Graphic Series "The Red Laugh", 1930–1931, by Graphic Artist and Painter Kārlis Padegs (1911–1940)
Russian author Leonid Andreyev’s short story “The Red Laugh” (1906) was the inspiration for a graphic series by the same name “The Red Laugh” (Sarkanie smiekli) created by Kārlis Padegs between 1930–1931. The black and white ink drawings illustrate the grotesque and meaningless nature of war. The imagery is expressive and absurd, and the sardonic titles of the individual drawings reveal another level of critique.
Of the 29 drawings mentioned in the 1933 catalogue for Kārlis Padegs and Valdis Kalnroze’s joint exhibition of graphics and paintings, only six originals remain, held now at the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Tukums Museum, and in a private collection. Nevertheless, together with six other reproductions, the graphic series is considered the highest achievement in expressionism in graphic art in Latvia in the first half of the 20th century. It constitutes an opposition to the heroic military themes prevalent in much of the art of the time. Padegs’ insistence on the evil of war, that does nothing but destroy and maim those involved both physically and mentally, resonates with the cycle “The War” (Der Krieg, 1923–1924) etchings by German artist Otto Dix. In contrast to the horrific naturalism of Otto Dix’s etchings, Padegs’ work uses tragicomic irony to reveal a painful pointlessness. The graphically stylized elegance of the drawings is also similar to the expressionist work of Austrian artist Egon Schiele.
Kārlis Padegs was enrolled at the Art Academy of Latvia when he made “The Red Laugh”, graduating in 1933. He was known in Rīga as a dandy and an outsider with the air of a legend. His graphic works and to a lesser extent his paintings, went against the traditionalist and nationalist tendencies of the art of the period in Latvia. A theme in his work was the urban environment of the modern city and its disenfranchised, alienated residents. The ink drawings in the 1934 “Book for the Poor” (Grāmata nabagiem) cycle were intended as “spit in the face of, so called, good society”. In 1939 Padegs created twelve portraits of characters from the writing of Norwegian Knut Hamsun in the same vein.
When Padegs died from tuberculosis at the tender age of 28 in the spring of 1940, Europe was feeling the reality of his warning: “And precisely you, you considered and collected, you with your cool calm, you should know what the meaning of war is, and you should also know that war can surprise you unknowingly […].” As Latvia descended into years of war and decades of occupation, Padegs all but disappeared from the cultural canon. Research started at the end of the 1970s culminated in a 1981 memorial exhibition organized by the National Art Museum, initiating the return of the extraordinary artist to national awareness.
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