Series of paintings "The Riflemen", 1916–1917, by Painter Jāzeps Grosvalds (1891–1920)
Works in the series “The Riflemen” (Strēlnieki), painted by Jāzeps Grosvalds in 1916 and 1917, are the most extensive and artistically most outstanding depiction of the battles of Latvian Riflemen in visual art. The Riflemen were a legendary military force, initially in the tsarist army, which managed to fight courageously against numerically superior and better equipped German forces in the First World War. Later, some Riflemen’s battalions played a decisive role in defending the newly established Latvian state.
Jāzeps Grosvalds gained familiarity with the Riflemen and their everyday life when he was drafted into the tsarist army in 1916. Initially, he was an officer in the Sixth Tukums battalion of demolition men on horseback. Later, he was assigned to the Western front in France, but soon thereafter joined the British expedition corps that went to Mesopotamia, Iraq and Iran. He depicted his experiences in about 70 paintings done in water-colour, gouache, tempera and oil.
Grosvalds was not interested in the traditional battle-painting, with its dynamic attack scenes. His series features landscapes and the works share an idyllic, everyday feeling, with some motifs revealing the tragedy and drama of war. A partial explanation is that Grosvalds did not see much action, but also that the First World War was a trench war, without much one-on-one combat. The young artist concentrated on motifs that seemed important and characteristic of that particular war: trenches, dugouts, bonfires, Riflemen on horseback, in a farmstead, their wounded, and their graves. The central motif was skilfully highlighted with particular colour relations and lines.
The small gouache (24.3 x 32 cm) “Dugouts in Winter” (Zemnīcas ziemā) shows a Riflemen’s encampment near the frontline, where the soldiers are busy with everyday chores, going for drinking water or cleaning chimneys. In “The Alley of Horror” (Šausmu aleja), a tempera on cardboard, the artist turns to the theme of the wounded. The white bandages on the Riflemen, wandering through a foggy forest, form a peculiar rhythm. This accent on the tragic, however, is not sentimental. Another tragic image is the oil painting “Dying Soldier” (Mirstošais kareivis), which may show influences of the Russian painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose painting featuring a dying officer he may have seen in an exhibition in St Petersburg in 1917. In Grosvalds’ painting, the dying soldier is held by a nurse, whose headdress is reminiscent of a Madonna, and the position of the soldier harks back to so many versions of renaissance Pietàs. Grosvalds’ work “Rainbow” (Varavīksne) is of a different tenor: a lone soldier, his back to the viewer, is looking at the rainbow seen in the dark sky. The war landscape here has receded into the background.
A pioneer of war imagery, Grosvalds was a modern artist for his time and even in the European context he had but few peers. He is often compared to the great English painter Paul Nash (1889–1946), whose war art featured trees broken by mortars and ground pockmarked by explosions – an approach that was similar to Grosvalds.
Jāzeps Grosvalds was born in 1891, in the family of lawyer and long-time head of the Riga Latvian Society Frīdrihs Grosvalds, whose house was open to the intellectuals of the time. The budding artist’s parents paid much attention to his education: Jāzeps learnt to play the piano and acquired several foreign languages, including Greek and Latin. Grosvalds was one of the rare Latvian artists of his time who had a European education: a student of the painter Janis Rozentāls in Rīga, he went on to a number of private art schools in Munich and Paris. After the war he worked for the Embassy of the newly established Republic of Latvia in Paris and continued to paint. His outstanding career as a modernist artist came to an abrupt end in 1920, when he succumbed to the Spanish flu.
Grosvalds and his family’s important contribution to Latvian diplomacy, culture and society was celebrated in 2013 at an exhibition titled “Diplomacy and Art: Jāzeps Grosvalds” (Diplomātija un māksla. Jāzeps Grosvalds), which was held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the occasion of the anniversary of Latvia’s international de jure recognition. Jāzeps Grosvalds’ 115th birthday was marked by an exhibition at the Gallery “Rīga” and a book on the artist by art historian Eduards Kļaviņš.
Some of the works of “The Riflemen” series are in the collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art; others can be found in the Värmland Museum in Sweden.
Eduards Kļaviņš on Jāzeps Grosvalds in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Jāzepa Grosvalda atstāto darbu izstāde Valsts Mākslas muzejā, Rīgā: 14/XII 1924 – 18/I 1925. (1925). Rīga: Latvijas Kultūra. (Jāzeps Grosvalds comemoration exhibition in the State Art Museum. Rīga: Latvijas Kultūra, 1925.) (in Latvian and French)
Eduards Kļaviņš on Jāzeps Grosvalds in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Jāzepa Grosvalda atstāto darbu izstāde. (1925). Jāzepa Grosvalda atstāto darbu izstāde = Exposition commémorative des oeuvres de Joseph Grosvald: Valsts Mākslas muzejā Rīgā: 14.12.1924.-18.01.1925. Rīga: [b.i.].
Jāzeps Grosvalds 1891-1920. (1925). No: Jānis Dombrovskis. Latvju māksla. Glezniecības, grafikas, tēlniecības un lietišķās mākslas attīstības vēsturisks apskats (127.-140. lpp.). Rīga: Valtera un Rapas akc. Sabiedrības izdevums.
Kļaviņš, Eduards. (2001). Jāzeps Grosvalds Latvijas mākslas kritikas un mākslas vēstures spogulī. No: Rūta Kaminska (sast.). Latvijas mākslas un mākslas vēstures likteņgaitas (130.-141. lpp.). Rīga: Neputns.
Kļaviņš, Eduards. (2006). Džo: Jāzepa Grosvalda dzīve un māksla. Rīga: Neputns.
Виппер, Борис Робертович. (1938). Jāzeps Grosvalds (31.-34. lpp.). Rīga: Valters un Rapa.