Nonconformist art in Latvia may be such a box, as it matches the region, time and regime, when unofficial art started appearing in Moscow. It was put to use after the regaining of independence and thus reevaluates the art history of the Soviet times. Even the time period when nonconformism might have ended here, has been expressed differently, by different art historians, critics and curators.
It might have ended in the beginning of 1980’s or maybe in the 1990’s; changing from the perspective art has been looked at. Even though it is a complicated subject, recent history with its traumatic memory as well as the need in society to forget and move on, bringing forward certain artworks or artists as being the rebels of that time might create confusion, it would divide society into “those who stayed true to their beliefs” and “those who obeyed the system”. Simplification can never truly work in the context of Latvian, especially if this evaluation system comes from the perspective of Western countries. Non-conformist art in a Latvian context may not be replica of the Russian nonconformists, but it is noteworthy as such in accepting the history and society under the circumstances it was in. The term “nonconformists” in a Latvian context was designated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and due to increasing interest from Western scholars in Eastern European and Soviet art; the culture that was once hidden away behind the “iron-curtain”. As unique examples appeared of Russian unofficial artists who created political and conceptual artworks, thus protesting the regimes official propaganda, the researchers started to search for similar examples in the Baltic countries.The Western scholars started to use two dichotomies to describe art of the former Soviet Union – Socialist Realism versus dissident or non-conformist art1; therefore the artists who didn’t accept Socialist Realism canons became unofficial artists. Looking through the examples and texts about art in Soviet times, we can recognise Latvian artists and artworks that could be called nonconformist, or rather as Lithuanian art historian Alfonsas Andriuškevičius in his article “Phenomenon of Nonconformist Art” coins it “semi- nonconformists”2. The reason to agree with this term is because the main inspiration for the nonconformist artists in Latvia was the desire to use a wider range of artistic styles, to search for formalistic ways of expressing rather than a political stand. If Russian non-conformism equally manifested itself both in the aspect of form and political and social ideas, Baltic nonconformists relied more on the form. Comparing the Latvian non-conformism or artistic development as such to Russian non-conformism belittles the importance of the artists who worked during that time, either using different formalistic methods, or using Socialist Realism canons to criticise the time. For Latvian artists it was about the search for new methods of form, new ways of expressing, new ways of living, thus nonconformism was more a lifestyle, not so much about fighting against the system.
However, even a choice to be different, to work in different methods, could bring consequences, because existing art that was prohibited, art that could be tolerated and the permissible art. The artists were encouraged to work with officially-allowed motifs, subjects and symbols that would verify the Soviet mythology. Therefore, some artists used officially allowed methods and created many layered meanings to the works, and some of the artists used formally prohibited styles to create a work, but without a separate or critical meaning. Thus, the line between official and unofficial art in the Baltics was less clearly drawn.3 The consequences of the search for new methods in the creative society of artists was in constantly making a moral choice that could lead to loss, either moral or material. The most common punishment method of the Soviet times (after the death of Stalin) was to accept or prohibit artists, recognise them by state purchases and official exhibitions or forbidding them to appear in any way in public view, by acceptance into the Art Academy and Artists’ Union, or excluding them from one. The main style was a Socialist Realism canon that could serve the purpose of propaganda that USSR is the land of the free. The canon of Socialist Realism was quite repressive by nature, thus not allowing the artists to search for new formalistic or theoretical expressions. The Art Academy, an obligatory professional educational frame, was used to marginalise artists or ostracize them from the official art scene (Ruta Kreicberga, Juris Tīfentāls, and even for short time period Maija Tabaka and Biruta Delle).
There are several events that have changed and developed Latvian artists’ need for freedom during the Soviet times. Firstly, the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s expressed attitude towards the Stalin period that brought liberal cracks in the system. During the Stalin period, artists who attempted to continue modernistic traditions from the previous decades were punished and repressed4. However, Khrushchev’s liberal views didn’t last long. In late 1962 a large exhibition was organised at the Moscow “Manezh” gallery in which a significant exhibition was dedicated to Russian modernists. The exhibition was attended by Nikita Khrushchev himself, who was agitated by the modernist art and especially abstractionism, as not being a proper Soviet way of art. Abstractionists, formalists and anyone else who dared to depart, even a little, from the accepted norms of Soviet ideology were defamed at mass meetings, gatherings and media.5 Nevertheless, the artists continued to search for more information, read and to be inspired by materials that they could get their hands on, such as foreign press from the Eastern Bloc countries or trips to Moscow and sneaking into the film screenings. The censorship only made sure that their work contained nothing critical of the state and party regime, therefore many artists developed metaphorical language and hidden messages in their search for formal expression.
In every medium artists manifested their potentials through experimentation. The experimental Office group (1971–1972) that consisted of film makers and artists from every field, even though their illegal activities were quickly suppressed, managed to make a unique cycle of five short films titled Self Portraits (1972), of which only a few fragments have survived.
Painting as modernism, and especially abstractionism, was declared as a mortal enemy to Socialist Realism, it led to a negative reaction towards artists such as Zenta Logina, Lidija Auza, Ojārs Ābols, whose central part of their work was not only fields of colour and textures, but also their method of integrating texture-enhancing elements such as metal wires and fabrics; thus grew the necessity of allegories, subtexts and metaphors. Derided surrealism influence on Latvian art was justified using as an expression of interest in scientific discoveries and science fiction.6 To objectively represent reality, photo-realism and hyperrealism as genres appeared through the works of Imants Lancmanis, Miervaldis Polis and Līga Purmale.
One of the most interesting fields that wasn’t objectified through the lens of Socialist Realism was the applied arts that many artists used to create more developed and creative forms, because it gave the opportunity for artists to work with the environment and space. It has been pointed out that among them the most avant-garde phenomena were kinetic art and visionary environment proposals.7Unlike experiments in painting, graphic art or performance, which had quite limited exposure, works of art created within this zone were accepted by the institutions and enjoyed much more publicity.8
On the other hand, photography was part of everyday socialist life; in the late 1960’s professional artists started using photography as a medium in their work, as well as documentation of performances and happenings. The mainstream studio-based works were replaced by documentation of everyday life.9 From idealised subjects, the photographers began to focus on the reality, the way it was. During the Soviet period events and performances remained outside the ideologically controlled sphere of art, balancing on the borderline of professional and amateur art and not fitting in either of imposed structures, as well as crossing into the lines of the soviet individual.10 In the 1970’s Andris Grīnbergs initiated many experimental works and happenings.
His performances were mostly as associative confluences of facts of the artist’s life with images, situations or moods, and occasionally only titles, borrowed from contemporary Western culture. These happenings had a common narrative impulse: love and death, the opposition between the hero and society and an idealised, artistic self-image.11 Many happenings were conceived translating events from his and Inta Grīnberga’s lives into visual images and abstracted actions and relating them to Biblical and existential themes. Starting from 1982, the practice of the NSRD (Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings) emerged. Their multimedia experiments converge into an independent aesthetic programme of “Approximate Art”. The NSRD also became known as an avant garde music group and as pioneers of staged concert/performances.
At the end of the 1980’s, during the Art Days, some of the most politically and socially critical performances took place. For example, performance “Children of Staburags” (1988) by artists Oļegs Tillbergs, Sergejs Davidovs and Sarmīte Māliņa, with the theme of environmental protection in the pedestrian tunnel at the train station in Riga. Twenty baby’s cribs were placed in the tunnel and were approached by a figure dressed in a diving suit hitting the beds with the stick. The performance was meant to startle the viewers, so they would know how easily a beautiful thing could be ruined. It is quite difficult to determine when nonconformism ended. From one perspective the dissolution of the Soviet Union took place in 1991, on the other hand the 1980’s brought new liberal forms. The changes in art came in 1982 when painter Džemma Skulme became the chairperson of the board of the Latvian Artist’s Union. This marked a new development and liberation process in art. In 1984, the exhibition took place in St. Peter’s Church in Riga. This surprised society and the art world, not only with its subjects, but also the artworks and installations that were exhibited in the exhibition; thus, embodying the contemporary characteristics and freer formal solutions. Throughout the 1980’s artists were pushing the boundaries, testing the abilities and the reactions they may cause. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Communist Party and launched the perestroika and glasnost reforms, thus opening up society to liberal forms of expression. Because of the daring artists in the 1980’s we can talk about magnificent Latvian art examples.
Nonetheless, art in the 1960’s and 1970’s was idea-art, nonconformism was more about searching for different and new formal solutions, nonconformism was a way of living. Postmodernism’s irony was still unknown, and it was the time of immense learning and searching.
The artists who endured this road of search and being different, are the artists that we will categorise and put in a box on the shelve and in the archive of Latvian art history.
1* Helme S., Nationalism and Dissent: Art and Politics in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania under the Soviets // Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic expression under the soviets, 1945–1991., Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge, general editors. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; Rutgers, NJ: Jan Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, State University of New Jersey, 2002. – P.6.
2* Andriuškevičius A., The Phenomenon of Nonconformist Art, // Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic expression under the soviets, 1945–1991. – P. 28. 3* Ibid. – P.27.
4* In the 1950s, the so-called “French group” – intellectuals who were passionate about French culture – were convicted for “anti-Soviet activities” and imprisoned in Gulag.
5* Borgs J., Art in Latvia in the Latter Half of the 20th Century–Robežpārkāpēji.
6* Bužinska I., Painting and Graphics // Un citi virzieni meklējumi mākslinieki Latvijā “1960–1984” – P.26.
7* Astahovska I., Movement, Enviroment and Light // Un citi virzieni meklējumi mākslinieki Latvijā “1960–1984” – P. 30.
9* Krese S., Changes in Photography. The “A” Group. // Robežpārkāpēji.
10* Traumane M., Improvisations, staging’s, performances // Un citi virzieni meklējumi mākslinieki Latvijā “1960–1984” – P.30.