An Englishman in Latvia

On an artist, Edgars Valdmanis

September 21, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 22
On an artist, Edgars Valdmanis
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On an artist, Edgars Valdmanis
Sep 21, 2023 Season 1 Episode 22
Alan Anstead

In the 1990s, while working as a diplomat in Latvia, I bought three paintings by the artist Edgars Valdmanis. I found the first one in a gallery in Rīga’s old town. It is a landscape with trees in the pointillism impressionist style. Soon, I had my second and third paintings from this artist. The third one, a winter scene complimenting my spring and summer paintings, won an award in Latvia. Fast forward 25 years, and I still have the three paintings. 
I wanted to learn more about the artist and his art style. That is the topic of this episode, on the trail of an artist, Edgars Valdmanis.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

In the 1990s, while working as a diplomat in Latvia, I bought three paintings by the artist Edgars Valdmanis. I found the first one in a gallery in Rīga’s old town. It is a landscape with trees in the pointillism impressionist style. Soon, I had my second and third paintings from this artist. The third one, a winter scene complimenting my spring and summer paintings, won an award in Latvia. Fast forward 25 years, and I still have the three paintings. 
I wanted to learn more about the artist and his art style. That is the topic of this episode, on the trail of an artist, Edgars Valdmanis.

Thanks for listening!

On an artist, Edgars Valdmanis

In the 1990s, while working as a diplomat in Latvia, I bought a few paintings to hang in my apartment on Elizabetas iela. My three favourites were by one artist, Edgars Valdmanis. I found the first one in a gallery in Rīga’s old town. It is a landscape with trees in the pointillism impressionist style, built up by small dots of coloured paint. It's a beautiful oil painting that leaves you transfixed looking at it. The curator of the gallery became a friend. Soon, I had my second and third paintings from this artist. The third one, a winter scene complimenting my spring and summer paintings, won an award in Latvia. It had been the image on a bank’s Christmas card. The price was far more than I could afford. I made an offer to the curator. She said she would ask the artist. A few days later, she told me the artist had accepted my offer. He needed the money for alcohol. I had the third painting. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I still have the three paintings. They have been hanging on my walls while living in Slovakia and the UK. I brought them back to Latvia in 2022.

I wanted to learn more about the artist and his art style. That is the topic of this episode, on the trail of an artist, Edgars Valdmanis.

This is what I already knew about the artist Edgars Valdmanis.

He was the only Latvian painter working in the style of pointillism. He was born in Smolensk, Russia, in 1938. He was pretty sick as a child, but that did not prevent him from entering the Latvian Academy of Arts in 1964. Five years later, he completed the pedagogy department with a diploma thesis, ‘Night in the Harbour’, under Professor Eduards Kalniņš. At the academy, Valdmanis became famous not only as a talented student but also as a banjo player and was nicknamed ‘Banjo’. He participated in exhibitions from 1970.

Edgars Valdmanis chose the French post-impressionist master Seurat, the originator of pointillism, as an authority in his art. He wanted to continue, deepen and update this direction, so he used this painting technique. Pure colours have been placed instead of tiny dots, achieving a sharp glow with the illusion of air and light movement. He painted portraits, figurative compositions, and often fantastic visions, but the artist's favourite genre was the landscape. Its design was simple - trees in the middle, forest, bushes, and buildings in the background. Valdmanis was aware of and proud of his place in Latvian art but was tactless and maintained a sense of humour. In 1998, Valdmanis received the ‘Painting of the Year’ award for his landscape ‘Winter is Coming’ in a competition organised by Agija Sūnas Gallery. He died a year later in 1999.

Ok. Good start. But I wanted to know more. I still have a copy of an article about ‘Winter is Coming’ in the Latvian magazine Māksla in 1999. It said:

"At the end of 1998, the Art of the Year competition was held in Agija Sünas Gallery for the sixth time, with the main prize awarded by Hansabank Latvija. Since 1993, a prominent artist has been invited to choose the best work. Hansabank Latvija acts as art patrons, and their support has become a tradition in Latvian art life. In previous competitions, paintings were evaluated by Sarmīte Māliņa, leva Iltnere, lize Avotiņa, Egils Siliņš, Ilmārs Blumbergs. For the 1998 competition, the gallery invited the painter Dace Lielā to select the best painting. Various artists entered the competition with their works, actively involved in the life of Riga's galleries and lesser-known ones. The artist chose Edgar Valdmanis’ painting called ‘Winter Present’.

Edgars Valdmanis was born in 1938 in Smolensk, Russia. He studied at the Latvian Academy of Arts from 1963-1969. He had been participating in exhibitions since 1970. The artist's first personal exhibition was in 1985. Edgars Valdmanis used pointillism. As P. Bankovskis wrote: "Pointillism was developed at the end of the 19th century by the French painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Pointillists conform to the laws of optics to create space and volume by placing the dots of the spectrum in complex combinations and thus obtaining a vibrating, airy and interwoven light structure”.

Dace Lielā admits: "This was not one of those exhibitions where a single work would immediately attract one without hesitation. Also, the competition setting perhaps requires a more reasonable selection of artists and greater commitment because it still reads - Painting of the Year. Not all paintings were the most successful of the specific author's performance. I thought for a long time until I stopped at Edgar Valdmanis’ painting ‘Winter is Coming’. First of all, professionalism immediately attracts me; it is evident that a meaningful, meaningful work has been invested. Although I cannot claim that the painting draws me the most compared to his earlier work that I have seen. If I remember the artist's solo exhibition in the summer of 1998, I think there were even more interesting works. However, this landscape stands out with its consistency against the overall background of the exhibition. It's as if we have known the artist Valdmanis for many years; we know how he works and are used to him being like that, but we must admit that society does not know him. I think that he is unreasonably under-appreciated.

Valdmanis is a professional whose performance can be trusted. If I could say more or less about other works, Valdmanis’ landscape is perfection. He should be listed there if there was such a Red book for artists. He is a unique phenomenon in Latvian art that cultivates the landscape genre. The artist's vision of his painting is relatively strongly combined with the construction of the intellect. Edgars Valdmanis divides colours - puts dot to dot. There is also some affinity with optical art. As a child at the Rosenthal school, I admired the pointillists. It attracted me a lot. And in Latvia, no one seems to be dealing with it. The fact that the artist keeps pointillism alive is already noteworthy.

The painting is a white landscape, as if it were winter, but a hundred bright red dots are revealed when you get closer. I usually use at least two colours to get a white tonality, but entirely contrary for Valdmanis, all in a row, maximum. I have never been fascinated by colour. This difference may be what attracts. Why is he so underrated? Speaking of him, no more can be said. Like it or not, he is already a stable asset. His painting process is very purposeful, thoughtful."

A good review. And ‘Winter is Coming’ is my painting, by the way!

In the middle of the 1990s, there was a lot of art for sale in Latvia. The bigger bookshops like Jānis Roze had oil paintings for sale above the bookcases. There were many galleries in the old town of Riga. There was also an outdoor art area in Līvu Laukums Square, right in the heart of the old town. No one sells paintings there anymore. There are fewer galleries now, too. But there is still a strong interest and love of art in Latvia.

On the trail of Edgars Valdmanis, I first approached the Latvian National Museum of Art. I was sure I had spotted one of his paintings in their storage vault as you go underground to the new exhibition area at the museum. The communications person there kindly responded to my request to know more about my paintings. But they didn’t have an expert who covered this artist or this type of art. I next tried the most prominent private gallery in Latvia. They didn’t even bother to respond. They probably realised that I don’t have lots of money! Then, I tried the Art Academy of Latvia. I sent an email to the communications person. Despite being on holiday, she quickly took action and consulted the director of the Academy. They recommended I speak to Stella Pelše, Senior Researcher at the Art History Institute of the Art Academy. Stella responded positively, asking for a bit of time to do some research on the artist.

She didn’t live far away, so she visited me one evening. This is our discussion.


Me: What can you tell me about the artist Edgars Valdmanis? 

Stella: He is a Latvian artist who is probably not among the most famous or well-known. He was born in the Soviet Union, and then he ended up in Latvia during the Second World War. He studied at the Latvian Academy of Arts during the 1960s. and afterwards, he mostly survived by selling his paintings. He also worked in some jobs which were connected with designing something or not really connected with creative art. He was not even admitted to exhibitions for some time, but then he gradually gained recognition in the 1980s and 90s. His creative biography is quite similar to some paradigm of a bohemian artist, so someone who is not very concerned about the material stability of life, who leads a bohemian lifestyle, and there are even some other Latvian artists, who also in this late Soviet period lived in a similar way. It reminds us about this process of artists becoming dependent on selling their works, which happened in Western art largely in the 19th century when this state or church patronage gradually evaporated, and they had to live by selling their works. And in Latvia, in Soviet Latvia, there were, of course, the state commissions, which were a sort of imitation of that earlier state patronage, like a king or a church commissions artworks and pays the artist. But of course, not all artists were able or willing to participate in that system. And so some were far less materially secure. And what about pointillism? I read in one interview it was said that Valdmanis is the only pointillist in Latvia. It's not very, maybe, accurate because there were other artists who used pointillist techniques. For example, Gederts Eliass used this approach. In the early 20th century, in about 1930, he was educated in Brussels. He travelled to Europe because he fled from persecution after the 1905 revolution. But it was a brief episode and then there was another artist, Auseklis Bauškenieks, who worked after the Second World War. He also painted in a pointillist manner, but he was also different because his art was more focused on anecdotal stories, maybe not like this pure neo-impressionist vision. So, in a sense, this statement about Valdmanis as the only pointillist is true because he may be called the most consistent pointillist. But at the same time, among Valdmanis’ works are also paintings which are not done in this dotted manner. There are other works. Actually, in the 1960s, you can see his works belonging to a certain tradition, I would say, of painterly realism, which was quite established in Latvia. So he painted everyday objects with quite a loose brushwork and quite an expressive manner, but not this dotting technique. And even afterwards, He started to use, I suppose, this pointillist method at some point in the 1970s and then even more in the 1980s and 90s, but even then, there were some works which were also done with other approaches. As far as is known from interviews, Valdmanis was familiar with the forefather of neo-impressionism, George Seurat. He had seen some works in Russia, in museums in St. Petersburg, in Moscow, and this was the only chance for artists in the Soviet period, because they, of course, could not travel to Paris, or any other Western country, but they could go to big cities in the Soviet Union and see those works. And also, he said that he considered himself quite different from Seurat, not like a very devoted follower of him. He himself, though, painted a little differently. 

Me: An inspiration rather than following a master. 

Stella: He was not a direct imitator. I think that maybe this different aspect of Valdmanis is his use of these very Latvian national landscape motives, especially with apple trees. So, the apple tree is also a favourite object for painters, and it symbolises this rural lifestyle. We even had a publishing house in the interwar period called Zelta Ābele, the Golden Apple Tree. It is known as a publisher of very high-quality books in Latvia. 

Me: You’ve seen my three paintings - all have apple trees on them, and they're in that traditional style of landscape painting. I’m not a painter, but I noticed, looking at the paintings, those points of paint that are built on top of each other. It must have taken quite some time to paint one picture. How long do you think it would have taken to paint one painting?

Stella: Yes, definitely, it would have taken quite a long time. The artist himself has said something like that in his interviews, some months or so. This is also one interesting feature that somehow contrasts with his general lifestyle and image like this bohemian artist. There is even another artist in Latvia. He was Russian actually who came to Latvia in 1973. His name is Gennady Sukhanov, and he was also very friendly with alcohol and bohemian and cared very little about this material aspect of life. He also made different artworks. He was a graphic artist. He used photography and mixed media techniques and made pieces which were reminiscent of technical drawings like mandalas, like secret plants of facilities. So it's like being in life, so not very precise and thoughtful. Some artists compensate for this aspect, which they do not have in their real lives. They are very, very scrupulous and very diligent and so on. 

Me: You describe this bohemian life that the artist aspired to. Was that very reminiscent of an artist's life in the 1980s, the end of the Soviet rule, and the 1990s on regaining independence? Was that quite common for artists at that time? 

Stella: Yes, I think. We had a very famous cafe in Riga in the 1990s where artists frequented and spent much of their time there. Also, this period of the late 1980s, which was the National Awakening and then in the 1990s. It was a period of transformation where the old system of support for artists actually disintegrated. Artists had to serve the art market to produce subjects which could be sold, or the other way they could work was to join the international system of various projects. For example, these Soros centres for contemporary art provided some means and support to create works to participate in exhibitions, but this was more oriented towards these contemporary means. And the 1990s was a period when these new art forms, like installations, were on the rise. So yeah, maybe these installation artists looked for international projects, but those who stayed with paintings had to think more about selling their works. 

Me: Valdmanis died in 1999. However, looking to the future, what is the state of art in Latvia now? 

Stella: I think it's very diverse. We also have quite significant problems, because state support, for example, for a contemporary art museum, is still lacking. The problem that art critics and everyone who speaks or writes about art say is that we lack the opportunity to educate the youngest generation about the art of the second half of the 20th century because it is not in permanent exposition anywhere. There is a real danger that many artworks would simply be lost, and many have been lost already. What concerns artists who are working now? They use the most diverse spectrum of approaches, I think. The idea in the 1990s that painting is almost dead. That it's old-fashioned. No one paints anymore. That is not so now. Actually, young artists took up painting again. Classic graphic techniques are used by a certain number of artists, but this new media, of course, are attractive, like electronic and virtual reality. So, this scene is quite diverse. The most pressing problems, I would say, are related to these chances of making exhibitions, of making their works known.

Me: Is studying at the art academy popular? 

Stella: It looks like in the last years, this popularity has decreased somewhat, but at the same time, the art community and the art academy staff they are also working to popularise it more. For example, recently, a non-governmental organisation, which is like an association of art historians and curators, has been founded. We plan to organise events that would popularise this profession. So this new organisation is considering its further activities of how to maybe to promote this field as attractive for young people. On the one hand, the profession of artists may look like it does not promise very secure and very high income. And the state institutions often say that young people should study more physics, mathematics, and other fields. At the same time, I think that the arts can provide quite a diverse education that can enable students to choose diverse paths later in their lives. 

Me: It’s also about creativity, which is a skill, an attribute that many organisations would aspire to. Last question, because quite a few of the listeners to this podcast will be in other countries. Are there many foreign students at the Academy?

Stella: I think there are, but I could not give numbers. Erasmus' programmes are very well working. For example, in the last semester, there was one art history student from Poland. He was a very clever guy and a very nice person. Every instructor afterwards said that it was a real pleasure to communicate with that student. There are some courses which are offered in English to those Erasmus students, but I can only talk about those who specialise in art history because they are also those who specialise in arts themselves so I don't know anything about those. 

Me: Thank you very much indeed Stella, thank you. 

Stella: Okay, thank you.

In conclusion, I found out more about the artist Edgars Valdmanis, thanks to the excellent Art Academy of Latvia. Check out their academic teaching and articles on art in Latvia on their website. It is in English as well as Latvian. I also hope Latvia will someday establish a contemporary art museum to showcase art from the last 50 years - painters like Edgars Valdmanis.

I still love my paintings and hope to collect an autumn tree landscape from Valdmanis one day. To complete the four seasons.

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