In 1930-1931, the young artist Kārlis Padegs (1911–1940) was inspired by Russian writer Leonid Andreyev’s story "The Red Laughter" (1904) to create a series of black-and-white India ink drawings, which, using the elements of hyperbole and grotesque, commented on the horrors and senselessness of war.  Of the twenty-nine drawings mentioned in the 1933 catalogue for an exhibition of Kārlis Padegs’s and Valdis Kalnroze’s work, only six originals have been found and are stored at the Latvian National Art Museum ("Red Laughter", "At the Last Moment, Don’t Forget Your Mother", "War") and Tukums Museum ("Hello, Europe!") as well as included in a private collection ("Lullaby", "Don’t Go!"). Along with the reproductions of another six drawings they represent the highest achievement of graphic expressionism in Latvian art of the first half of the 20th century.

Padegs’s invitation to acknowledge that war is evil, which physically and spiritually destroys or mutilates all who experience it directly echoes the series of etchings, "War" (1923—1924), by the German artist Otto Dix. In contrast to Dix’s jarring naturalism, which is used to heighten the grotesque, the combination of the tragic and the comic in the Latvian author’s works is highlighted by the elegance of graphic stylization that makes them akin to Austrian Egon Schiele’s linear expressionism that is rooted in Vienna Jugendstil.  

At the time of "Red Laughter", Padegs was a student at the Academy of Art, from which he graduated in 1933. In the 1930s Riga he had a reputation of a dandy and outsider whose self-image acquired the dimensions of a legend.  His contribution to graphics and, to a lesser degree, painting ("Naked Self-Portrait". 1932, private property; "Madonna with a Machine Gun", 1932, Latvian National Art Museum, etc.) was in sharp contrast to the then reigning traditionalism and gave lie to the assumption that in the second decade of the interwar period modernism has exhausted itself in Latvian art..One of the main sources for Padegs’s themes and motifs was the modern metropolis with its urban alienation, party atmosphere, and social marginality and poverty.  In 1934, he made the series of drawings "A Book for the Poor" conceived as "spitting into the face of the so-called decent society" and, in 1939, twelve portraits of Knut Hamsun’s literary characters.  

When in the spring of 1940, the 28-year-old artist succumbed to tuberculosis, the European history had already made the lines he had written on the other side of a drawing acutely topical: "And especially you, you reasonable ones, you with your cold calm – you should know what war means and also that it can surprise you unawares." Very soon his warning came true in Latvia, where, under conditions of Soviet totalitarianism, Padegs’s legend for many years was just that. Only in the 1970s a serious research of his legacy was begun and the 1981 exhibition returned Padegs to the cultural awareness of the Latvian society.

Kristiāna Ābele

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