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JĀNIS JAUNSUDRABIŅŠ. ILLUSTRATIONS FOR "BALTĀ GRĀMATA"

Many generations of Latvians have by now benefited from a literary and artistic whole, "Baltā grāmata" ("White Book") by writer and artist Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš  (1877–1962)

The subtitle of "Baltā grāmata" (Part One, Rīga: "Dzirciemnieki", 1914; Part Two, Rīga: "Valters un Rapa", 1921), "A Hundred Episodes in Words and Lines" point to the author’s drawings as an indispensable complement to his childhood reminiscences. "No Latvian artist has hitherto shown such a deep understanding of child psychology expressed in crystallized forms easy to perceive by any child," wrote art historian Jānis Dombrovskis in 1925, remarking that "Baltā grāmata" was the highest achievement in children’s book illustration in Latvia.

It was not only the early boyhood memories that helped Jaunsudrabiņš to find the most appropriate form to his intended unity of word and line, but also serious explorations of children’s drawings and their world of games. The choice of linear expression was determined by the consideration that "in a drawing, it is easier to get rid of the heavy reality and turn to stylization", which represents "a departure from the conventional, natural form to express the same thing […] in a concentrated manner." The author’s position was dictated by his conviction that "a child needs no illusion; he needs stimulation", which, as opposed, for instance, to the opulent illustrations by Jānis Roberts Tillbergs to "Misiņbārdis un stiprais kalps" (1913), a fairy tale by Anna Brigadere, would leave plenty of space for imagination.

Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš was born in the country, in the family of farmhands. When, after graduating from a Farming School in Vecsāti, he worked as a steward at the Smuki estate, he developed a desire to become a painter. First he attended the Veniamin Blum school of drawing and painting in Riga (1899–1904), and then continued at Alexei  Javlensky’s studio in Munich (1905) and with Lovis Corinth in Berlin (1908–1909). In the Latvian art scene Jaunsudrabiņš participated also as a critic, publishing, in 1914, a first attempt at a historical overview of the development of national art. His painting, where impressionistic realism predominated, does not reach his literary contribution, yet it was his peers who first appreciated the value of the drawings for "Baltā grāmata". The original illustrations were displayed in 1914–1916 at several exhibitions of Latvian art in Riga, Petrograd, and Moscow. Some of them have been preserved to our time at the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Museum of Writing, Theater, and Music.

Paul Gauguin once invited Western civilization to return from the horses of the Parthenon to the child’s hobby horse. Jaunsudrabiņš went even farther: "the cardboard horse purchased at the market has been thrown aside and the children are playing with the animals they have made themselves", for "what beautiful cows and horses can be seen in simple sticks". Owing to the author’s perceptiveness, even nowadays people can discover a whole world in the harmony between word and line that is Jaunsudrabiņš’s "Baltā grāmata".

Kristiāna Ābele

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