Not For Every Dreamer: The Problems of Symbolist Art in Estonia and Latvia, 1890 – 1915

Bart Pushaw (Indiana University)

The essence of the growing national consciousness in the territories now known as Estonia and Latvia is captured in the Estonian writer Gustav Suits’ famous declaration “Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans!” – a direct result of the cultural rights awarded to ethnic Estonians and Latvians after the 1905 Russian Revolution. As such, Estonian and Latvian artists became increasingly interested in expressing their own national identity while simultaneously joining mainstream European art trends. At the turn of the twentieth century, the controversial Symbolist movement was in full swing across Europe and hotly debated in artistic circles. For instance, in his 1906 essay entitled “Art and Technique,” Latvian painter Janis Rozentāls contended that, “art is not a trifling mythical being which comes down from heaven bestowing kisses on each and every barren dreamer.” Rozentāls, the forerunner of Latvian modern art in the early twentieth century, criticized what he perceived as the decadence of Symbolist artists such as Arnold Böcklin and Gustave Moreau – who created visual manifestations of their dreams and visions in order to express the inexpressible. Thus, Symbolist art in Estonia and Latvia does not easily fit into the art historical canon. This paper explores the unique situation experienced by Estonian and Latvian artists interested in joining mainstream European artistic currents as well as participating in formulating national identities, goals that were not always compatible.

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