After a brief period of independence between the two World Wars, Latvia’s political history during the last century is dominated by invasion and occupation by both Nazi and Soviet armies during the Second World War and then occupation for half a century by the Soviet Union. Large numbers of Latvian artists and other members of the cultural elite fled the country during and after the war and settled in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. Here these artists continued to produce their work, in the early years largely for a Latvian émigré audience and supported by exhibitions, awards and the establishment of professional organizations including the Latvian American Artists Association, the Latvian-Australian Artists Association and Latvis, the Latvian-Canadian artists association. Understandably, the initial ability of most of these artists to compete on an artistic and cultural level in their adopted countries was limited by problems of poverty, language barrier, and other issues related to their immigrant status and level of acculturation. Today few artists of Latvian descent can be considered to be handicapped by lack of enculturation, and a number of artists of Latvian descent have become prominent members of the international artistic community.
Latvia regained its independence as a democratic nation in 1991. Since that time, cultural exchange has grown between Latvian artists and organizations in Latvia and their counterparts in other countries. Some of the work produced by the older diaspora artists has been acquired and exhibited by Latvian museums, and Latvian scholars at the National Archive have expressed the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of the Latvian diaspora. However, a large body of work is threatened because the normal systems of cultural preservation were disrupted by the train of political events during the past 50 years. Thus an entire segment of Latvian cultural heritage could be lost to the nation unless decisive action is taken soon. Many examples are known of the work of important Latvian artists being discovered in dumpsters and being sold for a few dollars at house sales. With the assimilation of younger generations into the cultures of the exile countries, we can expect this situation to worsen as time goes on.
Latvian refugee and immigrant art of the immediate post-war period has not been extensively researched. Many of the diaspora artists not only found themselves to be in exile from their homeland, they also used this historical fact as the subject matter for much of their artwork. Thus an entire body of work was created about the central fact of these artists’ cultural displacement and the related issues of preserving the pre-war national artistic trends that had been identified during the period of Latvian independence. Such tendencies were being discouraged and actively suppressed among those Latvian artists who remained during the Soviet occupation of Latvia.
The disappearance of historical artifacts and documents about the diaspora period has been a cause for concern. The American Latvian Association has addressed this issue with increasing urgency in recent years. Yet the preservation of Latvian diaspora works of art is an equally pressing problem. Documents can be copied and usually more than one copy exists, thus increasing their likelihood of survival, but art works are physical objects that are usually quite fragile and require special conditions – they cannot simply be copied to be preserved. The photo-reproduction of works of art cannot be advanced as a substitute for the actual objects. For these reasons, the Global Society for Latvian Art has taken on as its mission the creation of a collection of Latvian diaspora art that would represent this period of Latvian art history and provide a repository for such works of art.
The events of World War II and its aftermath have divided Latvian art and Latvians. To bring these works back to Latvia is an important step toward a re-unification of Latvian art. A center for twentieth century diaspora art could become an invaluable archive for future Latvian art historians, artists and the general public.