Archaeology of Future Art. Who was Voldemārs Matvejs?

Archaeology of Future Art. Who was Voldemārs Matvejs?
Mārtiņš Otto, Riga 2014
The latest “Riga 2014” exhibition opened on the 6th of September at the Art Museum Riga Bourse. This time, the exhibition is about the passionate artist and researcher Voldemārs Matvejs, a Latvian who was not among the best students at the St. Petersburg Art Academy, but had such a profound interest in non-European art that his theoretical studies were immensely influential among Latvian artists in the 1920s.

The exhibition is made up of two parts that are closely related and supplement each other. The main show in the Great Hall of the Art Museum Riga Bourse is dedicated to Voldemārs Matvejs himself, his studies of primitive and exotic art. The exhibits include photographs taken by the artist more than a hundred years ago, as well as the objects he photographed – unique wooden sculptures and shapes from the largest European museums that Voldemārs Matvejs visited for his studies, as well as contemporary photographs of the places where these wooden sculptures had been created. The other part, or the continuation of the exhibition is on show in Bose Hall, presenting the effect of Voldemārs Matvejs’ studies on Latvian art, particularly the so-called Riga Group of artist that was active in the 1920s and 1930s. At the centre of the exhibition is Voldemārs Matvejs’ book “The Negro Art” – a manifesto of the quest for new artistic language in Latvia at the time.

What do we need to know about Voldemārs Matvejs as a researcher and theorist, whose ambition was to create a vision of future art, lead artists out of the “European dead end”? The curator of the exhibition, Irēna Bužinska, comments:

“Voldemārs Matvejs was interested in the theory of art of all nations and times. That’s what he was working on, focussing on individual artefacts of various cultures. He was first of all interested in sculpture – dimensions and shapes, although himself a painter studying at the St. Petersburg Art Academy. The main idea of our exhibition is to tell about Matvejs – not as an artist, but a theorist.

Voldemārs Matvejs was mostly interested in the aesthetic properties of primitive art sculptures, not their social function, whether they were idols to worship, fertility symbols, or meant to keep evil spirits away. The innovative approach of Matvejs was to discover the beauty and secret of these figures.

Could we say that this quest for new art was due to the fact that Voldemārs Matvejs was not very successful as a painter? “In part, yes, but not entirely so,” says Irēna Bužinska. “It was the Matvejs family’s decision that he should study at a prestigious academy. He had material support, and he chose to study painting. He became a student at the St. Petersburg Art Academy in 1905, where he continued to study for nine years, and he was not the best student. He was one of those who were always late with meeting assignment deadlines, claimed additional scholarships saying that he did not have enough money to buy paints. From this standpoint, Matvejs’ oeuvre is not very interesting to study,” the curator says laughingly.

“But in addition to struggling through the academy, Voldemārs Matvejs joined the Youth Association of St. Petersburg. This was a group with extremely ambitious goals. First of all, they wanted to create new art that would be starkly different from the art of the past generations. To make a lasting statement is something that every new generation wants, and this one was no different. Of course, to do something like this is increasingly difficult for every new generation, but at the beginning of the 20th century this endeavour coincided with not only a negative opinion of the past generations’ achievements, but the entire society’s apprehension for something new arising in the world.

Voldemārs Matvejs and the creative intelligentsia of the beginning of the 20th century had a presentiment of a catastrophe, revolution was in the air.

Undeniably, this was because of a crisis in the system of moral, ethical and aesthetical values at the beginning of the 20th century. The education system was unable to meet the needs of young artists. There was no springboard for further development of art.”

“Hence the ambitious goal – use everything that was belittled before. This so-called wave of primitivism started from studies of children’s drawings, ethnographic ornaments, icons, naïve art. Early Christian works and folk art were being brought into the limelight. Although all this was happening on the margins of art history, the centre had reached a dead end, there was no further development. It was a very logical interest in what lied beyond everything known at the time,” explains Irēna Bužinska.

“The interest in primitive art was a pan-European phenomenon – it was in fashion. We can certainly mention such culture centres as Paris, Berlin, Munich, which Voldemārs Matvejs visited in 1912. This is where the great change begins – he, as a member of the association of young artists of St. Petersburg, is delegated to travel to Europe and establish contacts with like-minded contemporaries. He arrives in Munich, meets Wassily Kandinsky and members of the Blue Rider group, in Paris he has to find Pablo Picasso, visit art galleries, convince artists to participate in joint exhibitions. He wrote that he had been to all of these places, seen everything, and met the right people. But, strangely enough, all of them were telling him about African art. There were samples in Picasso’s workshop, whereas Kandinsky recommended Matvejs several books about non-European art.”

“At exhibitions, artists tried to showcase, besides own works, also something from Africa or Oceania. Voldemārs Matvejs is surprised to discover this trend in European art, and he is eager to study the phenomenon, and even more so to visually document what he sees. Unfortunately, it is year 1912 and a camera is very costly and hard to come by. He writes one more desperate letter, this time to his patron, that there are a lot of amazing works of art and that he is much more interested in African art than in Picasso, however, he has no camera to capture everything he sees. It does work, although Voldemārs Matvejs has to wait a while to get his camera. A travel plan is prepared, and one year later, when Matvejs had his camera, he visited eleven European museums in less than two months to collect materials about primitive art.”

Taking into consideration the transport, technical options and many other practical matters at the time, an incredible amount of work goes into the project. It was a fantastic journey – London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Brussels, Hamburg, Munich, in the museums of which Voldemārs Matvejs collects an impressive quantity of ethnographic materials. He also takes great interest in literature of the period that deals with ethnographic and non-European art..

Voldemārs Matvejs turned out to be an excellent theorist. The pace and amount of the work he did are beyond comprehension.

In less than a year, three books are published. The first is about the art of Easter Island, the second, a collection of Chinese poetry, takes a little longer, and the third is a theoretical work about textures. All of this comes to a halt due to the tragic death of Voldemārs Matvejs. There were no antibiotics a hundred years ago, and the artist and researcher died of an inflammation of the abdomen in just a couple of days. Matvejs was 37 when he died, leaving behind a large number of manuscripts, photographs, and about 140 paintings.

Matvejs’ books were quite popular, and his contemporaries had a high opinion of the books. After his death, “The Negro Art” was published in Petrograd in 1919, and the book become a kind of a manifesto for Latvian artists for a few years after the proclamation of independence. Latvia had just become independent, artists were seeking new and individual artistic expressions, and the works by Voldemārs Matvejs showed them the way, based on the experience of cultures in other regions. The book remained a source of inspiration to Latvian artists for almost the entire decade of the 1920s.

Influences of African tribes’ artwork are obvious in porcelain paintings by Aleksandra Beļcova and Romāns Suta. The themes of African and exotic art are quite prominent in their works. The exhibition also includes a small wooden figure by Marta Liepiņa Skulme in 1919 or 1920. The artist, who was also a member of the Riga Group, was of limited means at the time, and created her sculptures of logs. The features of the little sculpture are obviously inspired by African art. Only one such sculpture by Liepiņa Skulme has survived to this day as the artist apparently did not consider them to be of any importance.

Niklāvs Strunke was another prominent scholar of exotic cultures. To him and other modernists, Voldemārs Matvejs’ book “The Negro Art” was a trustworthy guide.

The museums that had been visited by Matvejs became compulsory for other Latvian artists. Ģederts Eliass lived in Brussels which at that time housed one of the largest museums of African art in Europe. His painting “At the Mirror”, also on view at the exhibition, depicts an African lady. Eliass also owned a collection of exotic objects, which has survived to this day. Two have been included in the exhibition – one from Africa and one from Oceania.

This effect was obvious in not only visual arts. In addition to being fascinated by exotic sculptures and other forms of art, intellectuals were also greatly inspired by non-European fairy tales, particularly Linards Laicēns and Leons Paegle. The former said, specifically – we are building a new country and society, and we have to know not only our own culture, but also the culture of other peoples. He was a proponent of making primitive cultures’ fairy tales part of literature classes in schools. In 1924, a collection of Oceanic fairy tales is published, with illustrations by Uga Skulme. Leons Paegle compiles a book of African fairy tales, Niklāvs Strunke draws the illustrations for the book. The book is published in 1926 and wins a prize in Paris for its aesthetic qualities.

Exotic motifs are also frequent in the children’s magazine “Cīrulītis” when Rainis is the magazine’s editor in chief. These include pictures by the said Niklāvs Strunke, Aleksandra Beļcova and other members of the Riga Group. Invitations to the exhibition also feature a work by Aleksandra Beļcova.

“The contribution of Voldemārs Matvejs is an ever-living source, especially if we remember that interest in the convergence of cultures is cyclical, with peaks every ten or twenty years, and that every new generation wants to find its own artistic language,” comments Irēna Bužinska.

That is why the title of the exhibition also mentions “future art” – not only art that was influenced by Voldemārs Matvejs’ studies at the beginning of the 20th century, but also the future art that is being sought today.

Now it is exactly the same, notes Irēna Bužinska. All of a sudden, there are so many artists interested in science, many artists work on sound installations, there are also many painters who are trying to work with literary sources. In sculpture, there are now materials that were never used before. There is a great interest in different artistic expressions.”

“That is why Voldemārs Matvejs and his “principles of new art” – which is the title of one of his texts written in 1912, are so topical. Voldemārs Matvejs was a visionary preoccupied with future art. Looking at the history of art in the 20th century, we can see that many of the things he writes about in his theoretical works have come true.”

The exhibition dedicated to Voldemārs Matvejs at the Art Museum Riga Bourse will be on show until the 26th of October. The exhibition is part of the “Riga 2014” Programme’s thematic line “Amber Vein”.

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