The Latvian Academy of Art has played a major part in Latvia's
20th century art life, and the teaching staff and later the
graduates of the academy created the basis of what we know as
Latvian professional art.
The official decision on the founding of a Latvian Academy of Art
was passed on 20 August 1919, and the academy's first rector
Vilhelms Purvits, through his personality, his determination and
purposeful activity, played a decisive role in making this
decision a reality.
Vilhelms Purvitis had the idea of creating a college of the arts
in Riga already before the First World War. From 1909, when he
became head of the Riga City Art School, Purvitis aimed to expand
and transform the school into an academy of art, which would
become a centre for higher education in the arts in the Baltic
Provinces of Tsarist Russia. In the final years before the war,
this project came very near to fruition. Purvitis was already well
known as an artist and teacher. In 1911 he was invited to apply
for the vacant post of head of the Landscape Workshop of the
Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, but he declined the offer and
stayed in Riga. In 1913, the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg
elected Purvitis an academician in view of his achievements in
art, thus raising him to the official summit of a career in art at
It was the World War that prevented the transformation of the Riga
City Art School into a college. As part of the general evacuation
of Riga, in summer 1915 the school was transferred to St
Petersburg and in reality ceased to exist.
From autumn 1918 the question of the founding of an art college
was on the agenda for all the different governments, only after
the independent Republic of Latvia was firmly established did the
idea of founding an art academy became realistic. The Latvian
Academy of Art developed slowly and with great difficulty. The
opening of the institution was hindered mainly by the lack of
suitable premises. Teaching only began two years later, and the
official opening of the academy, on 12 October 1921 proceeded
without any official ceremony, because of the lack of funds. Right
up to 1940, the academy was located in the Railways Board building
dose to the central station in Riga.
Apart from Vilhelms Purvitis, also playing a very important role
in the creation and development of the Latvian Academy of Art were
his closest assistants - the future vice-rector Peteris Feders,
the professors Janis Roberts Tillbergs, Rihards Zarinc, Janis Kuga
and Konstantins Roncevskis. The academy provided four-year general
art classes, as well as strictly focussed master classes.
were seven master classes altogether - Landscapes (led by Vilhelms
Purvitis, 1921-1944), Figural Painting (led by Janis Roberts
Tillbergs, 1921-1932: Gederts Eliass, 1932-1944), Decorative
Painting (led by Janis Kuga, 1921-1944), Graphic Art (led by
Rihards Zarins 1921-1938: Karlis Krauze 1938-1940), Sculpture (led
by Konstantms Roncevskis, 1921-1935: Karlis Zale 1936-1940),
Applied Scuplture (led by Burkards Dzenis, 1922-1944) and Ceramics
(led by Rudolfs Pelse, 1924-1941).
The 1920s was a period of turbulent activity in Latvia, a time of
boom and bust, which saw swift economic growth and bankruptcies.
The newly-founded Academy of Art too was constantly struggling
with economic problems. In the early twenties the question was
raised in society as to whether the academy itself was actually
necessary. Many young artists, advocates of modernism, were
actively opposed to the academy, turning at the same time against
academic traditions in art.
The continued existence of the academy was largely due to the
authority and diplomatic talent of its first rector, Vilhelms
Purvitis. He showed great foresight in gradually involving as
teaching staff the academy's most talented opponents. The first of
these opponents to take up work at the academy was Karlis
Miesnieks, in 1922, joined a year later by Ludolfs Liberts, and in
1925 by Valdemars Tone, Oederts Eliass and Konrads Ubans as well.
However, the press continued to dispute the role of the Latvian
Academy of Art in art education throughout the inter-war period.
In the first years of the academy's existence the students were
enrolled regardless of their previous education, and right up to
1932, if necessary, it was possible to obtain secondary education
at the academy itself, in parallel with studies. This opened the
academy's doors to underprivileged students. A degree of material
support was also provided by the annual exhibitions of works by
students, which were for sale.
The most popular field of study at the Latvian Academy of Art has
always been painting, and it is no wonder that all the rectors to
date have been painters. The first four took up their posts at the
academy in the inter-war period: Vilhelms Purvitis was rector up
to 1934, Janis Kuga served from 1934 until 1940 and from 1941 to
1944, Oto Skulrne held this post from 1940 to 1941 and from 1944
to 1961, succeeded by Leo Svemps in the years 1961-1974.
The teaching staff of the academy, even in the general art
classes, were outstanding, well-known painters. It was the
opportunity to study under their tuition that attracted a large
number of talented young people to the academy, so that painting
was the most popular discipline and most in demand.
In view of the authority of its head, the best-known of the
masterclasses was that of Landscape Painting. Teaching was based
mainly on studies after nature, which later served as material for
painting major works in the studio. Purvitis also accustomed his
students to paint such major works without reference to studies,
because he was convinced that the most important aspects should be
retained in memory. Important principles in his master class were
the development of the sense of tone relationships, strict
compositional arrangement of the painting and the attempt to
achieve colour richness using only a few colours.
The Figural Painting Master class was initially led by the
well-known portrait painter Janis Roberts Tillbergs, who kept very
strictly to the academic canons of realism. Himself a brilliant
artist even when painting salon portraits, Tillbergs was often
quite despotic as a teacher, and frequently came into conflict
with several of his students. The students of his master class
were often criticised for unnecessarily theatrical composition,
lack of improvisation and flatness of colour. From 1932 the
Figural Painting Master class was led by Gederts Eliass, whose
approach to painting was more in tune with the times and better
corresponded to the artistic interests of the students.
The Decorative Painting Master class trained set designers and
monumental painters. It was led by Janis Kuga, who was also
actively engaged as set designer at the National Opera and the
Altogether in the inter-war years 860 students were enrolled at
the academy and 219 graduated. Not all of them were fated to
become outstanding artists. Some perished in the chaos of the
occupations and the Second World War, many went into exile at the
end of the war and an even greater number were forced by necessity
to choose other, more advantageous professions. However, it was
the most talented and successful graduates of the Latvian Academy
of Art who, in the following decades, largely determined the
essence of Latvian professional art and ensured the handing-down
of artistic tradition.
Ruta Lapina, Author of the text
Ronalds Tuoms, Translator from Latvian