Year of Culture Part 2: Latvian National Museum of Art

Year of Culture Part 2: Latvian National Museum of Art

The Latvian National Museum of Art

Ever since I walked by the National Museum of Art and saw this giant gold disk in front of the doorway, I have wanted to see what it was all about. I learned that it is a celebration of Latvian coins, and I have always been a fan of coins, so this sounded great. Little did I know that there was also an incredible new exhibition of a Latvian artist going on at the same time.

I met my friend Lara on a Saturday for donuts at Ze Donats, and then we made our way to the museum. It was surprisingly full, and I think that it is a good thing despite my dislike of large crowds.

It had been a long time since I visited the museum, and I was grateful that the entry price is still low at just 6 euros. You can get an annual membership for just 30 euros, which seems like a steal.


Lara and I and the Gold Circle

The Art of Imants Lancmanis

After hanging up our coats ourselves (there was no coat person, sadly), we went downstairs to the exhibition hall where we were greeted by the impressive paintings of Imants Lancmanis. A Latvian friend of mine said this display was so popular because he is a well-known Latvian, but no one really knew how prolific a painter he was until he released all of these works.

He is best known for overseeing the famous Rundale Palace, and he also taught at the Academy of Art. He is now over 80-years old, and still finishing incredible works of paintings.

Self-portrait with his beloved aboli


Lancmanis refers to his art at “conceptual romanticism” and this seems to fit his style pretty well. The first paintings we saw were portraits that were exceptionally well rendered and realistic. You can see that he clearly has the ability to recreate images.

This is also apparent in his self-portrait at the site of where there used to be a traditional Latvian barn. The painting has an almost eeriness in its photorealism. He then reimagined this same place 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and at the groundbreaking of the barn in the 1800s. Each image captures a different spirit, and it is in his romantic conception of Latvia in the past that you can sense a bit of lightness and creativity in his work.

Self-portrait with modern barn
The barns

Next we saw his interpretation of Christ as a Latvian man with a very interesting series of paintings. The one that stuck with me the most was the Last Supper, but all of these renditions were interesting and bordering, perhaps, on blasphemous.

Latvian last supper

My personal favorite (although it is hard to choose because they were so delightful) were his renderings of named oak trees in Latvia. Since I have moved to Latvia, I have felt this magical affinity for oak trees as a sign of masculinity and as a connection to the ancient spirits of this place.

Oak trees

He captures the magnificence and scale of these trees in inventive ways, including on of the best titles of a painting I have ever seen:

Witches’ Dance in the Clouds at the Moment when the High Priest Begins Sacrificing but Monks Set off on a Procession in Honour of St. John the Baptist on 24 June 1210.

And the painting is almost as good as the title with spirits of ancient people capturing the pagan and Christian past of Latvia in one image.

The long-titled painting

A few paintings were quite powerful, especially when he dealt with the schism in Latvia as it was torn between the Soviets and Nazis. His frank and dark interpretations of the suffering that war cause can be felt both through past and present conflicts. He incorporates heavy symbolism that needs to be unpacked to come to an understanding, but some is instantly recognizable as in this painting where they are killing a rebel, and the prominent oak tree is barely holding on to its last green leaves. Note the dog. Just because dogs are amazing.

Wolf detail from a much larger painting

The exhibition is expansive and includes his older works, so you can see a progression of the artist through Soviet times all the way to today. There are spaces for two unfinished paintings that he is currently working on. The final room of includes drawings, sketches and photos giving you a sense of how he created these works from inception to the final product. I love seeing behind the curtains of geniuses.

The sketches

Our Values

The coin exhibition is actually titled “Our Values” and represents more than just a collection of coins, but tries to show the values of the nation represented through a special series of these coins.


The display is on the 5th floor of the museum which is a unique space. It is the attic of the museum painted completely white. You walk around the struts and rafters that hold the roof up as you take in the exhibit.

I really liked the way they displayed the coins. They are on floating magnetic pads that spin the coins slowly so you can see them from every angle. Lights and mirrors are used quite effectively to really capture the beauty of the engravings and each one is well-explained in Latvian and English.

I think my favorite coin was the honeycomb one, but there were so many incredibly imaginative designs that it is hard to choose. I wouldn’t say no to any of them.

After you finish seeing all the incredible coins, then you walk down to the 4th floor where you can make rubbings of different coins using charcoal and paper. We had fun with this.

The Museum

We spent over two hours at the museum, and only saw these two exhibitions along with a few impressive sculpted heads on the main floor, which, of course reminded me of a They Might be Giants Song, “Hall of Heads.” (If it is your first listen, get through the intro… worth it!)

I absolutely love this museum and am always impressed at the high quality of the exhibitions. If you haven’t been in awhile, you need to get there soon!

Bonus Culture: Godland/Dievzeme

After the museum, I went to the incredible Splendid Palace to see a Danish movie called Godland in English and Dievzeme in Latvian. If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you get to see it, especially if you have ever been curious about Iceland.

From the film

The movie follows a priest in the 19th century as he travels from Denmark to Iceland to found a church. There is very little in the way of exposition or dialogue, especially at first. You just follow him as he crosses the Icelandic wilderness on horseback with a few companions. The movie is based on 6 still images from the time, and the priest carries a wooden camera with him and takes photos along the way.

The scenery alone is worth the price of admission, and I found myself just in awe wondering how they got all the shots they got. I kept thinking of how difficult the conditions must have been for the cast and crew—and the animals. I have never seen horses do such an incredible job of acting. I am still trying to piece together all the gruesomeness and beauty of the film, and what it all means.

I don’t want to give away too much, but please go see this if you get the opportunity. I would love to discuss it! And if anyone can find the original photos that the movie was based on, please let me know. I have searched and come up empty handed. Maybe I need to speak Icelandic?

Side Note:

I am enjoying this whole culture thing. I have realized, however, that to truly immerse myself in Latvian culture, I really need to learn the language better. I want to be able to enjoy the theater and poetry readings and lectures without relying on people to translate for me. I want to understand this land better than I do now. Five years, and still struggling to understand basic vocabulary… eh.

So as part of the cultural journey, I need to recommit to learning the language.

A few more photos:

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