Sneak peek: Paintings return to renovated national art gallery

Latvian Radio's Māra Rozenberga reports from Latvia's National Art Museum (LNMM) where she had the chance to look at artworks returning to the recently renovated museum prior to the May 4 grand opening.

Latvian Radio is walking through a tunnel above which grass is sprouting at the Esplanāde square. A huge truck awaits, lowered underground by an elevator and carrying another batch of paintings to be restored to their place at the museum.

At the moment the collection spanning thousands of paintings is being brought back to the renovated museum; about five hundred works from the permanent exhibit have returned to the walls of the museum or are about to.

"Most of the work has been done, but there's a million of last-moment things, like adding notices and so on," said Iveta Derkusova, deputy director of the museum.

Derkusova lead Latvian Radio on a short tour of the museum's renewed permanent exhibit, starting from the third-story entrance hall decorated with Vilhems Purvītis' and Gerhard von Rosen's semicircular wall paintings. Turning to the right, visitors can look at the collection in chronological order.

"This group of rooms, which could be called cabinets, have their interior renovated with the historical coloring," said Derkusova, pointing at art made in Latvia from the early to late 19th century.

"We are slowly moving towards [works] executed more professionally, as most of the artists working in Latvia in the 19th century had studied in German art schools, and we can see the parallels in these paintings," she said.

The exhibit has become much more concentrated as Latvian art from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century has been placed in a single story. 

Museum experts have handpicked "the tip of the iceberg" seen in the permanent collection. Derkusova said there was fierce competition between artworks to make the cut. 

The motley gallery of cabinets leads to the end of the museum's right wing where works from the early Latvian national school start appearing.

After Church (1894), the most famous work of birthday boy Janis Rozentāls, takes Latvian Radio by surprise as it rests unframed by a partition, fragile and seeming it was finished just recently. The painting will be reunited with the frame today, notes the manager of the museum with a smile.

The next two halls host works of the early 20th century, including Rozentāls' The Princess and the Monkey, as well as paintings by Johans Valters and Vilhelms Purvītis.

One of the most recent acquisitions of the museum is Purvītis' 1900 painting "Northern Night", which the LNMM bought in 2014.

"As the war began in the 40s, the painting was taken by a family and went to Canada. It is notable in that in the early 20th century when Purvītis became famous as the best painter of snow in Europe, 'Northern Night' won the Grand Prix at an international exhibit in Lyon," said the deputy director of the museum.

The painting has been featured in the British art journal The Studio along with articles on the author, sketching how Latvian art could have found its place if it wasn't interrupted with the war and the ensuing soviet occupation.

"Together with paintings of Purvītis and Rozentāls, we can look at works by Rihards Zariņš, the well-known graphic artist and author of Latvia's banknotes. It's a whole generation of artists," she told Latvian Radio.

Passing by painting hooks and ostrich feather dusters, Latvian Radio looks at the second wing of the museum featuring art from the early 20th century.

"It's the so-called classical modernist period ... with works like Jēkabs Kazaks' Refugees, paintings by Ģederts Eliass, Romāns Suta, to name a few," said Derkusova.

While another hall is dedicated to Latvian artists that went to Russia during the first world war - Gustavs Klucis, Kārlis Johansons, Aleksandrs Drēviņš.

And another room features paintings and graphic art by the 30s artists Kārlis Padegs and Jānis Tīdemanis. It also features the 'beloved granite swine' – Teodors Zaļkalns' "Pig" – which was the first art object to return to the museum.

The story below features paintings previously not in the national art museum, with works by Džemma Skulme, Jānis Pauļuks, Boriss Bērziņš and other big names in Latvian painting of the 20th century. While the former exhibit hall features art from the late 20th century, forming a bridge to the upcoming Modern Art Museum.

The second story also features an art history library that was previously available only to industry professionals.

"It features almost 30 thousand volumes," said head of the library Alla Sidorina, busy filling up the last shelves with white gloves on.

The renovation has doubled the total exhibit space, so visitors will either have to be patient or explore the museum in several visits. A mobile app featuring descriptions and an audio guide about each of the paintings will undertake the noble goal of informing people about what they're seeing.

The grand opening of the museum will take place May 4.

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