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TEODORS ZAĻKALNS. "SITTING GRANDMA" 1916–1923. Granite. Latvian National Art Museum

"They are as Latvian as the Sphinx is Egyptian " -- this was the comparison poet Edvarts Virza used to characterize sculptures by Teodors Zaļkalns (1876-1972) "Standing Grandma" (1915, diorite, LNMM) and "Sitting Grandma" (1916-1923, granite, LNMM), which are considered a "stylistic turning point in the development of Latvian sculpture" (Ruta Čaupova).

To achieve the monumental in combination with intimacy, strength and tenderness that are his sculptures of old Latvian women, Zaļkalns strived to achieve definite form that was not characteristic of his early, Rodin-influenced period, becoming marked only after 1910. The sculptor has said of his search: "In Grandmas I was consciously seeking a clear, […] crystalline, simple, synthetic form. I constructed them as buildings with certain plates and lines, getting rid of everything less important." This experience brought him closer to the conclusions he expressed in later years that "the construction of a figure is ordered like a sequence of dimensions in the interaction of the geometrical components of which it is form; thus the flow and plasticity of the figure is achieved", although the basic principles of our creative view of the world "are deeply buried in the essence of our people" and do not yield to analysis.  In the tectonics of both the "Standing Grandma" and especially "Sitting Grandma" one perceives echoes of Latvian traditional architecture, connecting the image of mother with the idea of home. Zaļkalns, waiting for an old refugee lady to come and pose for him in 1916, thought that "her kind face, work weathered hands, and the beautiful folds of her dress may float […] the frivolous soul of the vagabond to a more beautiful world than can leisure, light conversation, flirting, or even a game of cards." In an analogy with the stone figures of the ancient Egyptians, created in order for the souls of the dead to know where to return, Zaļkalns’s "grandma" became a home where the severely tried soul of the nation could find shelter.

Son of a peasant and trader, Teodors Zaļkalns was one of those Latvian youths who, in the 1890s studied art in St Petersburg and were members of the Latvian students’ group "Rūķis" ("Elf"). After studies at Shtiglitz’s Central Technical School of Drawing, where he specialized in painting and etching, Zaļkalns went to Paris and, deeply impressed by Auguste Rodin, joined his studio. He was an enthusiastic pupil and, until about 1910, his works showed the flowing painterly lines, rough textures, fragmentation, and emphasis on emotion characteristic of Rodin. The "Grandma" figures were created at a time when Zaļkalns interest was focused on the geometry of form, which peaked after the revolution in Petrograd. In 1920 Zaļkalns returned to his homeland where his portraits, monuments, animal figures, and other kinds of work reflected his understanding of the synthesis of form. From 1944 to 1958, Zaļkalns was chairman of the Department of Sculpture at the Academy of Art, imparting on his students his ideas on "The Essential in Sculpture", published in 1966.

Kristiāna Ābele

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