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From Breugel to Rembrandt

Artists often look into the past to find inspiration, and that particularly applies to the so-called Old Masters. In this retrospection, we see that artists usually have their favourite artists and masterpieces, and judging from written evidence, Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova were no exception. Both of them had Old Masters whom they particularly admired. The artists confirmed these “sympathies” in certain artworks that made direct or indirect reference to the classic era of Western European painting. True, the title to this exhibition is conditional, because the range of impressions that Beļcova and Suta gained from the art of the Old Masters was very broad, indeed. While an art student at Penza, Romans Suta joined with other young Latvian artists such as Jēkabs Kazaks, Voldemārs Tone and Konrāds Ubāns in paying attention to the art of the Old Masters. Inspired by her Latvian friends, Aleksandra Beļcova also tried to create artworks in the relevant style.

One example is a 1917 self-portrait, which has no direct analogue in the work of an Old Master, but does have dark colours and a static presentation of the figure that indicate links to the classical traditions of painting. The interest in classical heritage did not disappear for Suta and Beļcova, like other artists in the Rīga Group of Artists, during the 1920s, when they were all experimenting with Modernism. The interest increased and became clearer, however, in the 1930s, when Suta and Beļcova began to produce work that corresponded to the increasing popularity of Neoclassicism throughout Europe. In 1937, Beļcova travelled to Paris, where she visited a large personal exhibition by El Greco, as well as an exhibition of graphic art by Rembrandt. She brought home exhibition catalogues and postcards with reproductions of some of the artworks, then producing sketches and drawings about her impressions. Some of these are free copies of El Greco’s masterpieces (“Resurrection” and “The Apostle Jacob”). The influence of Rembrandt’s art can be seen in some of the paintings produced by Beļcova in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Like the famous Dutch artist,
Beļcova tried to use light and shadow to emphasise the main elements of the artwork, emphasising the psychological and emotional aspects of the images and encouraging the viewer to take a more careful look at the shadowy face of the person in the portrait.

Romans Suta, too, travelled to Paris several times in the 1930s, and he also toured Italy. In his letters, he wrote about impressions that he had received at museums and galleries, emphasising the difference between the art of the Old Masters and that of the modernists who, in Suta’s eyes at that time, were “disappointing.” Suta particularly appreciated the work of Spanish painters, as is seen in things said by his contemporaries and in one of his self-portraits, which he titled “a la Velasquez.” We also know of other Old Masters whom Suta adored, and he told the young people who attended his studio to study their work carefully – Peter Brueghel the Elder, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre, Hans Holbein, Honoré Daumier, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Suta was also very much interested in everyday topics such as visitors to saloons, card players, and farmers engaging in their everyday work and various celebrations. This brought him closer to the Dutch Old Masters and to the overall genre of traditional everyday activities. The link was never direct, but Suta’s artworks are distinguished when interpreted in the context of these traditions. Curator Natālija Jevsejeva