head of this women's lingerie and haberdashery empire. Arturs remembers it as "a time when resourceful people in the USA got incredibly rich by trading on sex - one such American success story was Playboy magazine (1953), the brainchild of Hugh Hefner; another was Frederick's of Hollywood. Of course, these initiatives had to fight the strict morality which was prevalent in the society." Frederick was a Jewish immigrant from Hungary who in 1947 opened his first shop - he supplied American housewives with catalogues from which they could choose and order fine lingerie of various makes. In a comparatively short time his company had grown from a single shop to several hundred stores all across America and more than ten million catalogues in every other mailbox. It would be impossible to list all of Frederick's revolutionary achievements in the field of lingerie, swimwear, sexy eveningwear and other pretty things. For the sake of statistics it is only worth mentioning that the company's victory march started with previously unseen - black - underwear and padded bras; soon the majority of Hollywood actresses were wearing only lingerie by Frederick's, on set as well as off it. Frederick's had a knack for keeping up with the times: the advertising concepts for their lingerie were linked to the realities of the era - the Cold War, nuclear testing etc., housewives were turned into "sex bombs"; later, in keeping with the motto of free love, this very company was the one to introduce America to thongs, mini shorts and the micro swimsuit, now known as the bikini. This list could go on almost endlessly. Thanks to his friend Hanson, the General Manager of Frederick's, in 1963 Arturs Langmanis, having comfortably settled into the American environment, met Mellinger himself, who was immediately taken with the Latvian artist's work. Frederick's, known for bringing in high-calibre artists for the design of its advertisements, catalogues, stores and TV fashion shows, signed a contract with Arturs.
"I was good at drawing pretty girls with long legs," the artist chuckles at his good fortune, adding that instead of the patriotic prints his own preference is for his sketches in Indian ink, airy and light, which he'd drawn with a fine brush backstage at theatre and entertainment events, in actresses' dressing rooms, most often leaving the completed works of art behind as gifts to his sitters.
For the following 28 years (until 1991), next to some other commission works, Frederick's was his main place of employment and source of stable income. He put all his energies into the victory march of this company (it is still around, although now the upper hand has been taken by its competition, Victoria's Secret), which to a great extent influenced the formation of the American consumer society. Arturs had fit into the American society with no problems at all - he had a wide set of friends and acquaintances from the world of art, advertising and business circles. Although the artist asked us to omit the juicy kitchen-side stories of the advertising business of the time, we cannot neglect to point out that the sports cars, pool-adorned mansions on the Californian coast, bohemian revelries with friends, and the French-born wife, whose lawyer had to amend the divorce settlement to detail visiting rights to see the little poodle the couple both loved, all indicate that our émigrés have been far from being any kind of "hanky-wetters". This is also confirmed by Arturs Lagmanis's reminiscences about the experiences of some other Latvian artists in America, for example, about the excellent printmaker Harijs Gricēvičs, who had large commissions from Saudi Arabia and who also tried his luck in Hollywood, or about Vidvuds Rūbers, who illustrated books in Argentina. On the East Coast of the USA, another Latvian - Gvido Augusts - was working in advertising, and there were many, many others. "Few were working purely in fine art, Staprāns perhaps... Vija Celmins," the artist says. Asked why, after almost forty years in advertising, he does not have a thick portfolio to show off beside his national patriotic prints, Arturs Langmanis simply replies, "I don't know. Work is work - it just has to be done. I'd never thought it might interest someone or be valuable. And there was no practice of giving the designs back to the artist - there were deadlines, commissions to evaluate and discuss your work, and then it went to print, and that was that. Unfortunately - I guess."