Sunday, June 21, 2015

Travels in the Imagination

While the words "art" and "Washington, D.C." might seem incongruous, that is not the case at all. The DC area is home to many excellent art museums and more than a few galleries. With the Embassy of Latvia having its own art space in the building immediately next to the Embassy, there have been quite a number of Latvian art exhibits to see in the last several years. This summer, however, a larger museum is exhibiting the work of a Latvian artist who not well-known, but whose eclectic and imaginative art will be of interest to many.

On a recent Friday evening I visited the American University Katzen Arts Center for the opening of an exhibit of works by Latvian artist Visvaldis Ziediņš. The exhibit is titled "Travels in the Imagination." I knew very little about the art or the artist, but loved what I saw and learned. Ziediņš was born in the port city of Liepāja in 1942, went to an arts high school, but did not pursue art at the university level. He spent his life in Liepāja, making a living designing department store displays, theater sets, and the like. In his free time, however, he created artwork, which he created only for himself and a small group of local artist friends. During Ziediņš' life he only had only four shows in Liepāja. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 2007. To put his life span into historical context, one needs to remember that World War II was being fought in 1942, when he was born, and Latvia was recaptured by the Soviet Red Army (from the German Army) in 1944. Soviet occupation lasted for approximately fifty years, with Latvia declaring its independence in 1990.
Katzen Arts Center, American University
As explained in the lovely exhibit booklet by one of the curators, Eleanor Heartney:
"But if Ziediņš' outward life was unremarkable, the works he left behind attest to a complex and deeply satisfying inner world. Two years after his death, art historian Ieva Kalniņa and art gallery director Ivonna Veiherte were invited by one of Ziediņš' artist friends to his home where they discovered a trove of over 3,000 paintings, collages, and assemblage sculptures. In addition, they found an extensive archive of diaries, photographs and documents in which he detailed his artistic preoccupations, theories of art, and interactions with other artists. In the years since this discovery, Kalniņa has organized this material, used it to produce a detailed study of  Ziediņš' work, and facilitated a number of exhibitions of his art, including this one. Reflecting on his legacy, she notes: "...we can be glad of this chance to obtain a detailed insight into the breadth of inner freedom of a creative individual under totalitarian conditions."
"Box: Freedom Figure", 1988.
According to art historian and exhibit curator Ieva Kalniņa (as described in the booklet): "Chronologically the works in Visvaldis Ziediņš' collection span the period 1958 to 2006. More than a third were created in the 60s. However, some of his work from the 60s has subsequently been reworked or augmented."
The piece above, titled "Freedom Figure," immediately struck me - with its dramatic use of red, and the female figure stretching her arms - she reminded me of "Milda," the woman at top of the Latvian Freedom Monument in Riga. He created the work in 1988, which was essentially the beginning of the Singing Revolution in the Baltic countries, or the beginning of the end of Soviet rule.

Much of his work was created using found items, such as driftwood and feathers from the beach, or recycled materials, such as crates or leftover paint from his day-time jobs.Wandering around the exhibit, I was impressed by his resourcefulness, ingenuity and sheer creativity. I will share several photos of my favorite pieces, but if you are in the DC area, I highly recommend visiting the exhibit yourself! It is on display through July 26. (Unfortunately my computer was being finicky, and didn't wish to properly upload several photos, thus there are a couple of oil paintings and small sculptures I'm unable to show you, and the 'boxes' are a bit over-represented here.)
"Pine in the Wind." Undated.
"Box: Fairytale." 1986.
"Box: Sandpit." 1988
"Bespectacled." 1992

"Box: Sea." 1987
"Box: Atlantic Sardines." 1989. (My absolute favorite!)


  1. I also like the Atlantic Sardines box, although I would like to see more pieces in which he utilized driftwood - the ones you show here are beautiful. This makes one think about how many artists were living in the USSR, undiscovered and unknown, and how many will never be discovered.

    1. Yes, my other favorite is the Pine in the Wind - so simple, so gorgeous!


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