Remembering the War. Viktors Jansons on the “Café Spleen” Project

Remembering the War. Viktors Jansons on the “Café Spleen” Project
Mārtiņš Otto, Riga 2014
“There’s supposed to be no splendour at all, not like the events at the opera,” says stage director Viktors Jansons as he is pointing at an unpretentious Home Guard tent set up in the garden of the Jānis Akuraters Museum. He had wanted it to be rougher yet, to recreate the atmosphere of soldiers’ log house in a forest. “These will be intimate conversations remembering the First World War,” says the director, stressing that he firmly believes that something from the war has firmly planted itself in the subconscious of all of us.

His daily routine for the past several days has been in the museum’s rooms and garden where the month-long project “Café Spleen or August 1914” opened on the 12th of August. The project encompasses series of concerts, lectures, poetry readings, discussions and film screenings that will look at, from various standpoints, the presence of painting, poetry, music and other arts in World War I and the lives of Latvian Riflemen.

It is no coincidence that the series take place at the Jānis Akuraters Museum – the popular poet was one of those who joined the legendary Colonel Jukums Vācietis’ Fifth Zemgale Regiment as a volunteer in 1916. This period is described in Jānis Akuraters’ novel “Ugunīgie ziedi” (“The Fire Flowers”). “Café Spleen or August 1914” has been created in close co-operation with the Jānis Akuraters Museum and the head of the museum, Maira Valtere. However, it will not be a story specifically about Jānis Akuraters, but also about his contemporaries – artists, writers, musicians – who also were Latvian Riflemen, and the heritage they have left behind.

“In fact the entire “Café Spleen” cycle is dedicated to one extraordinary historical character – Colonel Jukums Vācietis. So far he has not been very popular with the general public. The fact that he left Latvia for the Soviet Russia and became the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army causes people to dissociate from him in some way. But as I understand it, and based on my historical and literary researches, the draft of 1916 was an ingenious achievement that will never happen again,” emphasises Viktors Jansons.

“Being an outstanding strategist, tactician and expert on military matters, he knew that a war can be won by literature, art and science.”

“Neither Oskars Kalpaks, nor Frīdrihs Briedis were fully aware that art can mobilise a soldier for a battle. That is why Jukums Vācietis urged creative personalities to join the ranks. Many of these poets and artists were yet to achieve their full potential. The vast majority were very young. A few were a little older, such as Jānis Akuraters. He had already learned a few very tough lessons during the Revolution of 1905, and knew a lot about the meaning of life and death. He had been sentenced to death thrice, and thrice escaped. At the start of the First World War, he already was a grown-up man. He did not need anything, he had survived, just married with a baby daughter. And yet, this mature man was one of the first to respond to Jukums Vācietis’ appeal,” says the director.

Jānis Akuraters writes in his diary on the 23rd of November 1916, shortly after joining Latvian Riflemen, that he had talked to Latvian officers about the most urgent tasks, and one of these were chronicling the war. And the history of Latvian regiments has to be written “so that every Latvian farmer could later read it to his family on Sunday mornings as if it were scripture.”

It was a very special strategy, to have poets, artists, and musicians serve in the army – not making them to be among the first in the line of fire, but ordering them to work as corpsmen, correspondents, war chroniclers, making these righteous, sensitive youths striving for aesthetic experience to see the cruelty of war, heaps of corpses, death, and soldiers’ courage, and in these very situations speak the language of patriotic art to inspire Latvian Riflemen. It was the road to our own State of Latvia.

“Jānis Akuraters was joined by writers Kārlis Skalbe, Edvarts Virza, painters Voldemārs Tone, Jēkabs Kazāks, musicians, composers. One of these was conductor Aleksandrs Valle who, while serving in the Fifth Zemgale Regiment, established a sixty-strong brass band. But they also were grave-diggers and corpsmen who had to deal with bloody bandages, carry the wounded and bury the fallen. They saw death up close,” nods Viktors Jansons.

“So what did all these artists, poets, musicians, and Jānis Akuraters in particular, do in such a situation? After a battle, they used to find some kind of shelter, a barn, or a sauna, or some other such place, where they came together, made them some tea, sang songs, maybe some of them painted something, someone else read poetry. They pulled themselves together with the help of art. Jānis Akurāters wrote down the name “Café Spleen” sometime before the war while visiting Paris. He liked the word. And this is where that which we call the classics of Latvian art and literature was created. That’s the main idea of these small shelters.”

“I consider all these facts unique. It was an ingenious move by Jukums Vācietis, which he would go on to employ again and again. He was always followed by a group of artists, be he in Petrograd, Moscow or Kazan.”

“Café Spleen or August 1914” opened on the 12th of August, with a zeppelin flying above the tent built by the Home Guard. For an entire month, this place will host a variety of events inspired by these historical events. Viktors Jansons, the director and author of the idea, says that they should raise the fallen soldiers and spread the message that their spirit is alive. The charming Marija Naumova performed in the opening concert of the series, singing Riflemen’s songs and Russian romances characteristic of the period. “She brought the Parisian charm to this rugged soldier tent,” explained Viktors Jansons.

The series “Jānis Akuraters in Two Periods of History” is made up of two parts. The first is the “Magic Theatre – Only the Mad Allowed to Enter. Akuraters or Hesse?”, dedicated to the period when the personality of Jānis Akuraters, a poet and artist, was being shaped, which falls on the Revolution of 1905 when the nation revolted against the tsarist regime and German nobility’s stranglehold.

To fully understand the way the artist’s personality was developing, the organisers of the project will use Hermann Hesse’s novel “Steppenwolf”. One might say that Jānis Akuraters, who in 1904 and 1905 published several of his works under the pseudonym of Vilks (Wolf), and Hesse’s Harry are mirror images. The project “Magic Theatre – Only the Mad Allowed to Enter. Akuraters or Hesse?” will focus on parallels between Jānis Akuraters’ poetry and Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, and also feature composer Juris Kulakovs’ songs composed specifically for the project to poems by Jānis Akuraters.

The second part of the series “Jānis Akuraters in Two Periods of History” is “Café Spleen”. Jukums Vācietis and Latvian Poets in World War I Mystery”, which will continue the analysis of the personality of an artist at the crossroads of history. The programme includes readings from Jānis Akuraters’ short story “Café Spleen” and songs composed by Juris Kulakovs set to poems about Latvian Riflemen by Jānis Akuraters, Kārlis Skalbe and other authors. The songs will be performed by Miervaldis Jenčs and Ieva Akurātere.

The second part of the series “Cafe Spleen or August 1914” – performance/dialogue “Schiller’s “Robbers” in Three Revelations”. Commenting on the inspiration for the performance/dialogue, Viktors Jansons says: “While studying photographs of plays staged by the Riflemen during the First World War, my attention was captured by a picture of actors playing in “The Robbers” by Schiller. Why “The Robbers”? It’s war, there are mountains of corpses each day, there’s cruelty, brutality, Latvian Riflemen are driven forward to perish under the fire of German cannons – why Schiller’s “Robbers”? Is it not absurd? And also – “The Robbers” by Schiller is the first play known to have been staged by Latvians. What is it so intriguing in this play? This question kept coming back into my head, and prompted me to reread the play – or maybe read it in a new way… I have to admit, I have not read anything so emotionally crushing lately…”

The performance-dialogue is being staged in collaboration with Viktors Jansons’ former student, set designer and stage director Reinis Suhanovs.

“Me and Reinis have been analysing “The Robbers” by Schiller for quite a long time. Reinis has some very interesting opinions linking up the play with the current developments in Ukraine. At our last meeting he said, if I was a soldier in Jukums Vācietis’ regiment who has seen the hell of the Christmas Battles, and if I had seen this play during the war – I would go no further, I would have deserted. I was truly bewildered at this and did not know what to say, whether to get angry or not,” says Viktors Jansons.

The theme for “Music at the Battlefield” will be Andrejs Selickis’ new composition “Colonel Jukums Vācietis. The Song”. There will also be the composer’s adaptations and arrangements of the Riflemen songs, folksongs, the repertoire of the Riflemen regiments. Performers: Ieva Parša, Māris Jēkabsons, Andrejs Selickis and a group of instrumentalists.

On the 22nd of August, a literature night will feature readings from, and comments on, Jānis Akuraters’ “Ugunīgie ziedi” (“The Fire Flowers”) by Dr. philol. Maija Burima. Ugunīgie ziedi” is one of the first novels in Latvian that tells about the battles fought by Latvian Riflemen during World War I.

The event “Bridges and Those Who Cross Them” during the Riga City Festival on the 16th of August will include screenings of original footage of the wartime period from 1910 to 1919.  Film critic Inga Pērkone will inform the audience about the film industry during World War I and tell about “Laiku viesulī” (“In the Vortex of Times”), a Latvian feature film shot in 1921 that has been lost since its release. Jānis Akuraters wrote the script for the film. Also during the event: Juris Podnieks’ documentary film “Strēlnieku zvaigznājs” (1982) and director Aleksandrs Rusteiķis’ feature film “Lāčplēsis” (1930).

During the “White Night” contemporary art forum on the 6th of September, young authors from Jānis Rokpelnis’ workshop at the Literary Academy will participate in poetry readings “Nakts. Nenoteikts mirdzums” (“The Night. Indeterminate Shine”). In their poems, the young up-and-coming poets of today will speak about the interpretations of World War I from the historical perspective and about the theme of war in the contemporary contexts. In addition – an exhibition of light installations by young artists and Vitālijs Vinogradovs’ video material about poetry events.

Before that, on the 14th of August, three exhibitions will open at the Jānis Akuraters Museum.

Exhibition by glass artists Inguna Audere (Latvia) and Michael Rogers (the United States), “Moon and Nails. Burning” will be a visual metaphor celebrating the Indestructible in man the moment his soul, touched by dreams and reality, is seeking shelter.

The exhibition “Poet/Rifleman/Artist – Portrait” in the Light Hall in Jānis Akuraters’ Home will present portraits of Latvian Riflemen, riflemen poets and riflemen artists by Konrāds Ubāns, Valdemārs Tone, Jēkabs Kazāks, Jāzeps Grosvalds and other artists.

The director’s personal contribution to the project will be the third exhibition, “My Grandfather, My Great Grandfather the Rifleman – from the Closet of My Grandma”. “These are objects and memories of my grandfather and my grandmother’s brother, a collection I have inherited. It includes various documents, conscription papers, notes from the battlefield, medals. The exhibition is meant to generate the feeling of a Latvian Rifleman’s dignity, be it a farmer, an artist, my grandfather whose fingers were shot off, or my grandmother’s brother who was wounded in the stomach. They were all creating the State of Latvia.”

“I will approach the public with my understanding, and my story, of my ancestors, my grandfather who also served in the Fifth Zemgale Regiment and suffered a severe wound. We have to talk about this tragedy, millions of Europeans dead, through art.

Viktors Jansons notes that this will be an open-air exhibition, which means that it will depend on a number of factors. “Maybe it will be just one time, maybe three times that I will display the entire collection of these private objects.”

The project “Cafe Spleen or August 1914” will close on the 12th of September with the event “The Field of Death and… The Apotheosis of World War I”.

2014 is a meaningful number that carries a great semantic meaning. And it is very important to me. Although there have been many prophetic predictions concerning August 2014 and the start of the First World War, I’d like to say that military conflicts are happening all the time everywhere in the world. There are warzones emerging all over the globe, non-stop. But there’s something else I want to say. When I was a student in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “August 1914” for the first time. There’s one particular scene – in August 1914, when all this European war affair began, young people had the feeling that they were the protectors of the fatherland, they were enormously enthusiastic. It’s early September, students are drinking beer in a St. Petersbug pub, shouting again and again: “To the fatherland! To the system! To the tsar!” And they keep going, and beer is flowing. Finally, a professor at a nearby table loses his patience and says to them: “Dear sirs, please! What system are you drinking to? You are so young, so innocent, and there is just one system you must protect: it is the system of your soul!”

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