ACADEMY OF ART 1920-1940"

Vilnius Picture Gallery, 19th November, 2002 - 28th February, 2003

Mara Lace, directress of the Latvian State Museum of Art, presented the Exhibition "Teachers of painting at the Latvian Academy Art" Fragment of the Exhibition in Vilnius Picture Gallery

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 (1872-1945). Spring. 1930s. Oil on canvas. 71,2x101,3 cm. Property of the State Museum of Art, Latvia
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 that time.
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.
Leo Svemps (1897-1975). Fruits and a Dish. C.1930. Oil on canvas. 55x65 cm. Property of the State museum of Art, LatviaThere 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.

Karlis Miesnieks (1887-1977). Lady with a red Shawl (A. Sraume). 1929. Oil on canvas. 110x79 cm. Property of the State Museum of Art, Latvia Konrads Ubans (1893-1981). The Maras Pond. 1923. Oil on canvas. 54x65 cm. Property of the State Musem of Art, Latvia Janis Roberts Tilbergs (1880-1972). Gipsy Woman. 1926. Oil on canvas. 51x44 cm. Property of the State Museum of Art, Latvia
Ludolfs Liberts (1895-1959). Venica. St. Marco's Cathedral. 1930s. Oil on canvas. 76,5x101,5 cm. Property of the State Museum of Art, Latvia Janis Kuga (1878-1969). Sketch of a Set Design for Richard Wagner's opera "Die Meistersinger won Nürnberg". 1925. Tempera on canvas. 70x100 cam. Property of the State Museum of Art, Latvia Janis Liepins (1894-1964) In the Tavern. 1930. Oil on canvas. 68x98 cm. Property of the State Museum of Art, Latvia

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 National Theatre.
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 

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