Painting "Refugees", 1917, by Painter Jēkabs Kazaks (1895–1920)
“Refugees” (Bēgļi) by Jēkabs Kazaks is the most expressive and monumental depiction of the tragedy of Latvian refugees in painting. Without unnecessary pathos, he produced a narrative about the Latvian people in the First World War in a stark and laconic portrait of a peasant family.
The refugee movement during the Great War was one of the most significant waves of Latvian emigration, when tsarist propaganda, portraying the attacking Germans as cruel and ruthless, and prone to commit unspeakable atrocities, made tens of thousands of people from Kurzeme (Courland) to leave their homes, sometimes torching them and destroying their crops.
The 210 x 107 cm oil painting features a typical refugee scene: the able-bodied men having been called up, women, old people and small children had to fight for survival on their own. The painting is done in dark and lead-grey tones, with the broken lines and irregular forms highlighting the tragedy and drama, and expressiveness and a kind of emotional nobility is achieved by the gothic lengthening of the canvas in which, similar to many of his contemporaries, Kazaks was influenced by André Derain (1880–1954). All three generations: the mother with a baby at her breast, the grandfather and grandmother radiate inner strength and serenity. Art historian Dace Lamberga emphasizes that Kazaks’ refugees may not be active fighters, yet they seem to possess an inner composure and stubbornness often associated with the Latvian national character. Compared to the emphasis German expressionists put on the ugly and senseless in their protest against the war, Kazaks’ human figures seem to embody faith in their homeland, freedom and the future.
The physical painting itself tells the tale of the harsh conditions of the time: it is painted on two pieces of canvas, because it was hard to come by a single piece that would be as large. It is evidence to the artist’s passionately felt need to leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Kazaks paid much attention to the spiritual development of the public in which, according to him, painting played an important role. He wrote about the mission of the painter: “(He) who does not pay attention to content is just a decorator”.
Jēkabs Kazaks was born in 1895 in Rīga, in the family of a street sweeper. He studied at the Riga City Art School headed by distinguished Latvian painter Vilhelms Purvītis, but because of the war could not complete his studies. On a refugee train he went to Penza in Russia, where he continued his art education at the Penza Art School. There he not only gained knowledge about the art exhibited in the great museums of Petrograd and Moscow, but also met like-minded Latvian artists Romāns Suta (1896–1944), Valdemārs Tone (1892–1958), Konrāds Ubāns (1893–1981), Kārlis Baltagailis (1893–1979), et al. In 1917, Kazaks returned to Rīga and, in the first years of Latvia’s independence, became active in the art scene, defending the principles of modernism. He was a member of the important Expressionist Group and head of the Riga Artists Group. Kazaks untimely death came in 1920 of complications caused by tuberculosis.
In 2014, when Rīga was a European Culture Capital, Jēkabs Kazaks’s paintings were included in the exhibition “1914” held by the Latvian National Museum of Art to commemorate the 100th anniversary since the beginning of the First World War.
His painting “Refugees” is part of the Latvian National Museum of Art collection.
Jēkabs Kazaks 1895-1920. (1925). No: Jānis Dombrovskis. Latvju māksla. Glezniecības, grafikas, tēlniecības un lietišķās mākslas attīstības vēsturisks apskats (141.-144. lpp.). Rīga: Valtera un Rapas akc. Sabiedrības izdevums.
Lamberga, Dace. (2007). Jēkabs Kazaks (63.-83., 212.-215. lpp.). Rīga: Neputns.
Izstādes „Bēgt un atgriezties: Pirmā pasaules kara pieredze” zinātniskie priekšlasījumi no Ērika Jēkabsona („Pirmais pasaules karš un Latvija: Militārais faktors un tā ietekme sabiedrībā”), Vitālija Šaldas („Pirmā pasaules kara bēgļi no Latvijas teritorijas”) un Kaspara Zeļļa („Pirmais pasaules karš Latvijas sociālajā atmiņā”). (2014). Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas video arhīvs.