Aija Brasliņa

About Eduards Kalniņš

The contemporaries of Eduards Kalniņš (1904 -1988) gave his art the stamp of "classic" while he was still alive. The "Kalniņš legend" is a combination of many notions – talented landscapist, pupil of Vilhelms Purvītis, the first winner of the Latvian Academy of Art Rome Prize, grand master of marine painting, consistent advocate of the principles of plein air and tonal painting, long standing teacher at the Academy of Art, a professional who demanded much of himself and others, influential figure in art circles, a sovreign, lively and wise personality. The hazy grey Baltic Sea marine paintings and the celebrated figural works "Raftsmen", "The New Sails" and "Latvian Fishermen in the Atlantic" have become the centenarian’s unmistakable signs of recognition.

The literary portrait of the artist by Jānis Melbārzdis in his book "Cieši pie vēja"1 (Close to the Wind) brings alive the legend of the old master, just like the racily related episodes of "individual mythology" – the bohemian escapades and the exciting sporting and travel stories. Despite the large amount of 20th century publications on the artist, there has yet to be a serious work of research on the phenomenon of Kalniņš’s art and his generation’s relationship with the complicated times.

Behind the openly visible façade of official publicity and the well-known frame of biographical facts, the artist had his personal "territory" dominated by two passions – painting and the sea. With the former he carried on a constant dialogue throughout his long creative career circling around the changes in his individual style, setting himself difficult professional tasks, observing the set rituals of his craft, enjoying and living the painting process itself as well as the concentration required for plein air studies or the long hours of loneliness in the studio. In an interview Kalniņš once concluded: "And what is painting itself? It’s probably a kind of meditation when a person frees himself from all that is superfluous and remains alone with his thoughts and feelings."2 His other fateful passion, the sea, gradually became the basic subject matter of the artist’s work.

Certain character traits have united at the core of Kalniņš’s artistic individuality: the features of a realist and a romantic, emotional and rational origins, respect for the traditions of the national school and openness to innovation, the ability and will to change flexibly in following the demands dictated by his inner self or by the age. His views on painting honed by long experience and observations of nature help us to understand his feeling for art and his working methods. The dream of his youth, to become a virtuoso painter, was, over time, substituted by a consciously formulated desire to free himself from his acquired dexterity in the frozen-in-time manner.

In his work Kalniņš progressed from the intuitive capture of the visible world to self-defined more complicated professional aims. He strove to achieve absolute spatial illusion in the plane of the canvas and to depict the visually imperceptible – the impression of silence and the presence of the infinite in the everyday. His most outstanding successes combine a trained eye and a deft hand – an amazingly precise tonal and sophisticated perception of colour; his perfected brushwork recreates an observation of nature that can be felt in the mood and he fascinates with his ability to transform thematic realities into the appearance of a painting.


Having encountered the temptation of the sea and drawing in his boyhood, Kalniņš became more seriously aware of his calling to become an artist in the studio of Russian artist Yevgeny Moshkevich in Tomsk. The family had ended up in this Russian town as refugees during the First World War. In 1922, having returned to Riga and tried his hand at commercial painting, Kalniņš enrolled in the newly founded Latvian Academy of Art. Initially he attended the free lectures but at the end of 1924 he became a student proper.

In November 1925 after a successful trial period, the budding painter was accepted into professor Vilhelms Purvītis’ Landscape Masterclass.3 During his years of studying, Kalniņš was regarded as one of the most promising and independent landscape artists of his generation. Those reviewing the Academy students’ annual exhibitions remarked on his excellent painterly understanding, his "energy and sensitivity" and his "fresh perception of nature". Dissatisfied with his progress in the Masterclass, Kalniņš, in his youthful zeal, suddenly broke off his studies in 1928 and set off for Berlin with a colleague from the Academy, graphic artist Boriss Štreimanis.4 He earned his keep producing cinema posters and tried to enrol in the Academy of Art. News of his successful application reached him when he had already returned to Riga. The paintings he did during the Berlin episode feature the characteristic architectural motifs of the city ("The Brandenburg Gate", "Bridge in Berlin", "Monument by the Reichstag").

Remembering his time in the landscape Masterclass, Kalniņš repeatedly emphasises Purvītis’ reserve and laconic remarks that challenged him to clarify his own artistic singularity among the other students. The young landscapist did not develop into a direct and typical follower of the master. In the general atmosphere of the studio, being influenced by Purvītis’ teaching methods and attitude to art and life, Kalniņš inherited and took on board the general principles of the master’s school. Just like his mentor, Kalniņš gave decisive importance throughout his future work to the study of nature and to the purposeful selection of the means of expression adapted to the motif. The role of the plein air, an analytical approach to nature, the ably balanced proportions and a propensity for clear relationships between the large areas of the composition, the synthesis of material from studies into a general image of nature, a cultivated feeling for colouring and tone are evidence of his training and individually demonstrate the presence of the example of Purvītis. Kalniņš, like his teacher, considered the price of success to be persistent endeavour towards the unattainable ideal of completeness.

Similar to others of the younger generation of painters of the time, the style of this independent Purvītis’ pupil was refreshed by an enthusiasm for modern Belgian painting. This was inspired by the 1927 exhibition of Belgian art in Riga when the Latvians were especially taken by the expressive painterly and tonal approach of the Belgians.

In the summer of 1930, Kalniņš together with his co-student Valdis Kalnroze (then Rozenbergs), drove to Belgium and Holland on a magnificent Harley Davidson motorcycle. Kalniņš saw the originals of the inspirational Belgian artworks. In Antwerp he met the Latvian painter Jānis Tīdemanis and the famous Belgian artist Isidor Opsomer. He painted windmills, docks and the port. The ultimate destination of the trip had been Paris but on this occasion it was not to be reached.

We see the greatest variety of subjects and motifs in Kalniņš’s early career, during the second half of the 1920s and the first half of the 30s: the banks of the river Daugava, fishermen, moored ships and large boats ("The Port", 1929; "The Banks of the Daugava", 1930; "Grey Ships", 1934), the old town of Riga ("The Council Square", 1929), the humble buildings in a small town, views of Latgale and scenes of agricultural labour – these mingled in his canvases of the time with small fishing ports, fishermen’s huts and boats ("Seaside with Net Huts", 1934). This landscapist’s/town dweller’s interest in the sea and the life of fishermen was opened up by his meeting with Riga Group painter Jānis Liepiņš as well as the summers spent in Kaugurciems.

Like all the pupils of Purvītis’ Masterclass, Kalniņš did much work with oils in plein air. This improved his understanding of composition, the poignancy of observation and a freshness in the painting he could call his own with its apparent moisture and seemingly still wet surface. He was particularly drawn by water, cloudy skies and rainy overcast days, reflections in the water pools on the river banks and in the streets, the hazy morning fog at the seaside, humid air and smoke effects. The popular horizontal formats were dominated by nuances of mood captured in tonal and colour relationships. They had something of the Nordic harshness, typical of the Baltic region. The artist avoided "green tones and motifs of tree foliage and grass"5. Although he also used more brilliant accents and combinations of different colours, this period mainly saw variations of neutralised ranges of grey and earth colours. The grey tones of various shades and gradations that often called for poetic epithets established Kalniņš’s fame as the "master of grey" and his future success.

Influenced by the new realism in painting, especially the Belgian example, the artist was keen on treatment techniques, cultivating a rich and expressive painting style. He would begin with energetic, rapid, well laden strokes of the brush and palette knife forming a rough, often loose texture and various rhythms experimented with. Gradually, as he tuned in with the motif and developed the materiality, the application became more varied and sensitive. The spatially saturated composition begins to "breathe" as the tendency to clarity, simplicity and concreteness strengthened.

The robustness of the painting, the unity in a common tone, the chiaroscuro and the simplification of forms increased after the trip to Belgium. The Belgian "accent" could also be seen in Kalniņš’s diploma work of 1931 "After the Rain". This was a large format composition with a subject seen in Antwerp, horses sheltering, which in its day was acclaimed by art critic Jānis Siliņš: "We sense the vision of a real painter in the aspiration for an interpretation of massive forms and in the freely formed treatment."6

Eduards Kalniņš’s participation in exhibition life began in his student days when he regularly took part in the annual Academy shows of students’ works.7 On 16 January 1929 the painter was accepted as a candidate member of the Latvian Artists’ Association, which had been founded by graduates of the Academy,8 but in autumn his paintings were included in the group’s exhibition for the one and only time. The exhibition had not closed when on 1st October the same year, the artist joined the Academy’s teaching association Sadarbs 9 whose doors were also open to the most talented students. In 1931 Kalniņš represented Latvia in the travelling international exhibition Ostsee im Bilde; in 1935 he participated in the Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles but in Latvia his name became known throught the exhibitions organised by Sadarbs and the Cultural Foundation. From 1934 several paintings by pupils of the Landscape Masterclass, including those of Kalniņš, were part of the collections assembled by Purvītis for representative shows of Latvian art in Europe. From 1929 works by the young author were acquired by the Riga City Art Museum, now the State Museum of Art.

One of Kalniņš’s greatest achievements between the wars was winning the Art Academy’s first competition for the Rome Prize on 10th May 1935. Max Levin, a Latvian citizen living in Hamburg and general director of the M.J. Emden Söhne Company founded the Prix de Rome10 in 1935. Not only was Kalniņš its first laureate, he was also the only one to have managed to use the 3000 lats grant to study in Italy before the outbreak of World War II. Twenty-three artists participated in the competition announced in April 1934 but the jury awarded the prize to Kalniņš for his large figural work "Raftsmen" (1935)11. In the competition painting with its card-playing raftsmen, the greyish Daugava and view of the port in the background, the artist has successfully recast his Belgian impressions in a mature artistic language. Turning towards a genre composition was no accident because already in the Academy, the artist was not developing into a pure landscapist. Like a number of other Purvītis’ students, he included human figures as staffage in landscapes associated with the life of the countryside, fishermen or towns. Contemporary criticism hailed "Raftsmen" as one of the highest peaks in Latvian genre painting between the wars. Immediately after the competition exhibition, Purvītis acquired the work for the City Art Museum collection. During the second half of the 1930s it was repeatedly the centre of attention in shows of Latvian art abroad.

The Rome Prize allowed Kalniņš to spend a year in Italy, from August 1935 to September 1936. In Rome he rented a studio in Via Margutta, the Italian artists’ Montmartre. In his letter to the Academy of 14th February 1936 he reports: "Until the end of December I lived in Rome studying the museums and painting the landscape of the city and its surroundings. When the rainy season came I moved to southern Italy where I set about painting the sun, thus to a great extent transforming my palette."12 Kalniņš also visited Venice and Florence but in 1936 he lived mainly in southern Italy, in Palermo, Naples and Positano. He also visited Amalfi and Capri about which he wrote: "I studied these small Mediterranean towns and their peculiar Arab architecture with great interest."13

The Italian sun, bright light and contrasting shadows changed his Baltic light based art. Gone was the somewhat gloomy greyness, the heaviness of the treatment and in came a "tangibly" clear atmospheric character. The colouring became richer and more sophisticated. With the full-blown sparkling of lighter and more brilliant colours and decorative accents, the brush strokes became more supple and the drawing more impressionistic.

Sunny landscapes with motifs of the local architecture, ancient buildings ("Rome. The Arch of Constantine", 1937), lazy ox-carts and opulent still-lifes with bottles of wine, lemons and greenish Mediterranean frutti di mare ("Still-life (Oysters)", "Fruits of the Sea", both 1936) sparkle in the saturated colourfulness and feeling for the celebration of life that is Italy. The construction of the still-lifes stands out with objects from unusual angles and flatness in their spatial expression.

Italy did not see the end of his subdued and neutralised keys ("Italian Landscape (Palermo)", Messaggero, both 1936). These and the misty motifs of the Baltic Sea and its shores are renewed on his return to the homeland while retaining the lightness and dexterity of the painting technique.

The second most important achievement that strengthened the artist’s name in Latvian art between the wars was the review of his time in Italy – his first solo exhibition in the Riga City Art Museum in February 1939. Giving his general observations on the exhibition, author and critic Anšlavs Eglītis wrote: "Kalniņš is a master of the impromptu, who captures his feelings and impressions with a nimble hand," and pointing out another essential feature, "Kalniņš’s talent is quite flexible, he has a great feeling for the subject matter, which explains the great variety in his work."14 The previously mentioned art critic and historian Jānis Siliņš predicted that "the confident painting instinct and agility with which Kalniņš is able to get a feel for new situations both in terms of subject matter and stylistic, makes us hope that in his future development, the gifted painter will express his talents with even more clarity and uniformity".15

The press also reflected the newly popular artist’s sporting activities mentioning his passion for football, ice hockey, skiing, tennis, motor sports and fishing.16 To this list must be added his episodic ballet activities and later billiards and sailing. Outside of sport he was also seriously interested in photography. The painter’s circle of friends in the 1920s-30s that often met for Bohemian pursuits included other well-known personalities – Jānis Liepiņš, Niklāvs Strunke, Kārlis Padegs, Jānis Tīdemanis, Jānis Sudrabkalns, Volfgangs Dārziņš, Anna Ozoliņa and others.

Initially the only evidence of the change of political regime in 1940 was in the use of the newspaper Padomju Latvija (Soviet Latvia) in a dark still-life instead of the earlier Messaggero or Rīts. During the following years of the Second World War the colouring tended to darken but the other forms of expression and subject did not noticeably change.

The contradictory post war period brought with it violently imposed Socialist Realism. Local art life, dictated by Moscow, was characterised by the ambiguity of the ideologised situation in art and culture. Eduards Kalniņš, like many Latvian artists of the time, accepted the official rules of the game during the Soviet regime and learned the compromises of a double existence.

At the end of the 1940s and in the early 50s the artist combined landscapes with genre elements and, like other Purvītis pupils, continued the figural direction he had begun earlier in so-called thematic painting, regarded as a priority by the ruling hierarchy. The work of fishermen, just like the "pure" marine and sports themes turned out to be topical and encouraged in the new circumstances. They happened to coincide with Kalniņš’ personal interests and thus he did not have to make any radical thematic compromises. Interest in plein air painting complied with an objectivised view of the reality of nature as promoted by Socialist Realism. The narrative, naturalistically detailed canon of realism left a more pronounced stamp on the artist’s style during the intolerant criticism of formalism under Stalin at the end of the 40s and early 50s ("The Mangaļi Shipyard", "The New Shift", both 1949).

Kalniņš gained a place among the leaders in the post war situation with the figural composition "New Sails" (1945), which to some extent paved the way for further popularity and an official career. A metaphorically perceived and interpreted title was the motivation for declaring the canvas one of painting’s so-called cornerstones and symbols being identified with the optimism of new construction and the beginning of the Soviet period in Latvian art. In terms of its composition, "New Sails" is reminiscent of a paraphrase on "The Raftsmen". However, in its formal expression, the earlier harmonious symphony of colours and the expressiveness of the texture have been discarded. In their application, the riskily juxtaposed intensive colours have been evened out. The painting first drew notice at local and all-Union exhibitions and was included in the USSR exposition at the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956.

Already by the end of the 1940s, Kalniņš’s works were being bought by the State Tretyakov gallery ("Fishermen", 1947; "The Baltic Fleet on Manoeuvres", 1948) and later by other Soviet art institutions as well. The honours, titles, awards and important commissions he received in the coming decades confirm the painter’s leading role in the art life of the time. He was elected corresponding member of the Art Academy of the USSR in 1954 and full member in 1970, which gave him special status. Kalniņš participated in the work of the Latvian Artists’ Union and the Artists’ Union of the USSR. He consistently represented Latvian painting in the USSR and in Soviet exhibitions abroad at the same time drawing attention to it with his name.

Latvian art history cannot boast of ancient marine painting traditions and neither are there many convinced advocates of the genre. Nevertheless Eduards Kalniņš, whose seascapes are known outside the confines of the national school, has been nominated as the most outstanding marine painter of the second half of the 20th century. Depiction of the sea, which became the main theme in his work after the war allowed the artist to confirm and use his specific plein air talents. As a convinced realist he adhered to the maxim that you cannot paint what you don’t know and what you haven’t studied thoroughly. The painter himself claims that he wouldn’t have turned to marine painting had he not "explored the sea from shore to ocean"17 – ventured onto the high seas in fishing boats, sailed in the open sea, taken part in races on the yacht "Varavīksne" and received a captain’s diploma. Kalniņš came face to face with the ocean and realised its might in the autumn of 1954 while on a painting trip in the North Atlantic. Back in the studio he synthesised his experiences in the monumental painting "Latvian Fishermen in the Atlantic" (1957). The painting brought him notice and he was awarded a bronze medal at the EXPO ’58 exhibition in Brussels.

During the 50s and 60s he produced ambitious, panoramic landscapes of the sea and ocean with dramatic walls of waves whipped up by wind and storm. In great detail he would paint racing yachts at regattas with their sleek and dynamic hulls, sails straining and masts tilting under the wind ("The 7th Baltic Regatta", 1952,1954; "Stormy Morning in the Atlantic", 1955; "Close to the Wind", 1962). The monumental compositions are filled only by the sky and the rough or calm surface of the water with no shore. The relationships between the basic areas are determined by and change with the position of the horizon. A high level of illusion and an impressive spaciousness has been achieved in a levelled and smooth painting. These harshly romantic and majestic seascapes coincide with the emotional construction of hymnal might, desirable in Soviet times. At the same time they display a Baroque sense of drama and make us think of stylistic analogues in classical Dutch and English painting or of the work of the 19th century Russian marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky.

Alongside the monumental canvases, there were views of yacht clubs and fishing ports executed with a "softer" and freer approach. There were many light seascapes with calm waters and a low horizon, narrow, sandy strips of the seashore and beached fishing boats. These, just like the seagulls, nets, oars or other fishing tackle have been placed in the broad expanse with calligraphically agile brush strokes ("Morning", 1956; "Seaside at Dunte", 1959; "The Riga Seaside", 1967). A different, more intimate emotional mood in the depiction of nature in classically simple compositions is introduced by the peculiarities of the light in the morning, evening and at sunset. Painting a sunny day there would be great clouds of various shapes and changing atmospheric nuances – haziness, mist. On occasion in the 1950s, Kalniņš would also try out variations on his post-war fruits-of-the-sea still-lifes ("Still-life with Crab", 1950; "Still-life", 1951). Figural works became more and more rare.

More exotic impressions and the freshness of unforced expression are revealed in the landscapes of countries he visited. His impressions of these trips (China in 1958, Italy – 1964 and 1972, Japan – 1977 and India in 1978) were reflected mainly in the momentary, study type format of the miniature.

The late period in Kalniņš creative output began in the 1970s with changes in his interpretation of the artistic objective. He declared his dependence on previously exploited professional skill and his aim was now to capture more deeply what he felt and experienced and not just what was directly visible. In his depiction of nature he consciously searched for some higher expression of harmony as if there was another dimension beyond the limits of physical space – the embodiment of poetic and philosophical moods. At this time he was also convinced that: "In my painting the sea is not registration of what has been seen but touching its essence."18

During the 1970s and 80s Kalniņš continued with his highly regarded motifs of the Baltic Sea shore in what by now where stable types of composition using rationally worked out techniques. These were spatial improvisations with large, homogenous areas of water, sky and land with variations on the lighting and atmospheric effects. At the same time he would also return to regattas. Occupying a special place are the grey seascapes with a calm and smooth drift, and with the sun’s disc hidden into a soft haze ("By the Sea", 1973; "Silence", 1978). Here, the plan dominates, a smooth treatment where the smaller forms of objects have been realised only by separate textural strokes. Although mainly a seemingly limited range of colours has been used, in the overall pale grey tone we can see various colours of the spectrum where the artist has sensitively played on the warm and cold mother-of-pearl like relationships to create a peculiar illusion of depth.

After a long interval since his first solo exhibition, Eduards Kalniņš looked back on his creative achievement only towards the end of his life with large retrospective shows in Riga in 1984 and in Moscow in 1985. Before there had been a show of his work in Tokyo in 1977. This had been organised by the Gekkoso company, who also published a catalogue in Japanese and gave the show an exclusive air by exhibiting the works on a background of black velvet.

Since the autumn of 1945, Kalniņš spent over forty years teaching in the Painting Department of the Academy of Art. Working with the next generation of artist of the second half of the 20th century he relied on his understanding of the national school that was rooted in European traditions and partly on the teaching principles inherited from Purvītis. At various times these came up against the norms of different methods of academic teaching and more up to date stylistic tendencies. From the early 1950s to the 80s he had supervised the diploma work of over 150 students. Kalniņš’s authority was decisive when it came to heading the USSR Academy of Art Creative Painting Studio in Riga (1980–1988).

Looking at the old master’s creative heritage in an age that is rapidly becoming distanced from the classical understanding of painting and the traditional separation of genres, Kalniņš retains his rightful place in "the hall of fame" of Latvian national art as one of the last great landscapists of the previous century. He drew his strength for tonal painting in the plein air, in direct contact with the world of nature and building the bridge between the traditions of the Purvītis school and the art of the second half of the 20th century.

1Melbārzdis, J. Cieši pie vēja: Eduards Kalniņš – portretējums. Riga, 1984.

2Kalniņš, R. Bet – kā? [Interview with E. Kalniņš] // Skola un Ģimene. 1984, No.10, p. 25.

3Latvian State Archive (henceforth LSA), 485. f., 1. apr., 386. 1., p 8.

4In several of his post-war employee documents Kalniņš has stated that was resident in Berlin from April to December 1928. However, a certificate from the administration of the Latvian Academy of Art (LAA) stating, in German, that he is a student at the Academy was issued on 14 July 1928. LSA, 485. f., 1. apr., 386. 1., p. 17.

5Siliņš, J. Latvijas māksla: 1915–1940. Stockholm, 1990, Vol. 2, p. 38.

6Siliņš, J. Akadēmijas audzēkņu izstāde // Izgītības Ministrijas Mēnešraksts, 1932, No.1, pp. 82–83.

7Currently available information confirms the artist’s participation in the 3rd exhibition of students’ work in 1926/1927. It is possible that his exhibition debut was earlier.

8Latvian State History Archive (LSHA), 1747. f., 1.apr., 353.1., p. 12. (Copied from the minutes of the Latvian Artists’ Association. Minutes No.21, 16.1.1929.)

9Ibid 470.1., p. 163. (Meeting of "Sadarbs" on 8 October 1929. Copied from the "Sadarbs" association minutes.)

10 LSA, 485. f., 2. apr., 105. 1., p. 73 (LAA foundation, Rome Prize documentation).

11Ibid 407.1., p. 88 (LAA foundation, first competition for the Rome Prize).

12Ibid p. 65.

13Ibid p. 66.

14Eglītis, A. Eduarda Kalniņa izstāde // Sējējs, 1939, No.3, p. 324.

15Siliņš, J. Eduarda Kalniņa gleznu izstāde // Izglītības Ministrijas Mēnešraksts, 1939, No.3, p. 267.

16M. Romas stipendiāta Kalniņa sporta gaitas // Brīvā Zeme, 1935, 6 June.

17Pieskaršanās būtībai: (Interview with E. Kalniņš by G. Tidomane and I. Burāne) // Padomju Jaunatne, 1977, 22 February.


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