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BORISS BĒRZIŅŠ

A 1958 graduate of the Latvian Academy of Art, Boriss Bērziņš (1930–2002) entered the art scene in the Soviet period with its socialist realism doctrines that demanded figurative paintings with developed plots on subjects approved by the ideologists.  Along with his peers Edgars Iltners, Indulis Zariņš, and Rita Valnere, he was considered an innovator of the doctrine, an artist in the so-called "severe style". It soon became clear, however, that this particular artist defied a particular framework: he painted what he considered of interest ignoring official criticism and rejections of his works when exhibitions were put together. That brought Bērziņš the status of an outsider, even though it was impossible to disregard his talent: among artists he was an unquestioned authority precisely because of the formal challenges and extraordinary professional ability always present in his works. Moreover, while stable basic interest was retained in terms of the subject matter and his works could not be confused with any other, there were endless variations within the limits of a theme depending on where the artist’s particular interest lay at any given moment: developing color until the object gains solid materiality; the rich plasticity of a voluptuous figure; the use of gold leaf in a painting; the exploration of collage or a particular subject matter: e.g., a drunk with a rainbow shiner under the eye which, as a result of Bērziņš reflection, renders him similar to a Byzantine Madonna. In addition to painting, Bērziņš has always drawn a lot – on a variety of materials, including art books – and it is his drawings that often make explicit his unique visual discoveries.

As early as the late 1960s, after a period of garish "tube style" landscapes and genre paintings, there was widespread bewilderment regarding the nowadays admired Bērziņš’s monochrome paintings, mostly still lifes with musical instruments as well as scenes from the lives of fishermen, symbolic silhouettes of bread, sun, milk jug, etc. that culminated in the seemingly abstract "Wall" series in the 1980s and 1990s.

The human figure triumphs (and is officially rejected because of its round, aesthetically "offensive" form) in the 1980s. It originates in the sauna compositions that morph into bathers, women sitting in the dunes reading newspapers, and finally models in the artist’s studio.

The painting "Artist and Model" (1985) belongs to those where the results of explorations from several periods reach their synthesis. The collage-style silhouettes that characterize both the monumental character and vital tensions of the figure and the self-portrait of the artist are set in high relief against a background covered in silver leaf, in part covered with yellow lacquer that looks like gilding.  The means of expression designed for portraits of saints accords the highest value to the life of the artist with its democratic milieu and enthusiastic activity.

Even though Bērziņš always emphasized that he was only interested in form (and it is indeed expressed with absolute professional freedom and purposeful daring), what we also get from his works, is his deep and loving understanding of people and life, which is timeless because it concerns existential values.  The plots that were of interest to the artist were classical but, at the same time, inspired by the quotidian: pig slaughter, sauna scenes, landscapes, revelers at the summer solstice festival. From another perspective, however, every woman for him was a Madonna or Venus, but revelers seemed to have stepped out of some version of the Lord’s Supper. 

There is something of an authentic postmodernist in Bērziņš’s artistic viewpoint: he moves across eras and styles with ease, testing art concepts and locating his themes throughout the centuries. His references are the Baroque, Byzantium, Proto-Renaissance in Italy, Rembrandt and Leonardo as well as, closer to home, Johann Kristoff Brotze. "Artist and Model" likewise refers to other paintings – the closest would be "An Artist’s Studio" by Janis Rozentāls, the most remote – frescoes at Pompeii.

Laima Slava

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