Burkards Dzenis. Sculptor with a Museum Curator’s Mission

Burkards Dzenis (1879–1966) is one of the founders of our national sculpture, a professor and public figure, who was employed as Director of the newly established Latvian State Museum of Art from 1920 to 1944, with a break in 1941.

In the early 20th century, Burkards Dzenis became one of the creators and modernizers of Latvian professional sculpture, introducing the tradition of stone sculpture. Like his cousin Teodors Zaļkalns, and Gustavs Šķilters, the artist graduated from Stieglitz's School of Technical Drawing (1898–1905) in St. Petersburg, specializing in decorative sculpture. A foreign stipend, granted to him on the completion of his studies, gave him the opportunity to learn the principles of impressionism at Auguste Rodin’s training workshop in Paris (1906) and supplement his experience in casting bronze in Moscow (1907). The practical son of a farmer, he built himself a workshop and foundry on the shores of Ķīšezers, at Staņģi, after returning from foreign travels.  


The poetess Zemgaliešu Biruta and writer Anna Brigadere were portrayed in the portrait genre favoured by Dzenis but influenced by Rodin`s style. The portrait of Augusts Saulietis is recognized as the first work in Latvian sculpture, carved in granite. In the inter-war period, composer Jānis Zālītis, artist Kārlis Padegs, writer Antons Austriņš, presidents Gustavs Zemgals and Kārlis Ulmanis and other contemporaries were portrayed in a more traditional realistic mood. The Wife’s Portrait (1922) belongs among the best of the creative work of the sculptor. It is carved in marble, but the initial impressionist version of it was created in Paris. The gravestones of Emīls Dārziņš, Rūdolfs Blaumanis, Rūdolfs Pērle, Vilis Olavs and others were created in memorial sculpture. The monument to painter Janis Rozentāls (1936) located in the Riga city near the current Latvian National Museum of Art, and sculptural décors for private and public buildings are also realized by the artist. Dzenis’ stylized ethnographic brooches in the national romanticism spirit were once worn by poetess Aspazija, opera singer Malvīne Vīgnere-Grīnberga, and actresses Jūlija Skaidrīte, Lilija Ērika and Marija Leiko. 


Following the ideals of a society called Rūķis which promoted national art, Dzenis became involved in organizing the first Latvian art exhibition in Riga in 1910, which then led to the establishment of the Latvian Art Promotional Society. The sculptor’s pe-destined contact with the collection of works of art began through his work on its board. During the years of the First World War, the collection which the society had put together with missionary zeal for the planned future national art museum, was evacuated to Russia. In support of a request made by Dzenis in 1921, the collected 346 works of art were gradually included in the collection of the State Museum of Art after their return to Latvia. During the war, the patriotically inclined sculptor participated in both the organization of Latvian art exhibitions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as the preparation of the legendary albums of national art, with which diplomat Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics travelled to Western Europe in August 1918, to pave the way for the international recognition of Latvia’s independence. Dzenis won the competition for a new national symbol for the Republic of Latvia in late 1918 with the emblem of a rising sun, which was theoretically considered to be the first national coat of arms. This coat of arms was used until 15th June 1921, when the Constitutional Convention adopted a coat of arms created by graphic artists Rihards Zariņš and Vilhelms Krūmiņš. 


In 1919, Dzenis was active on the Commission for the Protection of Artworks together with Konrāds Ubāns, Alfrēds Purics, Ģederts Eliass and others, and continued to oversee the nation’s protected artefact repository until it was disbanded in the ensuing year. During the dramatic changes in power and disorder, some of the collected treasures which were stored at the Riga Stock Exchange Business School (the current Latvian Academy of Art building), ended up at the disposal of the nascent State Museum of Art, forming the foundation for the foreign art collection in this way.  

On 15th March 1920, Dzenis was appointed to a position as the Education Ministry’s Interim Superintendent of the Art Museum*. The artist managed the newly established national museum and took care about collections for the coming two decades, becoming involved in the organization of nationally representative exhibitions and the work of various committees as well.  


At the same time, Dzenis was in charge of the Decorative Sculpture Master Workshop at the Latvian Academy of Art (1922–1944), became a professor (1937), and was also involved in Sadarbs, a society made up of the academy’s lecturers and students.  


The sculptor’s service to the Latvian nation was recognized by several honours, among them the Order of the Three Stars (1938). 


In 1944, the artist emigrated to Germany with his family, moving to the United States of America in 1950. In 1993, his youngest son, Atis Dzenis bequeathed his father’s small private collection which had been left behind at the State Museum of Art at the end of the Second World War, to the current Latvian National Museum of Art, in honour of his father. 


* LVA, 1659. f., 1. apr., 11. l., pg. 3.