JĒKABS KAZAKS. "BĒGĻI" ("REFUGEES") 1917. Canvas, oil. 210,5 x 107. Latvian National Museum of Art

Painter Jēkabs Kazaks (1895–1920) was one of the founders of Latvian classical modernism whose central subject matter was the tragic fate of Latvian refugees in World War I.  Son of a Riga janitor, Kazaks’s studies at the Riga City Art School with Vilhelms Purvītis at the helm were interrupted by the war. He continued in Penza where he already showed himself as a mature and independent artist.

Trying to overcome the by then anachronistic impressionist tradition, Kazaks first drew his inspiration from the old masters, but then, starting in 1916, under the influence of French modernists and Jāzeps Grosvalds, rapidly changed his style. In his paintings, drawings, and later linocuts, he developed a generalized, expressive technique with object deformations, broken forms and, in painting, a muted palette where the dominant neutral tones connected with chromatically accented patches. At Penza and later, after the return to Latvia in 1917, parallel to expressive portraits Kazaks worked on his basic theme: the life full of suffering of the Latvian refugees. Among the most impressive narrative compositions was the dramatically expressive and monumental "Refugees" (1917, LNMM). Rejecting trivial everyday details, Kazaks in his vertical painting included the figures of one refugee family representative of the entire nation. The sharp angles of the irregular forms, the dominant gray tones are evidence to the organic unity of Kazaks’s style with his tragic theme.  The psychological drama of the figures is directed inward; the vertical grouping of figures culminates in a standing refugee against the background of the gray sky. Kazaks’s compassion does not find expression in sentimentalizing or pity, his is a monument full of restrained pathos to the resilience of the nation. Kazaks also showed that same resilience: the difficult life in the German occupied Riga in 1917.–1919 and the frontline town of Alūksne, where he worked as a teacher of drawing did not impede a further maturing of his talent.

Retaining his synthetically generalized style, Kazaks in the last period of his work intensified his color palette and expanded his themes (e.g., the impressive figures of swimmers). He becomes the leader of the important "Group of Riga Artists", takes an active part in the art scene in independent Latvia, defending the principles of modern art. Death from tuberculosis put a stop to Kazaks’s exuberant creative activity. His art was highly acclaimed by those of his contemporaries who understood it; his significance as an artist is ever increasing in the eyes of both local and foreign experts. By now Kazaks is considered one of the most important Latvian artists of all times.

Eduards Kļaviņš

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