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JOHANS VALTERS (JOHANN WALTER). "BATHING BOYS" (AROUND 1900)

Art historians consider the depictions of reflection covered surfaces of water as a unifying element in the development of Impressionism as a current in French art in the early 1870s. When the discoveries of Impressionism began reverberating in the works of a new generation of Latvian artists a quarter of a century later, marrying the abstract stylizations of art nouveau, such motifs were of particular interest to the musically gifted painter Johans Valters (Johann Walter, 18691932) who, in the kaleidoscope of impressions looked for rhythms and harmonies, creating an illusion of melodic lightness. As a continuation of this interest, around 1900, he created laconic scenes of children bathing whose best, most delicate examples are "Bathing Boys" (at the Latvian National Art museum) and "Boys by Water" (Tukums Museum). Looking at the sketch kept at the National Museum it seems that its real subject is the delicate balance between the triangle of figures on the right side of the painting, the moving reflection of the bank in the upper part and the shiny reflections to the left. In contrast to the noisy treatment of such scenes in the works of Janis Rozentāls and Max Liebermann, Valters’s work fascinates with its inwardness, augmented by the position of the figures against the light, as if encasing the small bodies that seem to have lost their materiality in a light halo and turning them into a part of the ornament of reflections. The vibrations of water and light seems to translate into the tender pulse of life, with the figures of children lending it spirituality and warmth. The laconic, slightly abstract vision of nature has transformed the trinity of water, sun, and a young body into an effective painterly vision whose melody penetrates the emotional memory of the viewer, making this study a favorite among the LNMM exhibits.

Johans Valters’s life and work represent an eloquent testimony that the wave of modernization at the turn of the 20th century was no mono-ethnic phenomenon. He came from a well-to-do family in Jelgava an, while during his years at the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Art he became close with budding Latvian artists, joining their group "Rūķis" (Elf) and for a while even leading it, after the return to Jelgava he resumed his connection to the Baltic German milieu.  As "the most delicate of colorists and also the greatest poet among the artists of our homeland", (Teodors Zaļkalns, 1902) Valters’s works entered the treasury of Latvian national masterpieces along with those by Janis Rozentāls and Vilhelms Purvītis. In 1906, however, the painter left Jelgava and moved to Germany adopting as his pseudonym a composite of his parents’ last names, Walter-Kurau. After ten years in Dresden, he spent the last fifteen in Berlin, in his painting developing a style close to abstraction, a peculiarly non-material vision of nature, describing his conclusions in a book whose publication was cancelled by the death of the author and birth of the Third Reich. "Painterly joy about nature is awakened only when the human eye sees melodious color-tone and form-shape relationships behind the particular objects," he wrote in his manuscript.  The buds of this vision are in plain view in the play of reflections on his surfaces of water painted during the Jelgava period.

Kristiāna Ābele

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